The ability of a catcher to handle a pitching staff can be an incredible weapon, and few teams seem to value it more than Cleveland.
An example of how important this pitcher-catcher relationship can be came during a Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja on Twitter) interview with Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman about pitch grips. Towards the end of Stroman’s discussion about his sinker — including how he throws it, how he developed it, and where it’s at now — he tells the story of when he first threw it.
With Rangers outfielder Shin Soo-Choo at the plate, full count, fifth inning, and his Blue Jays up 2-0, Stroman’s catcher implored him to throw his sinker. To that point, Stroman had never thrown a sinker in a game, let alone such a high-leverage situation.
Choo, a notoriously difficult-to-strikeout batter, watched the pitch start in off the plate and slide back over for strike three. He had no reason to believe that Stroman could, or would, throw a sinker in that situation. Yet he did, and it ended the inning and any chance of a rally.
Stroman specifically calls out his catcher, Dioner Navarro, for having the stones and confidence in him to call for that pitch in that situation.
Dioner Navarro man, like, I always tell that story because he gave me the confidence. He called — literally told him not to call it — in a game. Not only in a game, the first time calling it in that situation.
He repeatedly says that the confidence of Navarro to call for that sinker “propelled” him, and the numbers play that out. Stroman has had his fair share of struggles, sure, but he now relies primarily on his sinker and is, at times, one of baseball’s most electric pitchers with an elite groundball rate. All thanks to Navarro knowing his sinker was good enough and urging him to use it in a real game situation.
Now, how does this relate to Cleveland? If you have followed this team over the last four or five years you can probably already guess: Roberto Pérez.
Once Cleveland’s back-up to fan-favorite Yan Gomes, Pérez slowly inched his way into a part-time starting role in 2016 and eventually as the team’s full-time catcher in 2019, after Gomes was traded to the Washington Nationals. A trade that probably would not have happened without the magic that Cleveland saw in Roberto.
Pérez had an offensive breakout that season, slashing .239/.321/.452 with 24 home runs and a 99 wRC+. Almost unheard of numbers for Roberto to that point in his career. Some of the shine has since faded from his bat — and he’s projected to be terrible at the plate again — but Cleveland continues to rely on him as their everyday catcher. Why? Because of exactly what Stroman mentioned in his story about his sinker and Dioner Navarro.
Pérez is a tremendous catcher behind the plate in every measurable way — he frames well, he stops runners, and he did not allow a single passed ball in all 993.2 innings behind the plate in 2019. He’s a two-time Gold Glove winner and was Wilson’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.
More than all that, though. Pérez has a reputation as a master at handling a pitching staff.
Even when everyone else on the team relied on Yan Gomes, Trevor Bauer used Roberto as his personal catcher during his time in Cleveland, and he heaped praise on him before being traded in 2019.
When Shane Bieber was nine starts into an excellent rookie campaign, he credited Pérez as keeping him focused even when things weren’t going his way.
Aaron Civale had similar praise for Roberto following his first-career start in New York when asked about how he helps navigate an outing as a young pitcher.
Confidence, comfortability, it’s a lot of that. Don’t really have to think too much out there, he’s doing a lot of that. A lot of prep goes into the game before the game actually starts. Just go out there and comes down to executing pitches.
Cleveland has churned out pitcher after pitcher over the last few seasons, most of them finding success even as rookies. Surely a lot of that is a great development pipeline through the minors, but one has to think at least a little of that has been due to the steady hand of Roberto Pérez. Terry Francona and the pitching staff can use just about any young pitcher and encourage them to push themselves to their limits and get results.
Trust Roberto’s call and use that pitch you’re not yet sure about. Bebo’s done the work and has a hunch it’ll work. Spike that curveball in the dirt even with a runner on second — it’s not going to hit the backstop.
This will all be put to the ultimate test in 2021, as Cleveland is projected by FanGraphs to have a starting rotation all 26 years old or younger. Between Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, Triston McKenzie, and Logan Allen only Bieber has more than two years of service time under his belt. Their current reliever core, unless added to before the season starts, is likely to have not a single pitcher over 30, and three pitchers — Emmanuel Clase, Kyle Nelson, and Trevor Stephan — still holding onto their rookie eligibility.
When Opening Day rolls around, roughly 15% of Cleveland’s payroll will be spent on two catchers — Roberto Pérez and Austin Hedges — who seemingly can’t hit. That’s more of a criticism on Cleveland’s overall payroll than the fault of the catchers, though. When all is said and done we may look back and realize that Roberto Pérez, and all he does for the pitching staff, was a bargain at $5.5 million in 2021.
Marcus Stroman’s story about his catcher giving him the confidence he needed to take the next step is likely one we’re going to be hearing a lot about Roberto in the future. If Clevland is going to make this work with so many young pitchers and so few veterans on the pitching staff, it’ll be up to him to handle it all.