One of the most hotly debated topics of the offseason has been the Indians battle at catcher. Should the Tribe go with the talented-but-injury-prone veteran Yan Gomes or the offensively challenged Roberto Perez?
I think it’s pretty clear that the Indians, at least initially will roll with Gomes. He has more offensive upside, they have a lot more invested in him financially and his defense is serviceable behind the plate. But I’d like to make the case for Perez getting a larger share of the playing time.
The case for Perez centers entirely around defense. While he does some good things at the plate (great eye, occasional power) the strength of his game will always be what he does behind the plate.
It’s somewhat difficult to compare catchers because they’re all working with different pitching staffs. But the Indians 2016 season was split nearly down the middle between Gomes and Perez, giving us a unique opportunity to see how each pitcher fared with the two behind the plate.
We’ve come a long way in recent years in our ability to statistically evaluate the defensive abilities of catchers, and we’ve learned one of the most critical areas is pitch framing.
If you don’t know much about the statistics used to grade pitch framing, you might be skeptical—and I don’t blame you. I was a pitcher through high school and I never once thought about my catcher’s framing ability. Obviously catchers are taught to frame pitches, but I always assumed it was a myth. Maybe bad umps fall for it, but I was extremely skeptical that umps at the highest level could be fooled by the catcher’s glove placement.
But apparently I was wrong.
After seeing framing statistics over a period of years, it became apparent that it’s a skill. The same players consistently rate at the top of the league and the bottom of the league year after year, proving that it is a repeatable, quantifiable skill, just like home runs or on-base percentage.
In his young career, Perez has already proven to be one of the best pitch framers in the game. And while Gomes isn’t necessarily bad in this area, the Indians pitching staff clearly benefited from Perez’s ability.
There are a lot of different ways to look at this, but I’ll stick to just one statistic to make things simple.
I’ve created the chart below to show how often each pitcher on the Indians staff got called strikes on “competitive pitches.” These are pitches that cross the plate within 18 inches of the center of the zone, meaning they aren’t necessarily strikes but they’re all within the range where you could reasonably expect a hitter to swing.
The league average for called strikes on competitive pitches was 56.7 percent in 2016—a rate which each pitcher except Danny Salazar achieved when Perez was behind the plate. With Gomes, however, only Josh Tomlin and Carlos Carrasco were above the league average.
Salazar was the only pitcher on the staff who saw a decrease in called strikes with Perez, but this can potentially be explained away due to the sample. Perez only caught five of Salazar starts, which included a few starts during his July/August meltdown last summer before landing on the DL.
Every other pitcher saw at least a five percent increase in the rate at which their competitive pitches were called strikes.
This might not be a substantial advantage for a power pitcher like Kluber who already has good control, but it could be a critical component to the success of some of the other Tribe starters. Tomlin, for example, relies on location. If he knows he can get an extra couple strikes called per game due to Perez’s framing ability, it may not only make a difference in a handful of at-bats, but also increase his confidence to paint the corners rather than challenge hitters in the zone.
For others such as Carrasco, who sometimes still struggles with command, Perez’s framing ability can help cut down on walks, shorten innings and help him pitch deeper into games—which has been a struggle throughout his career.
In the 1990s and early 2000s,when teams were lighting up the scoreboard there was no reason to make decisions based on defense, but we’re in an era of baseball where it’s reasonable to sacrifice offense for defense. Teams regularly make these types of decisions at shortstop. Maybe it’s time for the Indians to let defense be the deciding factor at catcher.