In some way, the lost 2016 that Yan Gomes had to endure was a blessing in disguise.
No, it’s certainly no fun to lose a whole year of playing the game you love, and getting as damaged as he did — separated shoulder, fractured wrist, apparently a testicular contusion in June of that year too — certainly makes one want to forget it. But it also put more space between that brilliant 2014 and the present, allowing people to better swallow was was, objectively, a bad offensive campaign. Even with a bat that wasn’t really silent, more just kind of soft-spoken, Gomes proved in 2017 to be a vital part of the Cleveland Indians.
Before we get to that good, let’s look at that bad part. For the season, Gomes logged an 87 wRC+, the eighth highest on the Indians. He topped only Bradley Zimmer, Jason Kipnis, and his fellow catcher Roberto Perez. While it’s certainly not great, it’s not exactly the worst among catchers.
Across baseball Gomes was the 26th best offensive catcher among those with at least 300 plate appearances, and 31st among those with at least 200. That said, his total season output was dragged down precipitously by a miserable June. He hit .200/.267/.236 over a span of 60 plate appearances with a 6.7 percent walk rate, good for a 34 wRC+. Okay, not good, but it was what it was. Take that out and he’s at least a bit more respectable on the season. Not that pulling an entire month's’ work away from a season is intellectually honest.
If there was any good to be found in Gomes’ time at the plate this year, he did have far and away the highest walk rate of his career at 8.1 percent. That’s three points above his career average, even if it places him something like 155th in baseball. Even in that, though, it wasn’t consistent. He walked in 10.1 percent of plate appearances in the first half, and only 5.4 percent in the second half. Meanwhile his power did spike, his slugging percentage going from .365 before the break to .441 afterward, and his isolated power bounced from .143 to .197. So when he was walking more, he hit for less power, and when he tracked back to his old self he became much more effective. Perhaps this is a teaching moment for Gomes, that he should maintain an aggression to keep the sting in his bat.
But Gomes’ season is a success because of defense. FanGraphs says he was worth 1.8 WAR in 105 games, Baseball Reference 1.3, and Baseball Prospectus 1.3 WARP. The basis of all these respectable numbers (remember, he only played 105 games) was his defense. The success of Gomes’ season can be summed up in one image and two numbers. First, the image:
This is a GIF of called strikes in the zone, and then those called on the edge and outside the zone when Gomes is behind the plate. These are the strikes that Gomes created out of whole cloth. Yes, he gets to work with a host of great pitchers, but he makes them better as well. Actually, I have a number to tie to that image too: +2.2 Framing Runs, according to Baseball Prospectus’s catcher stats. It only places Gomes 31st in baseball — pitch framing is more Roberto Perez’s strength at 10.1 Framing Runs, ninth in baseball — but he is at least a positive.
The numbers center around the running game; Gomes is on the team because he controls opposing baserunners. The first number is 42.1 percent — his Caught Stealing Percentage, good for fourth in baseball. The second number is also a four — the number of passed balls he allowed all year, also fourth in all of baseball. The Indians in 2017 had 105 games of some sort of brick wall with a cannon attached behind the plate.
I don’t think Yan Gomes is the best defensive catcher on the team. Perez is better at receiving, just as good at throwing guys out (43 percent CS%), and allowed only one more passed ball, albeit in nearly 300 less innings work. The 2017 season was a realization though, that even with his poor offensive showing Gomes can be more than worth that $23 million contract. It was a steal then, and if he can keep being what he was this past season, it’s a steal through the end.
Oh yeah, he also created the last good memory of the Indians season:
Man, that was cool. So was this:
Maybe those two videos best sum up his season — defensive excellence and just enough offense to make a difference. He might not be Buster Posey, but for 2017 the Indians were more than blessed with Yan Gomes.