Enter the Yanimal.
According to Waiting For Next Year, Terry Francona has formally announced that Yan Gomes will be the Indians every day catcher in 2014. Obviously, this move has some serious implications for Carlos Santana and the rest of the roster, as it reduces Santana’s value relative to position while creating a logjam at first base and/or hampering our outfield defense in the process. Certainly, this announcement does not impact only Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana; I’m sure Nick Swisher and Drew Stubbs are paying attention, as well.
Before we get into the implications of this move, however, let’s take a few minutes and focus on Gomes and who he is. After being acquired during the previous offseason, the first Brazilian-born player in MLB forced his way into Francona’s lineup with sensational defense and shockingly competent bat. In 80 games this past season, Gomes put up a .294/.345/.481 slash line (in other words, he was freakin’ fantastic). How fantastic was Gomes?
For perspective, if we prorate Gomes’ statistics across a full season, he would have ranked as follows:
-16th in the AL in AVG (tied with Shane Victorino)
-25th in OBP (a hair behind James Loney)
-17th in OPS (behind Daniel Nava(?!) and ahead of Prince Fielder)
Additionally, 162-game Yan Gomes clubbed 20 HR, which would put him tied for second on the club with… Carlos Santana.
Anyway, yeah, those 80 games of Yan Gomes were great. But we’re talking about a guy who hit .204 for Toronto in 2012, so how sustainable are these numbers? Well, when we’re talking about sustainability, the first stop is batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and Gomes’ BABIP in 2013 was .342. League average is somewhere between .290 and .310 (depending on the season), so we have a little bit of a red flag here. Additionally, you may have noticed that Gomes isn’t the best at taking walks (18 in 80 games, on pace for <40 walks over a full season), which means when he isn’t hitting (or isn’t being favored by the BABIP gods), his offensive value goes in the toilet.
For comparison, here are Gomes’ numbers from May and June of last year (conveniently, he started 13 games and had 50 plate appearances in each month):
May: .370/.380/.630 (BABIP: .389)
June: .244/.300/.378 (BABIP: 270)
Both of these months are incredibly small samples, so don’t read too much into the numbers themselves, just note how drastic of an effect it can have when a player’s BABIP regresses to the mean. That’s a difference of .232 in OPS along with a drop of .120 in BABIP. If we can project anything from that (and, fair warning, we probably can’t), a full season of average BABIP for Yan Gomes gives us an OPS around .750. Still good, for sure, but not quite as eye-popping.
Final note regarding Gomes’ offense: It isn’t all doom and gloom for Gomes, as the heat maps I’ve seen of his offense in 2013 suggest he has the ability to hit the ball up and in as well as the ball down and away. He does struggle with certain pitch locations (down and in, for one), but he isn’t a guy you can cut the plate in half on (like Lonnie Chisenhall). This is actually a big plus for Gomes, and speaks to the possibility that he’ll maintain his slightly inflated numbers through sheer improvement in his game. If I had to project Yan Gomes over a full 2014 season right now, I’d say an OPS of .765 feels about right.
All of this discussion about Gomes neglects to mention the stellar defense he played behind the dish. In 2013, he threw out 41% of would-be basestealers, a full 15% over league average. Santana, for comparison, threw out 18% of runners, which is, quite simply, atrocious. Interestingly, Gomes and Santana played about an equal amount of time behind the plate last season, and the Yanimal just eviscerated Santana in every way: 29 steals allowed versus 51, 27 wild pitches to 44, 19 defensive runs saved versus -20. That isn’t a misprint, Yan Gomes saved the Indians 19 runs more than a league-average catcher, and a full 39 more than Carlos Santana did by the same metric.
What’s the verdict on Gomes? Well, he’s a guy who definitely overachieved at the plate in 2013 and will have trouble replicating that success over a full season as starter, but that defense is no joke. That 19 runs saved above average is absurd. Yadier Molina (he of 13 Gold Glove awards behind the plate) was only worth 13 defensive runs saved last season. Like I said, 19 is absurd.
(To be completely fair, -20 is absurd too, but in a terrible, terrible way)
Now, let’s talk about the rest of the roster. Gomes’ promotion means that Santana and Swisher will split time at 1B/DH with Swisher being the primary RF most days. Swisher was surprisingly competent in RF last season (+6 Defensive Runs Saved above average), but he runs like he has cinder blocks on his feet, and that worries me.
I’m not sure what this means for Drew Stubbs; I think his defense can be valuable to the team, especially given that our pitchers may be more… shall we say… fly-ball inclined in 2014. But then I look at this splits in 2013 and see he had a BABIP of .371 vs LHP and still only managed to manage an OPS of .718 and… well, I’m thinking that I can do without Drew Stubbs, especially given he’s arbitration-eligible.
Finally, I still say that if the Indians could reel in a top-tier pitcher for either Santana or Gomes, I would be willing to consider it. Gomes is under organizational control until 2019, and it’s entirely possible another team will overvalue him based on his inflated numbers. I don’t want to trade either player (because they are great bargains given their salary and production), but if I were in the Indians front office, I would certainly be listening.