The baseball catcher continues to be the one of most mystifying positions in all of professional sports.
The importance of a quarterback can be tallied with ratings and counted in rings; the impact of a midfielder in soccer can be seen on the pitch as well as the stat sheet; even the influence of a role player on an NBA team can be charted, down to a specific number of win shares. Catchers defy metrics. While their contributions at the plate are more understood than ever, the narrative about their contributions behind it are still wrapped in borderline mysticism.
Yes, there are new ways to evaluate backstops that are steeped in sabermetric tradition — our own Merritt Rohlfing recently discussed several of those — but baseball purists will tell you that on-the-field contributions are only part of the story. The real magic is in calling the game, and the bond that a catcher can form with his pitchers. It’s possible that we’ll never be able to quantify that.
Another way in which catchers differ from many other athletes is their frailty. I use that term because I’m going to go back and edit this article when I think of a better one and if I forget oh well I guess this isn’t getting nominated for Best American Sportswriting 2018, but the point is that catchers are uniquely vulnerable in baseball and great care is taken in prolonging their career. This is done even if it means moving them from behind the plate for good.
It’s the importance of health that I keep coming back to when it comes to Yan Gomes. You will remember April 11th, 2015, when not-yet-LGFT Rajai Davis crumpled Gomes with a slide at home plate.
By looking strictly at his offensive numbers, Yan Gomes has not been the same player since this injury. In 860 plate appearances prior to the Davis slide, Gomes slashed .281/.321/469, good for a wRC+ of 118 and a Silver Slugger Award in 2014. In nearly the same exact plate appearances since the injury (850), his slashed has plummeted to .211/.261/.369 — a wRC+ of just 66. He didn’t win another Silver Slugger. The only real positive is that he is walking more (5.2 percent since, compared to 4.9 percent prior), but he’s also striking out more.
These numbers paint a pretty stark picture all on their own. When putting it into a broader context, it becomes depressing. In 2013 and 2014 — roughly the entirety of pre-injury Gomes — only four catchers in baseball provided more wins for their teams according to fWAR: Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy, Russell Martin, and Yadier Molina.
From 2015 to date, there are only sixteen part time or regular catchers (PA>300) that have been worse. All of them have fewer than 700 PAs; Yan Gomes has 870. If you want to really twist the knife, David Ross provided twice as much value in fewer than half of the plate appearances over the same stretch.
We can try to explain the context for this beyond the injury. We can wonder if the Indians front office blew it by not sending him to Triple-A when it became clear in 2015 that he wouldn’t hit his way out of the slump. We can suggest that this is one of the most prolonged slumps in the history of baseball. We can blame Jobu. To me, it’s clear that Yan Gomes is half the player that he used to be. The Rajai Davis Slide Incident is the clear division between a Silver Slugger and a AAAA defensive specialist.
Does this happen to other catchers in baseball?
Some believe it happened to another young, promising Indians catcher more than forty year ago: Ray Fosse.
Twenty-one future Hall of Famers played in the game. There are some who believe that numbers twenty-two and twenty-three should have joined them if not for Rose’s gambling, and the injury he inflicted upon Fosse.
Fosse played until 1979, but never again matched his All-Star peak. He feels pain in the shoulder to this day. It never correctly healed, and he cannot lift it above his head.
The distinction as to whether or not this “ruined” Fosse’s career is a little more difficult to make. One, we can’t swim through advanced metrics like Scrooge McDuck in that era of baseball. Two, we have about half as many plate appearances by which to rate Fosse before the injury when compared to Gomes. I think it is possible that Fosse’s hot start to 1970 may have been that and nothing more.
There are numbers and anecdotes that make me unsure. Fosse hit 16 home runs before the All-Star break in 1970. In the entire rest of his career, he hit 45. Put another way, before his injury in 1970, he hit around 33 percent of his career home runs in 13 percent of his career plate appearances. He never again approaches his OPS of .893 from that stretch, and the power numbers in particular are of note. After 1970, Fosse never slugged greater than .400.
As we learned from Michael Brantley in more recent history, shoulder injuries are not something to be taken lightly as a hitter. The most fascinating thing to me is that Ray Fosse didn’t miss any time. He resumed catching almost every day for the Indians two days after the All-Star game, going 0-3 with a walk on July 16.
It appears to me that we can blame an injury for sapping Ray Fosse of impressive power for a catcher. I’m not so sure we can blame Pete Rose anymore.
But this doesn’t always happen to catchers when they’re annihilated at home plate
It’s true, and Major League Baseball explicitly changed the rules to make sure it didn’t happen again. Buster Posey missed almost all of 2011 with a broken leg after the following play:
Remember, Posey just won Rookie of the Year the season before and helped lead the Giants to a World Series title. Up to that point in 2011 he’d already been worth nearly two wins to the defending champions. From nearly every perspective, however, this injury appears to have done nothing to Posey’s overall talent level. He returned in 2012 and won an MVP award, and at age thirty looks like a shoo-in for the Hall-of-Fame if he provides two more solid seasons behind the plate.
How much can we really read into these catcher injuries, then? In the instance of Fosse and Gomes, there appear to be real effects. In the case of Posey, none whatsoever. For Gomes, I wonder if he returned from his sprained knee too soon. Remember, this is an Indians team that arguably rushed back Brantley in 2016 and Jason Kipnis in 2015. They’ve shown an eagerness to get their top performers back in the lineup even if they aren’t playing at 100 percent.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that a catcher with a weak knee might not feel as comfortable at or behind the plate. He might change his swing, for example, even if it is an unconscious change, compensating for that weakness. I cannot, for the life of me, find the .gif, but someone on Let’s Go Tribe put one together that shows a clear difference in his front foot stride and hand position before and after the injury.
Still, that wouldn’t explain the struggles that Gomes has now. Surely his knee is healed as close to 100 percen as it will ever be. Is it the struggles from 2015 that continue to nag at Gomes? Is confidence the issue with his game? Whether we believe that his knee never fully healed, that his swing changed intentionally or unintentionally after the injury, or that Jobu simply doesn’t favor him, we have to ask ourselves how much of Yan Gomes’ struggles are mental.
Like the value of intangible contributions catchers make to their ball clubs, we may never have an answer.