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Roberto Pérez has catcher locked down for Indians in 2020

Roberto Pérez showed himself as one of the league’s best defenders in his first full year behind the plate, but can his offense catch up to the rest of the league?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Texas Rangers Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

From now until Opening Day (and a little bit beyond) Let’s Go Tribe will be previewing the 2020 season for the Indians from every angle — position previews, a look at the AL Central, players you should know, and more. See the full preview here.

After years of serving as Trevor Bauer’s personal catcher and backup to Yan Gomes, Roberto Pérez did not disappoint in his first full season behind the plate in 2019. The Indians shoved him into the starting role early in the offseason when they traded Gomes — who, when healthy, was the Tribe’s starting catcher for the last six years — to the Washington Nationals for Jefry Rodriguez, Daniel Johnson, and a PTBNL (Andruw Monasterio).

It was a move that brought about a lot of anger, seeing as Gomes looked like he was finally back on track offensively with a 101 wRC+ the year prior and the highest slugging percentage he had since 2014. Not to mention he was just a likable guy to fans, and he seemed to handle the pitching staff with ease.

So right away, Pérez had something to prove. The Indians received Daniel Johnson in the deal, sure, but without Pérez performing above and beyond anything he had ever done in his limited backup role, it would look like a bust of a move and could have spelled terrible things for 2019 and beyond.

All Roberto Pérez did was prove the Indians right.

His defense was superb, his offense was adequate, and he surprised everyone with 24 home runs. With his steady hand and framing prowess, he helped guide a seemingly endless string of rookie or near-rookie pitchers to great seasons. It’s difficult to put into words — or even numbers — just how good Roberto was on defense. He spent 993.2 innings behind the plate and didn’t allow a single passed ball. He caught 41% of would-be base-stealers. He committed just three errors. He had a fielding percentage of .997. He was among the best framers, blockers, and throwers in baseball. He tried framing a ball that went in the dirt. Up and down the analytical spectrum, if there’s a way to track how good catchers are, you’ll find Roberto Pérez near the top of the list.

Looking ahead to projections, no system is particularly enthused about Roberto Pérez’s offense. It’s fair, given his issues in the past, but he did hit the ball hard last season and still had a BABIP that leaves room for improvement. Maybe hitting 20 home runs again is a stretch, but he can always be counted on for a double-digit walk rate — the last two seasons it was exactly 10.0%, and in 2017 he walked 10.5% of the time. All three systems see him doing just that, with a walk rate in the double digits.

Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA and all its advanced catching measurements love him on defense, of course, and they also have him as the best offensive projection. Conversely, it doesn’t expect much out of Sandy León.

Based on everything just said, I shouldn’t be doubting the Indians and how they evaluate catchers right now, but they made a very curious move this offseason. On Dec. 2, they opted to non-tender last year’s backup, Kevin Plawecki, and two days later they acquired Sandy León, arguably a worse defender and definitely a worse batter.

Stranger yet, Plawecki was only due to make $900,000 in 2020 and is entering arbitration three as a 28-year-old next year. León, on the other hand, is owed $2 million in 2020 and leaves as an unrestricted free agent after the season. Perhaps holding onto a backup catcher for an extra year isn’t a dealbreaker, but for a team so intent on shaving costs where they can, it seems odd to throw an extra $1.1 million at an older, slightly worse player.

Terry Francona seemed to think differently, however, saying that he thought about pulling Plawecki late in games last season to bring in Pérez and his elite defensive skills. Following that line of thinking, there must be something that he and the Indians see in León’s defense. At least I hope so.

Statistically, Plawecki is the better defender. By Baseball Prospectus’ fielding runs above average adjusted (FRAA_ADJ), he saved 8.4 runs between his blocking, framing, and steal-stopping abilities in 418.0 innings behind the plate. Meanwhile, León had an FRAA_ADJ of 3.5 in 465.0 innings.

Maybe there’s just something that Tito likes about León more, or some advanced metric that isn’t available to the public to measure his importance. Either way, if everything is going well we won’t have to worry about it too much with Roberto Pérez getting the majority of chances behind the plate. As we’ll see later in Matt Schlicting’s prospect outlook, catcher is not a particularly deep position for the Indians organization, so a lot rides on Roberto being healthy for the next year or two.

The Indians also went out and signed Cameron Rupp this offseason, likely as little more than Triple-A depth unless something goes horribly, terribly wrong. Rupp hasn’t seen MLB action since 2017 when he slashed .217/.299/.417 (84 wRC+) with the Phillies. He had a great first half of 2016 and looked like a potential stud catcher, but fell off hard and fast. In the last two seasons he’s bounced around between the Mariners, Twins, Rangers, Athletics, and Tigers organizations with sub-par offensive numbers in Triple-A.

Along with Rupp, the Indians also have Beau Taylor, Gavin Collins, and Kungkuan Giljegiljaw (formerly Chu Li-Jen) as non-roster invites to spring training. Collins is technically a prospect, but at 24 and having not played above High-A in his professional career, he won’t be making an impact in 2020. It’s a similar story for Giljegiljaw, who is 25 and just briefly touched Triple-A in 2018 before spending all of last season in Akron where he didn’t exactly impress on offense. Taylor has a found a little offensive success in his brief time in the majors (5-for-30 with a double and two home runs) following a lengthy minor-league career with the Athletics and Blue Jays. He along with Rupp will be emergency Triple-A depth and not much else.

Roberto Pérez 2020 Projections

Projection System PA Slash HR BB%/BB K%/K wRC+/DRC+ WAR/WARP
Projection System PA Slash HR BB%/BB K%/K wRC+/DRC+ WAR/WARP
ZiPS 370 .213/.298/.388 14 10.2% 29.2% 76 1.8
Steamer 356 .219/.303/.399 14 10.1% 29.5% 81 2.2
PECOTA 420 .222/.310/.413 17 10.1% 29.2% 89 3.7

Sandy León 2020 Projections

Projection System PA Slash HR BB% K% wRC+/DRC+ WAR/WARP
Projection System PA Slash HR BB% K% wRC+/DRC+ WAR/WARP
ZiPS 267 .211/.269/.322 6 6.7% 25.4% 52 0.1
Steamer 223 .217/.278/.346 5 7.0% 26.0% 60 0.5
PECOTA 245 .217/.281/.351 6 7.3% 26.1% 67 0.0

Notes: wRC+ and WAR are used for ZiPS and Steamer; DRC+ and WARP are used for PECOTA.

Prospect Outlook

Much of the Indians farm systems contains intriguing talent at the lower levels, but few players that are almost ready to contribute in Cleveland. The Catcher position is no different. Noah “Bo” Naylor is the fifth-ranked prospect in the Indians’ system according to the Let’s Go Tribe community. He skipped short-season Single-A ball entirely and jumped to Low-A Lake County, hitting .243/.313/.421. It was a bit of an odd season for him, but one that showed consistent progression at the plate. Given his aggressive placement last season — he just turned 20 on Feb. 21, making him exceptionally young for his position and level in the minors — it will be interesting to see where he begins in 2020.

Other noteworthy prospects include Bryan Lavastida and Yainer Diaz. Lavastida hit 335./408/.483 for the short-season Single-A Mahoning Valley Scrappers in 2019. In other words, he outhit George Valera, Brayan Rocchio, and Raynel Delgado. He nailed 36% of all base stealers and is regarding as solid behind the dish overall. If he can translate his production to full-season ball, you’ll be hearing a lot more about the 21-year-old soon.

Yainer Diaz has a much lower floor, I think, but he hit .457/.477/.707 over 82 at-bats in Rookie ball before being promoted to Mahoning Valley. He’ll be 21 this season and has shown progress every year in the system. However, his .235/.293/.393 slash after promotion might be more indicative of his skills.

Other than that, I guess I’m contractually obligated to mention Logan Ice, who still can’t hit. He did appear on an episode of Planet Money last year, though. So that’s cool.

— Matt Schlichting

Around the AL Central

The Royals will see Salvador Perez return after Tommy John surgery cut his 2019 season short, but he’s far from the half-decent catcher he once was. Aside from him and whatever poor schlub the Tigers put back there, the AL Central has a pretty stacked trio of catchers at the top. Of course Roberto Pérez is counted among them, but also the Twins’ Mitch Garver who finished with a bonkers 155 wRC+ last season and the White Sox’s newest weapon, Yasmani Grandal — one of the game’s best all-around backstops. Projection system, of course, see Garver coming back down to earth, with ZiPS putting him at 109 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR.

Neither ZiPS nor Steamer see much of a slowdown for Yasmani Grandal, however. The former puts him at 118 wRC+ and 5.1 fWAR, and the latter has him at 119 wRC+ and 5.0 fWAR. Among Steamer projections, Grandal’s 5-win projection has him as the 14th best position player in baseball, right behind José Ramírez and ahead of Nolan Arenado, Juan Soto, and Kris Bryant.