On Tuesday, the inimitable Ben Lindbergh published a piece at The Ringer about the fading framing abilities of Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Not to step on Ben’s toes, but apparently Lucroy, once the gold standard of strike stealing, now may be the worst receiver in the game.
Seeing as I watch the Indians a lot and happen to be a huge fan of Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez, a tickle of schadenfreude flashed through me. This was the man who refused to waive a no-trade clause to come to the eventual World Series participants, and had his season end in the ALDS at the hands of that team. Meanwhile, Yan Gomes is having a fine year and looks like he’s reassumed his old, generally excellent ways. Sometimes, it’s the trades not made that make all the difference.
For anyone who has followed the Indians since Gomes came over from Toronto in exchange for Esmil Rogers, it’s just so satisfying the way the season is going for him. It was a bit absurd at the time that Lucroy didn’t think he could just handily beat the two Tribe catchers for the starting role this spring, but maybe he knew something we didn’t know. All Gomes is doing is walking more than ever at a 9.3 percent clip, striking out less than ever at 16.7 percent of the time, and hitting for nearly as much power (.181 ISO) as he did when he won a Silver Slugger and popped 21 home runs in 2014. His Hard Hit Rate is 38.1 percent, a career high, and in total he’s got a 115 wRC+ on the season which would be nearly in line with his excellent 2014. This is over 108 plate appearances too, so we’re at the point where we have to start considering the reality of the situation.
But that’s just offense. By the way, Lucroy actually has produced at a below-average rate so far this year, owning a 95 wRC+ even if he has been turning it around since May began with a 157 wRC+ in that span. But this isn’t about Lucroy, who isn’t on the Indians. This is about catchers who are on the Indians.
The central aspect of Lindbergh’s article isn’t how a once-great offensive catcher has faded, it’s about the defense and the making pitchers better that’s been lost. Baseball Prospectus keeps a vast compendium of catcher stats on hand, including Framing Runs. This is a measure of the strikes that catchers create through guile. At the top of the heap is Yasmani Grandal with 4.6 Framing Runs. Somehow Tyler Flowers is second, which would have upset Chris Sale a year ago since he lost whole games because of bad receiving. But there’s not one but two Indians in the positive and in fact the top 20. Gomes sits at 19th, having created 1.1 Framing Runs in 1,672 chances. Roberto Perez is way up at sixth with 3.3 Framing Runs, and in only 1,072 chances. Between them the Indians have an amalgamated catcher that’s the fifth best in the game by Fielding Runs Above Average. This amalgamated horror is also an iron man, and may have four arms or something. That’s not too bad.
Also, we’d be remiss if Roberto Perez didn’t get his due. Between winning a World Series game by himself and graciously retaking the role of Best Backup Catcher in Baseball, and signing a shockingly team-friendly deal, he has forged a firm place in whatever the Indians do. He still can’t hit, in fact his -14 wRC+ is the third worst among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances, and the guy in second (Leonys Martin) is in the minors right now. This is a guy who didn’t even have a hit last year until mid-July (he was hurt for six weeks, but still) and was thrown out at second trying to stretch a double when he finally did. And yet, he’s still seeing 4.05 pitches per plate appearance. It’s a step down from the 4.17 last year, but still above the 3.86 MLB average. He’s an odd player, one of the best eyes in the game but just can’t make contact. But defensively you’re hard-pressed to find as good a role player as ‘Berto.
The final piece to this puzzle is of course Francisco Mejia. There will come a time where the Two Franciscos and Jose will lead the Indians to a long string of World Series attendances. But for now he’s just making the Eastern League sad with a .307/.344/.534 and is about three years younger than his average teammate. Even if Gomes didn’t turn it around, Lucroy’s fade and Mejia’s ascendance makes this non-trade a win for the Indians. But if the world of now holds true into the future, the Indians will be very strong at catcher for about the next 15 years. The front office tried to make the right move for the 2016 Cleveland Indians. Maybe if it had worked out, there’d be a shinier pennant hanging from that flag pole, who knows. But for the 2017 and beyond Tribe, and for a certain subset of the fanbase, we are in the brightest timeline.
Just as I finished this post, Gomes blasted one to deep center in Cincinnati. Good times for Yanny.