In 2016, Yasmani Grandal received an MVP vote from Travis Sawchik for his advanced defensive metrics, yet even in 2019, we do not give catchers their full due.
As defensive metrics for catchers become more prominent, it has become easier to understand just how valuable certain backstops are to certain teams. We can now quantify arm strength, pitch framing and blocking behind the plate, giving us a much fuller understanding of the position.
With every metric that has emerged, and a chance to play on a full-time basis, Roberto Pérez’s value has continued to grow. Pérez appears today at #5 on our Indians MVP list as the first of three players on the list to receive a first-place vote, which somehow did not come from this writer.
Yet we still do not fully understand the potential reaches of what Pérez brings. Obviously, the Indians’ development of pitchers is among the elite, but how much of the success of Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale and others like Jefry Rodriguez in 2019 can be attributed to the man guiding them into the Major Leagues?
Before the season, in the team’s player-by-player breakdown in the 2019 Baseball Prospectus guide, Perez was said to hit “like a pitcher.” Later in his write-up, the staffer does concede that he has “been more valuable than the numbers indicate.”
Luckily for Pérez and the Indians, the former changed, as Bebo blossomed into a league-average hitter with pop. The 30-year-old may have made a case that the latter comment was also an understatement.
Not a ton changed for Pérez at the plate outside of his results. He has always been an all-or-nothing hitter, with season hard-hit percentages at 39%-or-above now in four of his five seasons, peaking at 42.6% in 2018.
The only major shift in the catcher’s Statcast metrics at the plate is that “all” became more common, with a spike in his barrel% from 5.9% to a career-high 11%. Naturally, while his sixth percentile xAVG (.222, an actual career-high) held steady, his xSLG (.434) was just above league average in the 53rd percentile. More certainly went into the improvement than just consistent at-bats, but as a simple baseline explanation, it makes sense that less sporadic chances would lead to better results.
One interesting tidbit from Pérez’s season at the plate was how incredibly clutch he was. In 42 high-leverage plate appearances, Bebo went 13-for-34 with five home runs and five walks, good enough for a 1.274 OPS and 215 wRC+ in those situations. Feels like he’s been clutch at times in the past, too.
In an effort to quantify the all-around game of a catcher in a weighted sense, our friends over at Crawfish Boxes concocted a spectrum score for single seasons by a catcher. Their metric put Perez (94) as the third-best overall catcher in baseball through one half of 2019, just behind Mitch Garver (96) and Yasmani Grandal (101).
While pretty comprehensive, that great metric does not include game-calling as an aspect of a catcher’s value. That is because there is no actual way to measure it. What we do know is that Perez led baseball in rCERA, Sports Info Solutions’ attempt at measuring a pitching staff, with eight runs, or almost a full win. The next closest qualified catcher was James McCann with three.
Perez also led baseball in Strike Zone Runs Saved (zSR) with 11, two ahead of Grandal, as well as DRS, with 29. No, not just catchers, all of baseball. The next catcher on that list is J.T. Realmuto (18th) with 11. Using Baseball Prospectus’ metrics, Perez was second behind Austin Hedges in catcher defensive adjustment (27.8 to 25.6) and framing runs above average (28.2 to 25.7) over the whole year. He a full three runs above second-place Robinson Chirinos in errant pitches above average (blocking) runs, 8.8 to 5.8.
We do not have a single metric to quantify Pérez as a defender, but given that he is in the pantheon of just about every one, and that the Indians’ pitching staff has success no matter who is on the hill, we can infer that Perez is probably a damn good game-caller, too.
Perez’s unquantifiable impact on the club could go even further next season. Even if he regresses at the dish, the belief the club had in him was enough to sell high on Yan Gomes in exchange for Rodriguez, as well as a potential 2020 impact outfielder Daniel Johnson.
Pérez is likely too low on this list. We may never know just how valuable Roberto Pérez is, but he probably stands next to Grandal as one of the top two catchers in baseball. That in itself has to mean something more than we realize.