Now that pitchers and catchers have reported to Indians camp in Goodyear, AZ, the 2016 season is officially underway. In preparation of the season, I will take an extended look at the Indians’ roster from all angles. I will highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the team and evaluate exactly what it will take to raise the first World Championship banner since 1948. Today we will take a look at Yan Gomes and his 2015, and what he needs to do to be the best catcher in the American League again.
Nobody really knew what to expect out of Yan Gomes when the Indians acquired him from Toronto along with Mike Aviles in exchange for Esmil Rogers. In fact, Gomes wasn’t even seen as a significant part of the deal – at the time GM Chris Antonetti said that boosting the depth at shortstop behind Asdrubal Cabrera was the primary motivation behind the deal. Gomes was thrown in -almost as an afterthought – largely because of current Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash, who had just been hired out of Toronto to be the Indians bullpen coach for 2013.
“He’s got very good arm strength and he’s got soft hands. We have the benefit of Kevin Cash being on the staff. He’s very familiar with him from his time in Toronto and he really likes him behind the plate. Our professional scouts saw him in the Minor Leagues last year and really felt he’s got good, soft hands with a very strong arm and a good release,” was what Antonetti said of Gomes at the time of the trade.
If you want evidence of how much the Indians thought of Gomes at the time, take another look at that Antonetti quote. He is basically trying to sell the player to the fans and he ran out of player strengths almost immediately: “He’s got a good arm… Kevin Cash really likes him… we think he has a good arm.”
Regardless, there was another quote from Antonetti that proved to be somewhat prophetic for how 2013 would unfold: “Toronto is an organization that is very deep, not only at the Major League level, but at the upper levels of the Minor Leagues, in catching. So Gomes did not have an opportunity to be an everyday catcher at every level. He had to earn his playing time and his at-bats, and he’s done that.”
2013-2014: Emergence of a Star
Quick, who was the opening day backup catcher for the 2013 Cleveland Indians?
Remember Lou Marson? Well, if you’ve managed to forget him, he was seen as a defense-first catcher who provided very little at the plate (.217/.308/.295 across 5 seasons for the Indians), but he had locked down the backup job behind Carlos Santana.
Then this happened (coincidentally at the only baseball game I ever saw in Tampa Bay):
That was the last major league game Lou Marson ever played. Yan Gomes was called up to be the new backup catcher and almost immediately proved he could hit at the major league level. He started off a little slowly in his 9 games in April, registering a mere 5 hits in 25 plate appearances, but then he got going when the calendar turned to May. Gomes started 13 games that month and mashed the ball to the tune of a .370 batting average.
Just like he did on the farm for Toronto, Gomes was slowly forcing himself into the lineup, and it wasn’t just his bat. That “good arm” Antonetti alluded to when the trade was announced proved to be absolutely elite as Gomes threw out 41% of would-be base stealers in 2013. I remember being a fan that season and thinking that Gomes’ bat was a fluke, but I still wanted him to play because I knew his arm was so much better than Santana’s… and really, how can you keep a guy hitting almost .300 on the bench?
If Indians fans didn’t quite know what they had in Gomes at the start of 2013, by September it was plain to see the kid was a star. Late in the season, with the team in the middle of a playoff push, Gomes threw out three base runners, had two hits, and scored the winning run in a game against Houston.
It was about this time that everyone started to realize Carlos Santana was going to need to find a new position.
After a huge 2013 and a playoff berth, 2014 was a disappointment for the Indians, but Gomes established himself as the best catcher in the American League. Yes, his batting average and OPS dropped a little bit, but that comes with the territory of playing every day (as opposed to having Terry Francona cherry pick your match-ups like he did with Ryan Raburn), but he slugged 21 home runs and threw out 32% of base stealers. A drop off from his 41% in 2013, but still an elite number. With the Indians retooling for 2015, Gomes looked poised to make another leap.
Unfortunately, fate had other plans.
2015: A Season Lost?
Opening Day is supposed to be the happiest day of the baseball calendar, but something went awry in the 9th inning of the home opener.
Gomes was hurt, but it was diagnosed as an MCL sprain (not a tear) and Gomes would return to play before the season officially changed to summer.
When Gomes did return, however, he wasn’t the same. He hit .158 at the end of May, and then just .230 in June. By the time August rolled around, there were legitimate concerns that he was not going to be the player we had seen before. But then the power started to come back – Gomes struggled with his batting average (.209 in August), but that month he hit 4 homers and drove in 18 runs. In September he was basically back to being Yan Gomes, hitting .264, swatting 3 more homers, and walking exactly zero times in 91 September plate appearances.
More than just numbers, though, Gomes looked like the dynamic player we believed him to be. Let’s take a look at some plays from last season:
This first clip is actually his first HR of the season in June. Gomes absolutely scalds this ball to left-center field:
This is indicative of a couple things: 1) even after the injury, Gomes still had his power and 2) in June and July, almost all of Gomes’ hits are to left and left-center. In other words, he became a dead pull hitter in the return from his injury.
Now, check out this highlight from mid-September:
It isn’t a home run, but look at that beautiful swing to take the ball up the alley the other way. The ability to take the ball the other way is probably the difference between .265 and .280 over the course of a full season. It takes Gomes from being a “pretty good” hitting catcher to an “elite” hitting catcher.
For this final highlight, I just want to remind you that Gomes’ defense is incredible. Watch as he guns down Brett Gardner with a lightning-quick release and an absolutely perfect throw:
There’s only a handful of catchers in the world capable of making that throw that quickly and that perfectly, and one of them is going to be a member of the Indians for the rest of this decade. Enjoy it.
Conclusion and Prediction:
Yan Gomes is one of the best catchers in baseball, but an injury last year led to major offensive struggles and a mostly lost season. 2015, however, might be the year he puts it all together. I know Salvador Perez gets a lot of love in the division (and will likely be starting the All-Star game in July given the Royals’ success last season), but Gomes is the class of the division. If he can stay healthy, I see no reason why he can’t remind the rest of baseball of what we already know.
Fearless prediction: .280/.325/.480 18 HR, 80 RBI, 38% Caught Stealing
Tomorrow, we will turn our attention to right field and ask ourselves: Is Lonnie Chisenhall for real?