By the end of the 2019 season, the Cleveland Indians had several questions to answer after another first round playoff exit. But with Yan Gomes finishing off an All-Star season, combined with the team trading off top prospect catcher Francisco Mejia, it looked like catcher wasn’t going to be one of them.
But the Indians front office duo of Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff were being asked by owner Paul Dolan to shed payroll in 2019. With Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez both under contract for the 2019 season, it made some sense to trade away Gomes, who was guaranteed more money in 2019 than Roberto Perez was guaranteed through 2020, excluding options for both, and that’s exactly what happened.
On the field, Gomes had a renaissance of sorts in making the All-Star game for the first time in his career. And while his numbers were, in many ways, his best since the 2014, he still wasn’t the same catcher. This isn’t to discount his value to the organization. I’m not sure there are more than a handful of catchers in the game that had a better relationship with his rotation and bullpen. If you walked passed Cleveland’s bullpen during warm-ups, or in Goodyear during Spring Training over the past six seasons, you’d likely come across Gomes working with any one of the Indians pitchers, discussing their craft. While his career has rubber-banded on-the-field, the one steadying influence during the rise of the Indians’ rotation has been Gomes, and not just with Corey Kluber.
So why deal Gomes? As I already mentioned, you start with the money situation. The Indians received three minor leaguers, Daniel Johnson, Jefrey Rodriguez, and Andruw Montasario, who will make peanuts this year, even if Johnson and/or Rodriguez make it to the majors. This immediately gives the Indians a little less than $7,000,000 in relief, and it’s $8,000,000 if you consider his $1,000,000 payout should the Indians not have triggered his $9,000,000 club option in 2020 (they wouldn’t have). So the Indians were capitalizing on the fact that Gomes was coming off of a 2.5 fWAR season, in which his offense looked respectable again, with his steady defense.
But facts are the facts, and the Indians likely weren’t necessarily counting on Gomes continuing his progression. He’s had a history of injuries, and while these injuries aren’t related, there aren’t many 31-year old catchers who hit a renaissance. The front office was likely looking at a high regression candidate, and likely saw a chance to come close to the same offensive and defensive output with Roberto Perez, Eric Haase, and perhaps another under-the-radar candidate to catch, which turned into Kevin Plawecki.
I know that this sounds sort of ridiculous on the outside looking in. Roberto Perez isn’t good offensively, and saying “isn’t good” seems sort of like a stretch. He has little power, strikes out too much, is lucky to hit .200, and often looks completely out of his league. Eric Haase has only had a taste of major league baseball, and that taste was supremely sour. Of course, he only had 17 plate appearances in nine games, but even if you look at his minor league numbers, you can see that it’s hard to project if his game even moderately translates to the big leagues. Projections aren’t very kind, but how do project someone that’s not really gotten a taste. Plawecki has had a taste, and does seem to have some upside offensively. He has some power, and he’s been tinkering with his swing plane, which has been paying off at the big league level, but most consider him a back-up, at best.
Now I could end the catching note on that last paragraph, because these generalized opinions seem to be the ones that stand out. But beyond those generalizations, can the Indians put together a snapshot of the Indians catchers that is at least similar to 2019?
The answer is…yes, and this isn’t to say that it’s because Perez, Plawecki, and Haase are going to “break out” either. The simple facts of the case are that Yan Gomes “renaissance” season wasn’t really that spectacular. Sure, he made the All-Star game. Yes, he had a good year. But in the grand scheme of All-Star catcher performances, his numbers just weren’t that special. What made Gomes special was his constant grind relating with his starters, combined with solid power, good defense, and “not-that-special offense.”
The Indians’ numbers in 2018 just weren’t that special.
Now I realize that Roberto Perez was one of the reasons why they weren’t that special, so I’m not going to try and shine up a piece of coal into a diamond here, but just looking at 2018 in isolation, you start to get a picture of offensive production that just wasn’t all that special. I’m not trying to throw out Gomes power, but his .336 BABIP actually fits in quite well with his two best seasons of 2013 and 2014, in which he had a 4.4 and 5.3 fWAR. His defense just isn’t as good, and neither is his offense. Again, let’s not try and shine up that piece of coal.
So the real question becomes whether or not Roberto Perez, Kevin Plawecki, and Eric Haase can combine to put up similar numbers as Gomes.
Here are their fangraphs projections for 2019. Now I’m not a huge projections guy, and you can pull out any number of projections to counter this, as I did in my research. But it’s not a stretch to think that Perez and Plawecki share the duties at catcher. It’s also not a stretch to say that Perez is understated defensively in these projections. With all of that said, it’s not easy to think that the Indians, without trying all that hard, have found a way to replicate some of what Gomes brought to the table.
If you dig a bit deeper, there are a couple of things to take into account, that aren’t show on this table. If you look at power, Kevin Plawecki has improved his production over the past three seasons. Obviously, he’s received more PAs, but if you dig a bit deeper into that, you can see that Plawecki has been tinkering with his swing plane over the past three years.
Since 2016, Plawecki has increased his launch angle from 3.0 to 8.7 to 10.8, with 2015 being an interesting outlier. While his exit velocity is still below average, it’s still hovering around league average, and he’s seen an increase in barrel % over that time. His hard hit % has also increased over that time period, to slightly above league average. None of these increases are massive, but they’re interesting, especially with an opportunity in Cleveland to get more at bats than he’s ever had before.
Defensively, he’s nothing special, but he’s not going to kill you either. It’s interesting to listen to Mets’ fans discuss his defense, as it goes from “he sucks,” to “he’s not going to hurt you,” to “if he put as much time into his defense as he’s put into swing changes the past three years, he’d be a solid defender.”
I mean, he’s not great offensively, so I’m glad he puts that work in…so…that’s where the rubber meets the road. Can you expect 10 homers from Plawecki in 2019? Possibly. Will he hit for much average? Probably not. Will he walk a ton? Yeah, and he will strike out a bunch less than Yan Gomes as well. So you can see a bunch of interesting numbers there, with some upside. Not a lot, but some.
Perez is a little trickier, and whether or not he gets more at bats than Plawecki will be interesting, to say the least. But where you start the conversation with Perez is defensively. At the very least, Roberto Perez is the equal of Yan Gomes behind the plate. I only say equal because there are some metrics that point to the equality. In reality, Perez has been, and always likely will be, the better defensive catcher. While framing metrics are far from perfect, Perez has consistently been at the top of the league since he’s been at the big league level. I know that with this rotation, you ponder whether or not that’s important, but I would suggest that it is. Defensively, Perez is a lock for top five or ten in the league, and that’s without stretching. He doesn’t wobble as a framer, and when players decide to run on Perez, it’s at their own risk.
While last season, he only threw out nine runners out of 36 tries, this does seem like the exception to the rule. In 2017, he threw out 13 out of 30; in 2016, he threw out 13 out of 26; in 2015, he threw out 18 out of 43; and in 2014, he through out 8 out of 22. He has a gun, and it seems to get better with more games. That shouldn’t be a problem this year. But beyond that, Perez is a communicator, a fantastic framer, and does everything that Gomes did in that regard.
Now I’ll argue that Gomes was better than many give him credit for, but he was inconsistent, likely because of injury issues that he’s had over the course of his career. But in Perez, the Indians have a catcher that has been “major league ready” defensively since I started covering him at Kinston in 2011. In my first interview with Kinston manager Aaron Holbert that year, I asked him what he was looking forward to. He noted many players in that conversation, but he immediately put Perez on the radar.
“Not many people have been paying attention to Roberto Perez, but if you put a major league jersey on him today, he could defend with the best of them.”
Perez was 22 at the time.
I talked to Perez in 2013 while he was in Triple A Columbus, and what stood out in that brief interview was how much he talked about communication.
“What’s most special about playing this game is that I love talking to my guys. I love figuring out my guys, so I can make them as good as they can be on the mound. I’ve been lucky to work with Tremie (Chris) and Wallace (Dave) who have really helped me develop as a catcher.”
Every time I talked to him over the years, he used that phrase, “my guys,” to talk about his pitchers, and if you talk to the pitchers he’s worked with over the years, you hear the same sort of talk about him. Perez communicates, as well as Yan Gomes, if not better.
It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the year, and who Perez catches, vs. who Plawecki catches, and ultimately Haase, if they get a chance.
I do think offense takes a hit, just not as big as many thing. I do think the defense will take a step forward, and maybe this is where things will take a leap forward. The Indians’ catchers will walk more, strike out a little less, still be terrible on the basebaths, and still be a force to reckon with behind the plate.
What’s most important to note here is this: if Perez, Plawecki, and Haase are just as good as they’ve been, they aren’t that far from Gomes production. If they take any step forward at all, they’ll be as good, or better, at a fraction of the cost.
No, I don’t like to hear “fraction of the cost” on a contending team, but in the land of Indians’ baseball…such is life.
EHC’s positional previews starts off with the Indians’ catching possibilities in 2019. Mike Hattery and I dive into our normal positional pre-seasons studies, looking at Perez, Haase, Plawecki, and minor league depth.