Cleveland Indians

Roberto Perez’s Breaking Ball Blues

Anyone who was between the ages of tween and college student in the late 1990s can attest to the beauty of Varsity Blues. Though most cinephiles would scoff at beauty and that movie title being mentioned in the same sentence, it was more of an ironic beauty that captured everything from whip cream bikinis to football’s irreverence toward concussion issues to a general mockery of the faux importance that is the high school football scene. Amidst the beauty, though, there is a gem of a speech given by protagonist quarterback Jonathan Moxon.

In the speech, ‘Mox’ implores his teammates to “be heroes”; a message succinctly delivered at halftime of their final high school football contest. One line permeates:

“We have the rest of our lives to be mediocre, but we have the opportunity to play like gods for the next half of football!”

It can be reasoned that Roberto Perez watched this speech prior to each 2016 playoff contest, as he went full deity for one October. Since then, however, he has been awesomely mediocre.

It is important to note here that to call Roberto Perez mediocre is to insult his hitting approach immensely. The value he provides behind the dish is enough to sway his overall value almost regardless of his hitting performance. He prevents runs behind the dish at an elite clip thanks to keeping balls in front of him. His framing skills are pure artistry. One would be hard pressed to find any catching metric that does not illuminate his defensive genius. 

On the other side of the coin lies a different tale. Prior to his 2016 ascension, he used a patient eye and the knack for an occasional gapper or long ball to carry a pedestrian level of plate efficiency. From that point forward, he turned into a dud faster the bananas that were golden yellow when you bought them. 

In the Roberto Perez saga, it is a shame that pitchers in the majors are masters of their craft. Not only can they throw heaters with pinpoint command, but most teams employ every metric at their fingertips to identify even the narrowest of advantages in each pitcher versus hitter showdown. This led to the discovery that Perez struggles mightily with breaking balls, a la Cleveland legend Pedro Cerrano.

A cursory look at these two graphs reveals the disturbing trend:

Courtesy of Fangraphs
Courtesy of Fangraphs

These illustrate Roberto Perez’s overall weighted on-base average placed on a trend line with the number of sliders and curves he sees, respectively. Most notably, prior to 2018 his overall effectiveness was somewhere slightly below league average and the number of curves and sliders he was exposed to sat right around the average amount. At some point in 2017, pitchers began feeding him a relentless dose of them and his 2018 effectiveness reached new lows.

Drilling down another level, his lines against those pitches specifically mirror the earlier thesis. Around the league, the average wOBA against curves and sliders hovers around 0.265. Roberto Perez’s outputs against those pitches? 0.103 in 2016, 0.102 in 2017, and 0.061 in 2018. For perspective, the league-wide pitcher wOBA in 2018 was 0.132. Essentially, curves and sliders reduce Roberto Perez to a poor hitting pitcher.

The influx of breaking balls carried over into each aspect of Perez’s hitting portfolio, as well. He made less contact on pitches in and out of the zone, walked a bit less, and whiffed a bit more. A hitter so dependent upon their walk rate to carry their batting line cannot afford even the most marginal of losses in these departments, especially in the case of the Indians’ now primary backstop. For a guy that efficiently crafts one of the best breaking ball staffs in the league’s pitches for strikes in one half of innings, its truly astounding that he is so incredibly inadequate at recognizing and making contact with him in the other half.

Inefficiencies at the dish notwithstanding, Roberto Perez is the new capo behind the dish following Yan Gomes’ deployment to the nation’s capital. Undoubtedly, pitchers will continue to feed him breaking balls. Perhaps a few more consistent reps will allow Perez to display a little more efficiency against pitches of this type, but taken at face value even that seems to be a reach. Statistics predicting future outputs are great, but the most effective way to predict the future is still the past, approach changes and timing arguments aside. Barreling through the 2019 season with a full share of catcher at-bats could be disastrous if Perez cannot find some way to stop the bleeding against breaking balls.

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