Yan Gomes was awful last season. There’s no way around it, not even injuries alone are enough to explain away a .167/.201/.327 slash (33 wRC+). A lot of was just poor hitting, but a some of it might have just been dumb luck.
It feels like we’ve been saying this forever now, that Gomes is squaring up the ball well but his lasers are just landing in the gloves of opponents. The truth is, we have been saying it for a while, and it’s also been true for a while. Every time Gomes hits a ball hard and it lands directly in a glove we all applaud and assure him it was a “good hit, good hit,” like we’re over-enthusiastic Family Feud contestants.
According to MLB Statcast’s fancy doo-dad — also known as Baseball Savant — Gomes had an average exit velocity around or above league average for several weeks last season, even spiking to almost 94 miles per hour (aka Jose Bautista’s average exit velocity last season) in mid-May. A couple weeks dipped way below the average, as you can see in the chart below, but it’s still an overall look of someone who should at least be an average hitter.
Also in 2016, Gomes hard-hit balls 27.2 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs, which is 52nd out of 75 catchers with at least 80 plate appearances. Not great, mind you, but he also had the fourth-worst batting average on balls in play at a mere .189. He did a reasonable job keeping the ball off the ground with a 38.6 percent groundball rate, but he still finished with a historically bad batting line. Everything he was hitting was finding opponents gloves way too easily.
Gomes’ main issue, at least on the surface, appears to be his launch angle. Again according to Baseball Savant, a lot of Gomes’ batted balls last season came with a launch angle between zero and 20 degrees, while most of his base hits came from the 15 to 20 percent range.
The “sweet spot,” as categorized last year by Five Thirty Eight is somewhere in the 25 to 30 range with Gomes’ average exit velocity — also right about where Gomes’ batted balls craters on his chart.
Gomes can hit the ball hard all he wants, but if he’s drilling line drives right at glove level, they are going to find gloves more often. We saw more evidence of this on Opening Day yesterday against the Texas Rangers, where he was batting sixth in the stacked in the stacked Tribe lineup.
Gomes put three balls into play against Rangers pitching, each one with an exit velocity over 94 miles per hour. The results? Fourth-inning flyout, sixth-inning lineout, eighth-inning flyout. Not ideal. The lineout came off a nine-degree launch angle, but the two lineouts came at 25 and 30 degrees, respectively.
So Gomes is hitting hard, he’s hitting with decent launch angles and he’s rewarded with an 0-for-3 day and a bunch of hot takes on Twitter. Gomes’s struggles have lasted long enough to count as a pattern — he hasn’t had a wRC+ over 100 since 2014 — but as long as he’s hitting hard his luck has to turn around eventually. It has to, right? Manager Terry Francona seems to believe it if he’s batting the catcher sixth and immediately gave him the starting job in spring training.
But if it doesn’t, the Cleveland Indians seem to already have made their peace with it. They recently signed backup catcher Roberto Perez to a deal that could keep him locked up through 2022 with team options. Gomes’s current deal is only guaranteed through 2019 before expensive team options kick in for 2020 ($9 million, $1 million buyout) and 2021 ($11 million, $1 million buyout). And, more importantly if Gomes can’t figure it out in the next season or two, Francisco Mejia’s future looms.