For the second year in a row, the Cleveland Indians have one of the worst-hitting catching corps in the majors. What was once a strength three, or even as soon as two, years ago is now the team’s most glaring weakness. But how do they fix it?
Yan Gomes, the Tribe’s primary catcher, looked like he was back to his Silver Slugging ways early in the season. From Opening Day until May 21, over 104 plate appearances, Gomes was hitting .267/.359/.456 with a trio of home runs and eight doubles — a very similar line to what made him the American League’s best-hitting catcher in 2014. But since then, he has gone off a cliff. His slash has crumbled to .195/.271/.276 despite a .308 BABIP, and his ability to make contact is nonexistent.
In what we will officially deem the “Silver Slugger Era of 2017,” through May 21 Gomes was swinging and missing 11.3 percent of the time. That has since risen to 15.5 percent since. His overall contact rate of 77.7 percent still wasn’t great, but even that has dropped to 69.5 percent. He’s not swinging at anything differently, or chasing more than normal — he just can’t seem to hit the dang ball. And that’s kind of an important aspect of baseball.
Part of the reason is opposing pitchers have learned that Gomes is a great low-ball hitter. He’s no Tyler Naquin, mind you. He can still hit balls up in the zone, but not nearly as well as he can handle low breaking balls. You can see it in his heatmaps over the years. Pitchers are throwing down less, and now he’s making much less contact.
Whatever the reason, Yan can’t seem to hit. So what about that suitable backup that some people once thought could take over the position and make the Indians forget about Yan altogether. Please don’t look up who that person was, it’s irrelevant.
Roberto Perez no longer looks like the answer. Some people fell in love with Perez’s patience at the plate and his ability to get on base when he did so 34.8 percent of the time in 2015. Some people thought Perez was a great defender behind the plate, and one of the league’s best framers. Some people might have hoped he would just walk his way to relevance. Unfortunately, like Gomes, once bat meets ball it’s all bad for ‘Berto.
Despite walking in almost 11 percent of his plate appearances this season, Perez has an on-base percentage of just .264. As you might expect, he doesn’t have a great slugging percentage, either, and he’s actually hitting worse than he did last season — a season in which he was rushed back from injury to cover for Gome’s separated shoulder. Even with a full spring training, no major injuries, and plenty of time to learn how to hit, Perez’s wRC+ sits at a Michael Martinez-esque 40.
To the pair’s, um... credit(?) they actually aren’t the worst-hitting catchers in the majors. That honor would go to the Colorado Rockies, who have former Tribe prospect Tony Walters and a handful of others hitting their way to a league-worst 51 wRC+. The Tribe aren’t far away at No. 26 with a 67 wRC+, but it’s still not technically last, dangit. One of the team’s in the mix for the prestigious title of Worst Catchers Ever is the Toronto Blue Jays, who at least made an effort to improve when they signed Miguel Montero. Locker room suicide? Maybe. But as one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball there’s a chance he might help the Blue Jays immensely if he can keep his mouth shut and not throw his pitchers under the proverbial bus.
I’m not necessarily saying I wish the Indians would have signed Montero, but I mean maybe a little? Because without him, there are not many good options to be had at the trade deadline. If we want to find the most likely to be traded, the most simplistic way is to see who will be a free agent after this season. For catchers, that comes down to Montero, Carlos Ruiz, AJ Ellis, Jonathan Lucroy, Alex Avila, Geovany Soto, Nick Hundley, Rene Rivera, Jose Lobaton, Chris Iannetta, Kurt Suzuiki, Ryan Hanigan, Bobby Wilson, Hank Conger, and Brayan Pena.
With the exception of an alternate universe where Lucroy didn’t turn down the Indians to pursue a career in mattress modeling and go on a subsequent nosedive, those are not very enticing answers. It’s a problem the Indians have all over the field: They are having a hell of a time scoring, but no one position is bad enough that a mediocre upgrade is good enough. It’s go all-out or it’s not worth the improvement.
When I wrote something similar to this post last season, at a time
when I I MEAN WHEN SOMEONE was in denial about Roberto Perez being maybe not being the answer behind the plate, I proposed Cameron Rupp as a front-runner for the Indians. That, of course, would rely on the Philadelphia Phillies wanting to deal their young catcher when they themselves are rebuilding, and it would also mean the Indians would have to give up quite a bit to fill a position that might be filled internally in a year or two by super prospect Francisco Mejia. That trade probably makes even less sense now than it did then.
In the end, maybe Yan Gomes is just a streaky hitter on a really big down streak right now. Maybe he can turn it around and have another month like he did to start the season when it matters most. We have to hope he’s not irreversibly broken, because there are not many hotfixes for catcher available right now. That, or the Indians could listen to hundreds of Facebook comments begging them to ruin their top prospect while he’s still developing in the minors. In other words, please start hitting, Yan.