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Roberto Perez is so close to being good

Between long counts and hard-hit fly balls, the Indians catcher is close to being a great hitter.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Pitchers and catchers have reported, so naturally my mind swings to think about the Indians batters. Specifically, catchers; more specifically, Roberto Perez.

For two years now the Indians have had a pair of catchers that are All-Stars defensively and piles of crud at the plate. Yan Gomes actually showed us a Silver Slugger campaign, but a series of injuries and an overt aggressiveness have held him back since. Roberto Perez, though, the hero of Game 1 of the World Series and living brick wall behind the plate, has been nothing but bad as a hitter. Normally that’s fine, defense-first catchers exist everywhere; they’re important and useful. But in Perez’s case, he’s just so, so close to being a legitimate offensive threat.

When you think about a hitter, what do you want out of them? Big numbers obviously, a .300/.400/./500 type of line. But all players who put up those kinds of numbers have the same attributes. They see a lot of pitches, they have a good eye at the plate — laying off pitches they can’t hit. They find themselves in hitters counts a lot, they hit the ball hard. There’s a little more to it than that, but those pieces are what build into a top flight slugger.

So let’s say a player, if he qualified for the batting title, were fourth in all of baseball baseball in pitches per plate appearance, and saw a 2-0 count 13.3 percent of the time in 2017, basically the same rate as Gary Sanchez or J.T. Realmuto. Or 3-1 counts 12.4 percent of the time, the same rate as Wil Myers, Zach Cozart, and Christian Yelich. This a season after doing that 13 percent of the time. Let’s say this same batter hit non-ground ball batted balls an average of 93.3 miles per hour, the same as Carlos Santana. Putting these together you’d think you’d have a good hitter.

Instead, it’s Roberto Perez. But you knew that, the title says so. He logged a 57 wRC+ in 2016 (very bad) and followed up with a 72 wRC+ in 2017 (also dreadful). He was comfortably the lowest impact player by rate on the Indians, trailing a rookie who loves to swing too much, a damaged second baseman-turned-outfielder, and another catcher that swings at everything. As great as he is behind the dish, there is little more frustrating than watching him stretch out an at-bat and then pop the ball straight up or strike out on a 3-2 count. In 2017 he was terrible in hitters’ counts compared to league averages:

Perez hitters counts compared to MLB averages and himself

Count Perez League Perez tOPS+ Perez sOPS+
Count Perez League Perez tOPS+ Perez sOPS+
Season avg. .664 .750 77 N/A
1-0 .583 .957 69 17
2-0 .500 1.020 47 -3
3-0 .667 1.770 129 -30
2-1 1.000 .964 202 118
3-1 1.139 1.369 247 67
3-2 .790 .832 143 92

(Those two OPS+ stats — tOPS+ and sOPS+ — measure Perez’s performances compared to himself and his performance against the rest of baseball in that situation, with 100 being average.)

It’s not like these were rare instances, he creates these situations as much as elite hitters do in relation to his number of plate appearances. Overall he was ahead in the count 112 times over a span of 240 PA’s in 2017, and put up a combined .224/.405/.424 line. He’s pitched to like he’s Miguel Cabrera circa 2013, he just never cashes in. It would be quite something to see the book on Perez that other teams pass around the pitching staff. He must have slipped some weird information in there during a mad clandestine caper that nobody’s caught on to yet. He bats low in the order generally, perhaps pitchers aren’t concentrating and give him a break unconsciously. Whatever it is, the man’s superior plate discipline combined with a total lack of impact are baffling.

If it’s any consolation, he at least behaves somewhat like a normal hitter and outperforms his own season averages in hitters counts, including a 237 tOPS+ in 3-1 counts. But his normal numbers are so bad that merely works out to a subpar hitter. And it’s not really as much of an increse as you’d think. For instance, Francisco Lindor — a good, but not great hitter — has a 577 tOPS+ in 3-0 counts, 174 in 2-0 counts. So Perez outperforms himself, but not as others do.

Oddly, he’s also got a 332 sOPS+ (OPS relative to league averages) in 0-2 counts, somehow getting real good when he’s expecting to see garbage. It’s probably just a sample size thing, but maybe pitchers are just trying to avoid that situation at all costs. It’s bizarre, wrong logic, sure. But baseball is a strange sport anyway.

It’s not like anyone should expect some sort of quantum leap out of Perez, or that this will all come together in a flash and he will be Joe Mauer. At this point, as a 29-year old professional baseball player, he is who he is unless something incredible happens. History suggests that if anything it’s all downhill from here. Maybe he could do something about his ground ball rate, over 50 percent for his career. On those batted balls he only hits 76 mph, and that combined with his sluggishness out of the box means assured outs. Aside from that suddenly changing and his contact rate making a leap (at 75.4 percent it’s two points below league average), he’s going to be more of the same.

Stretching at-bats out, making pitchers throw a ton, that has a value of its own. But for all the good situations he finds himself in, you’d think he’d turn more of them into runs or at least bases. He is a major leaguer, you’d think he knows how to hit at least alright. Maybe he thinks too much, or not enough, and out-guesses himself when the count gets in his favor. IF it’s any consolation he’s gotten better - his wRC+ climbed 18 points between 2016 and ‘17. If he does that again he’d be a pretty legit player, basically a league average bat with a superb glove. That would turn Gomes into a true backup. As it is, he’s going to spend 2018 killing rallies (or extending it with a walk, of course) and injecting hope only to snatch it away with a weak dribbler to second. As long as it turns into postseason heroics, I guess that’s fine. You’d just think eventually, something would change.