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The Indians need a catcher battle

As affirming as it is to hear that Yan Gomes is the starting catcher, perhaps the Indians would be better off letting their backstops fight for it.

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at Chicago Cubs Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona was quite explicit about there not being a catcher competition in spring training.

As he put it, Roberto Perez was really good for the team in the postseason and picking up the slack when Yan Gomes went down, but catching is Gomes' job unless said otherwise. Which is probably fine. Gomes is a fine catcher when healthy. That's just something we haven't seen in awhile. As much as baseball fans and the Indians enjoyed his excellent 2013 and '14, it's been some time since All-Star Gomes has made his presence known. It seems to me, maybe there should be a catcher battle in Arizona.

Leaving aside the offense for a moment, a big reason Gomes was such a revelation after coming from Toronto was his excellent defense. The Indians had been hung with Victor Martinez then Carlos Santana as primary catchers for several years, which was a defensive mess. Gomes was the cure.

Between '13 and '14 he was worth 24.5 framing runs, 4.7 blocking runs and 3.5 throwing runs according to Baseball Prospectus. Overall he was worth 19.3 fielding runs above average in 2013, sixth in baseball, and 15.5 in 2014, good for eighth. He was a vital defensive cog, particularly for a team building around its pitching staff. Then he got hurt, and has been terrible, worth a total 10.3 fielding runs below average.

As Gomes has faded, we've seen the flourishing of Roberto Perez as a backstop. In 2015, when he had a mere 538 innings as a catcher he was worth 7.3 total fielding runs above average. That's roughly half what Gomes was worth in 2014, in half as many innings. Then, after healing up from a broken thumb and a mere 61 games of play time in 2016, a total of 468 innings, he was valued at 10.4 fielding runs.

Basically in less than a third of a season he proved himself to be the eighth most valuable catcher in all of baseball. He was the only man to catch speed demon Terrence Gore stealing, and he did it twice. In one week. It was excellent.

Perez’s bat was a bit more alive in the postseason and especially early in the World Series, but more than anything he was a rock behind the plate. As much as the Indians might have missed Gomes’ hitting — which hadn’t existed for two years anyway — they wanted for nothing when it came to catcher defense.

The Indians are in a very fortunate place where, if everyone else is healthy, they have little need of an offensive catcher. Of course, if everyone is healthy, that means Gomes is healthy. It wasn’t just defense that made him so special. In those two years he was excellent behind the plate, he also had a combined 122 OPS+. That was two years ago though, and that’s why this article exists.

Whereas Gomes was very good for a pair of seasons at the plate, Perez has one season as even a league average hitter, 2015, when he got part-time work in the field. It was powered mainly by his absurdly high .348 on-base percentage, though his ability to run into baseballs now and again as evidenced by his 21.2 percent HR/FB rate was certainly nice.

But despite his 51 OPS+ in 2016, there’s hope to be found in his bat.

His BABIP dropped from .304 in 2015 to .229 in 2016. He was very unlucky, but he also had problems hitting the ball with real authority as he’d shown in 2015. His hard hit ball rate dropped from 31 percent to 24 percent while is line drive rate dropped three points to 27 percent. Perhaps it was leftover problems from his hand, but it wasn’t pretty.

As anyone watching the Indians when he took over remembers, for one reason or another he couldn’t buy a hit. For a month after he came back on July 18th, he went a grand total of 7-for-57. This after an April where he went 0-for-8. His first hit upon returning was a ball off the wall in Camden Yards, and he was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double. For all his efforts, he was statistical dreck. But from then to the end of the year he held a .697 OPS, four points higher than that of Rajai Davis. If we wanted to call that first month effectively his Spring Training as he rounded back into form, that bolsters hope that he will at least be less of an offensive suck if given the job full time.

The crux is Gomes’s bat. Very simply, if he hits anything like he did some years ago and is anything like he once was defensively then the point is moot. Being a decent defender at the position with 20+ home run power and hit for decent average is the recipe for an All-Star.

Shoot, being a good hitter (okay great) and a bad defender got Mike Piazza into the Hall of Fame. But that’s why there should be a competition to be considered.

Gomes hasn’t been good for two years, for whatever reason. What if Perez is able to get his already excellent walk rate even better and gets his contact medium or hard hit rate up some? That’s the real problem, is his not making solid contact. If he could just figure that out he’d be a star, plain and simple. The Indians have divested themselves of at least one weak bat in Rajai Davis and they are hopefully getting Brantley back something like he once was.

They could swallow a sub-100 OPS+ bat if the defense was like Perez showed in the postseason. Going forward I’ll just assume Francona said what he said to make Gomes more comfortable, to get him to perform without pressure. There’s a lot of catching talent in Indians camp, and until we can create some sort of Frankenstein’s monster type horror out of the two of them, nothing should be etched in stone.