The scene is a familiar one to those who regularly watch Cleveland baseball. Shane Bieber or Corey Kluber or Cody Allen or James Karinchak stand on the mound facing off against an opposing hitter in a nail-biter of a game. And while the focus is on the dominating pitcher, Roberto Perez is always quietly awaiting a pitch that he’s going to call, having been the silent conductor behind the plate since he joined the big league team in 2014.
In a world that has a tendency to focus on the loud, Perez is as far from a “star” as you can get publicly. On a team with big personalities over the years like Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Franmil Reyes, Perez is the complete antithesis in many ways. The backstop will never be known for his offensive prowess, and the term “star” won’t often be associated with Cleveland’s primary catcher, but there may not be a more important player to the Cleveland franchise over the course of his eight major league seasons. While Yan Gomes started a shift at catcher for Cleveland from offense to defense, Roberto Perez is not only a foundational brick for the franchise’s pitcher revolution, but perhaps the glue that holds it all together.
There is no doubt that Mike Chernoff and Chris Antonetti have spearheaded an approach that targets specific pitcher types that lead to success, I’m most definitely not arguing that point. What is most important to this discussion is that having a player with the defensive prowess of Roberto Perez at every facet of the game behind the plate allows them the leeway to utilize all of their Frankensteinian pitcher experiments, from Kluber to Josh Tomlin to T.J. House to Shane Bieber to Emmanuel Clase, and everyone in between.
Now you probably noted that I mentioned T.J. House in the conversation. House and Perez entered the Cleveland equation at the same time in 2014, with Perez becoming his primary backstop. Over a stretch of 10 games, House went 4-0 with Perez as his catcher, and Cleveland went 9-1 overall during those House starts. Overall with Perez behind the plate in four or more innings, the club went 18-8 with Perez as their catcher, mostly working with House and Trevor Bauer. Obviously Perez didn’t translate to House being successful after 2014, but there are a variety of reasons why that occurred that don’t directly reflect on Perez. Yes, House became more fit which led to his revitalization, but Perez knew house well from their time at almost every minor league level, and calling his games during House’s peak health was certainly a benefit to his stature. It may be just a neat sidenote, or a signal to the type of catcher that Perez has been in the system since he’s been a part of the organization.
Roberto Perez is the Cleveland front office’s most brilliant market inefficiency. Over the course of his eight seasons with the big league club, Cleveland has shifted their entire franchise model. Again, there are parallel factors involved including coaches like Ruben Niebla and pitchers like the aforementioned Kluber, but Perez as a catcher often turns bad to okay, okay to good, good to great, and great…to Cy Young brilliance. I will also note in fairness here that Kluber’s primary catcher over the course of his Cleveland tenure was Yan Gomes, and as already mentioned, it’s equally important to note that Gomes was perhaps the snowball that started the avalanche. But Perez is a notably superior defender, and while Gomes had singular moments behind the plate that tilted the position from offensive first to defensive first. Make no mistake, Perez is that avalanche that completed the system’s pitching transformation.
Perez has consistently been one of the top five defensive catchers in baseball and depending on what statistical service you use, he is perennially one of the best framers in the game. He is currently the active leader in caught stealing percentage, throwing out 40.44% of runners over the course of his career, which is .24% better than Yadier Molina’s 40.24%. Sure, Molina’s done it over 18 years, but numbers are the numbers, and they service this article well. It’s interesting that Cleveland acquired Austin Hedges in what appeared to be a throw-in to the Mike Clevinger deal last since Hedges is a player I most compared to Perez while he was with the Padres. Hedges was generally considered a better defender than Perez, but wasn’t as good offensively. For those counting at home, if you aren’t as good offensively as Perez, that’s not great. That’s not great at all.
The Hedges acquisition led to an offseason discussion regarding Cleveland trading away Perez and his $5,500,000 contract because having both was superfluous. If you are the type that look at the stats and nothing more, this is a no-brainer. With Cleveland dumping salary, having two similar catchers, with one earning a top-five club salary didn’t make sense. But to understand the importance of Perez is to look between the lines, and while this isn’t a statistical analysis by any stretch, I come with a whole lot of visual evidence. What makes Perez important are both his relationships with the pitchers that he’s groomed over the course of his years with the franchise, and the IQ with which he directs those pitchers.
In the series finale with the Tampa Bay Rays, Perez showcased this IQ in the ninth inning of a one-run game. Home plate umpire Chad Whitson had been doing what he does best throughout the latter part of the game, and that’s expanding the zone at a ridiculous rate. In the bottom of the eighth, Daniel Johnson should have walked keeping a rally going. Instead, he got this:
The pitch was way inside the zone, and Johnson grounded out on the next pitch. Perez watched this from the batter’s box. Sean Poppen threw a slider about a foot outside the zone on his first pitch, and another slider inside on Perez. With a 2-0 count, the next pitch skirted the edge for a called strike.
The slider wasn’t as bad as Johnson’s, but still an inch or so outside the zone. Perez being Perez, asked Whitson about the pitch, then filed it away for future use…and trust me…he filed it away.
Poppen then had the advantage over Perez knowing that he had extended the zone, and threw two more sliders that Perez went after, and while I love Perez as much as any player on the roster, he’s never going to be confused for Manny Ramirez, or even Harold Ramirez.
At this point, Cleveland was up 3-2, and closer Emmanuel Clase entered the game at the top of the ninth. In his previous appearance against the Rays, Clase threw 21 pitches, and 12 of those pitches were his vaunted high-heat cutter. But Perez and Clase went a different direction three days later, and while there are a variety of angles you could take for this change, I can’t help but think this has to do with those couple of minutes that Perez was on deck and in the batter’s box in the eighth.
Wandy Franco was the first batter, and Clase fed him six straight sliders, all on the inside part of the plate where Whitson was extending the zone. Franco could do nothing with Clase’s nastiness.
This led to Clase’s first cutter. Note the location. It’s ironic that the only pitch that Franco got a decent piece was the vaunted cutter, but it was up and in the same exact spot in which Perez’s called strike was.
The next batter was former Cleveland minor leaguer and an EHC favorite, Joey Wendle. In Clase’s previous appearance, Wendle flew out on one pitch, which was a cutter. So what did Perez call for Clase? If you guessed four sliders, congratulations, you win dinner with EHC’s Gage Will. Where do you think he located those sliders? If you guessed on the inside of the plate, well now you’ve won his infamous macaroni, cheese, and little smoky casserole.
Here’s where the fun really begins. Up to this point, Clase had thrown 11 pitches, all 11 on the inside of the zone, with most on the lower half of the plate, and 10 of those 11 pitches were sliders. While it’s the smart play to throw inside on lefties when you are a righty, it can be a risky proposition if your pitcher can’t hit the spot. Perez was clearly working with what he learned from the eighth inning, pounding sliders inside with a pitcher that doesn’t generally do that. This is no knock on Clase, but he’s still learning location. While you can argue that Cleveland’s field management has been pushing for a better mix of pitches from Clase, rolling out this many sliders is certainly more rare than not.
Perez also begins to have a bit of fun with pinch hitter Brandon Lowe, who I think Perez had caught in the past peeking at pitch location. Clase starts him off with…you guessed it…a 93 MPH slider in the dirt that Lowe checks up on. Perez immediately started nodding, and calls for the third base umpire, who gave him the strike call.
Perez calls for the next pitch, but seems pretty convinced the Lowe is peaking. He starts noticeably watching Lowe, and begins showcasing some glove chicanery to throw Lowe off, before throwing his second cutter, down and way in.
Perez continues to eyeball Lowe after calling the next pitch, and again appears to be masking the pitch location with his glove.
Clase then threw his third cutter right at Perez’s glove, and while Lowe did get the bat on the ball, he flew out to Harold Ramirez in left field, ending the game.
How clear is it that Roberto Perez was keeping Clase on the inside of the plate? Here are Clase’s last six location charts prior to the series finale with the Rays.
Now here’s Clase’s pitch chart from the Rays’ finale.
While this could be an article about the transition of Emmanuel Clase (and perhaps one should be written) to a truly effective long-term closer, the real story is the development of his usage in this game by the on-field general. Perez watched from the box as Daniel Johnson got jobbed on an inside pitch. Perez was then also jobbed in his at bat which led to a quick strikeout. He then called 11 out of 14 sliders, with 13 out of 14 pitches down and in. To Clase’s credit, he was hitting his mark every single time.
That’s baseball IQ at its finest.
Next season, Roberto Perez will be entering his final year of his current Cleveland contract. At $7,000,000, Perez is currently the second highest guaranteed contract on the 2022 roster behind Jose Ramirez’s $12,000,000. While a solid case could be made that you don’t need two defensive first backstops, perhaps it’s not as clear a move as you think. What is the value that the front office now puts in their catching position, and can you really teach the type of baseball IQ that Roberto Perez has had with the system since he was drafted way back in the 33rd round of the 2009 draft. Can you put a value on that with a team that is so pitching dependent?
That’s the question that the future Guardians’ front office will have to make, as we watch Cleveland’s on-field conductor perform what could be his final Cleveland symphony.