Catcher is a case study in the sort of cognitive trap people find themselves in. I’ve asked a number of people in my circle what the Indians should do and gotten the same response:
“Gomes, obviously. Perez is a backup– you can’t start him.”
I mean, forget everything you think you know about the players. Let’s look at what is actually true.
2. Gomes has spent parts of five years in the majors, playing 435 games, having 1,605 plate appearances– and spending 3,223.2 innings at catcher.
You might think of him only as a catcher, but Toronto tried him at first base (70 games), third base (43 games) and he’s had dive games in left field and 18 games at DH.
Perez has parts of three seasons in the majors. He has played 160 games and made 505 plate appearances. Except for one game where he moved to DH, he has played 1,222.1 major-league innings at catcher and never at any other spot.
3. Absent some special situation, a player who (a) is 18 months older, (b) has played 275 more games, (c) has made 1,100 more trips to the plate and (d) spent 2,001.1 more innings in the field should be substantially better as a player. Playing lets you develop veteran experience and savvy.
4. But if we compare their offensive stats, we find no real difference:
|Gomes||29 + 244||435||1,605||3,223.2||.246||.286||.423||.709||7.9|
|PEREZ||28 + 091||160||505||1,222.1||.220||.318||.355||.674||2.9|
The difference between the two players is 11 hits. Perez’s .220 average translates into 93 hits in 422 at-bats. If he had 104, he’d be hitting .246445445445. That’s about one hit every two weeks (I’ll let Kevin Costner do the math for you.)
And if Perez were hitting .246, his on-base percentage (which builds upon batting average) would rise to .344. Even if we assume all those hits were “dying quails, ground balls with eyes or gorks”, 11 hits would increase Perez’s slugging to .381– pushing his OPS up to .725,.
At that point, Perez’s career stats look substantially better than Gomes.
The subtstantive difference between the two players offensively is this: Gomes has more power; Perez walks more. Gomes, who has played about three times as much, has three times as many WAR.
Don’t know what WAR is? Lucky you– I’ve written an essay that explains what “Wins Above Replacement” are and why they are expressed in the form they are.
Best of all, I even used the 2016 catchers to illustrate some of the reasons– so you get, in effect, a bonus essay. What a bargain, huh?
The reason why everyone believes Gomes to be a vastly better player than Perez is that Gomes hit .294 (.826 OPS) in 322 plate appearances in 2013. He followed it by hitting .278 (.785 OPS) in a full season and winning a Silver Slugger award. Those two years fixed the perception of Gomes being a good hitter in everyone’s mind.
The problem, of course, is that those 840 plate appearances comprise just over half of Gomes’s major league career. In the other 764, he has hit:
- Hit .204 with a .631 OPS in 2012 (111 plate appearances)
- Hit .231 with a .659 OPS in 2015 (389 plate appearances)
- Hit .167 with a .527 OPS in 2016 (264 plate appearances)
Since his big part-season in 2013, his offense has steadily declined. If we compare the 2016 seasons of the two players, Perez (.183 batting, .579 OPS in 184 plate appearances) is a better player.
Gomes, to be fair, has been hurt a lot. But that’s an explanation for the decline of his career– not a reason he should play. If Gomes can’t stay healthy– or his injuries keep him from regaining his 2013-2014 form– the Indians should be looking for alternatives.
Perez has been a backup; it’s s much harder to hit well if you don’t play consistently. I don’t know how well Perez would hit if he played more– he’s a lifetime .237 hitter (.713 OPS) in the minors.
But if he is a .237 hitter with a .713 OPS, that makes him slightly superior to Gomes.
And their offense, quite frankly, is beside the point. Especially with a team like the 2017 Indians.
The catcher’s job is to catch. Specifically, to catch pitches. Even more specifically, to call the pitches– and then catch them.Since the Indians are trying to win on the strength of their starting pitching, the question we ought to be asking is “Which catcher is better at working with the five starters?”
Thanks to the splits pages at Baseball Reference, we can do that. And, frankly, we should.
Here are the 2016 results for the ace of the staff, Corey Kluber (the link is to the BR spits page). Kluber is one of the two pitchers who gives us enough 2016 data to make a concrete comparison: 10 games and 50+ innings. Gomes caught 18 of his starts (122 innings; 6.2 per start) and Perez caught 12 (93 innings; 7.2 per inning). I’ve removed the ERA for this first chart so we can focus on the substantial difference in style between the catchers:
Assuming we’re not dealing with a fluke created by a bad outing (as you’ll soon see, we’re not), the following things are true:
- Perez went for the strikeout (over 10 per nine innings, as opposed to 9). I skipped this data, because it’s too much to wade through, but Kluber got substantially more ground balls (and double plays) with Gomes calling pitches.
- Perez is less concerned about the walk (one more per game) and the home run (nearly half a homer per game).
- Not on the table, but also at the BR page: With Perez calling pitches, Kluber hit 5 batters (three more than with Gomes) in 29 fewer innings. Looks like Perez calls more inside pitches.
- Kluber allowed slightly more hits under Gomes.
- Runners ran about as often– but with much less success under Perez.
- Hitters bunted more and hit more sac flies.
Which style produced the better results? In Kluber’s case, Perez. If you click the ERA column with your mouse, you’ll see that Kluber’s ERA was more than a run lower– 2.52 to 3.61– with Perez.
But all five starters have different styles. What’s good for one isn’t necessarily right for everyone. We looked at Kluber first because he’s the ace– he pitched the most innings. Let’s try the pitcher who finished second in that category– Trevor Bauer (190.1).
And here we find… absolutely nothing useful. Gomes only worked four games and six innings– the guy who did most of his games was Chris Gimenez. I’ll run the stats so you can see how a catcher can make a difference.
To make the comparison even less useful for our purposes, the four games where Gomes caught Bauer were from his time in the bullpen (games 1, 3, 8) and then one inning of game 153 (where Gomes came in late in the game).
The reason I’m not pulling up 2014 and 2015 data is that pitchers are erratic. If I caught the guy a lot during his Cy Young year and you caught him the season he was coming back from Tommy John surgery, what does that teall us?
I’m not, by the way, doing this to hide a smoking gun that shows Gomes is better. The splits for Bauer’s career are right here, and they show Bauer has a career 4.02 ERA in 185.2 innings with Perez (almost exactly his 2016 mark, but in 115 more innings), and a .4.48 ERA in 192.2 innings with Gomes.
Having opened this can of worms, I suppose I’d better pull out Kluber’s career splits, so I can demonstrate good faith. The two players are identical. Working with Gomes, Kluber has a 3.05 ERA in 567 innings. With Perez, it’s 3.08 in 158 innings. The differences in style I commented on are still mostly there.
I’ll include the career totals from now on… but I don’t approve of doing it.
Josh Tomlin finished third in innings (174), so he’s our next chart. This comparison, unfortunately, also has 2016 data that’s far too limited– Perez caught only four starts and 17.1 innings:
The 17.1 innings are three starts, plus a game where Perez came in after a pinch-hit– and Tomlin was removed after one batter. It’s nowhere close to the level you need to be sure. Even if we pull Tomlin’s career totals, it only gives us 44 innings for Perez. They aren’t nearly as unfavorable to Perez– Tomlin’s ERA falls to 3.89 with Perez while his ERA with Gomes (in 210.1 innings) rises to 4.11. But it happens because:
- Gomes worked 19 of Tomlin’s 25 games in 2014 (when he was coming back and his ERA was 4.76)
- Perez worked his largest number of innings with Tomlin in 2015, when Tomlin’s overall ERA was 3.02
So I’m still marking this as “inconclusive.” Perez helped one pitcher; in two we don’t know for sure.
Our next chart belongs to Carlos Carrasco (146.1 innings). Here we have the other 2016 starter with enough innings worked with both catchers– it favors Gomes by a wide margin:
The “style” of each catcher is evident. With Gomes catching, Carrasco had 5 more GIDPS than he did with Perez– in less than an inning. He had fewer strikeouts and more walks– and a much lower ERA. Carracso pitched nearly as long in 10 starts with Gomes than he did in 12 starts with Perez. Assembling the pitch data is a chore I’d rather not do, but I’d assume he threw fewer pitches with Gomes behind the plate.
Again, I don’t trust year-over-year comparisons, but Carrasco’s career splits don’t show that wide a gap. In fact Perez (3.26 ERA in 163 innings) has a lower ERA than Gomes (3.41 in 269.1 innings).
That leaves Danny Salazar. He pitched 137.1 innings– only 17 of which were caught by Perez. Those five games would suggest that Gomes is his best catcher… but 17 innings (or 28.2 for Giminez) simply isn’t enough to draw a conclusion.
I wouldn’t entirely wave it off, though. Salazar’s career totals also show a substantial gap between Gomes and Perez. In 315.1 innings with Gomes, Salazar’s ERA is 3.31. In 1222 innings with Perez, Salazar had a 4.77 ERA.
That would suggest a reason to use Gomes in his starts.
Let’s try to wrap this up. Because neither Mike Clevinger (10 starts, 53 innings) nor Cody Anderson (9 starts, 62 innings) pitched enough innings to give us a meaningful split, I’ll skip running tables for either of them. I will save you the trouble of clicking and tell you that:
- Clevinger was best with Perez (3.54 in 28 innings)– Gomes was awful with him (7.71 ERA) in 16.1 innings.
- Anderson was best with Gimenez (3.46 in only 12 innings)– both Gomez and Perez were over 7.50.
So Perez maybe should catch Kluber and Bauer, Gomes should definitely catch Salazar– maybe Carrasco. But the data isn’t strong enough to tell us if one player should be the regular..
Since relievers don’t pitch often enough to provide splits, I’ll finish with the team data for each catcher:
Gomes has a 0.25 edge in ERA, a comparable difference in hits per game and he gets more ground balls. Perez has a very large edge in strikeouts.
Strikeouts use more pitches; they also eliminate the possibility of an error, or a ball dropping in for a hit.
Bottom line– even though Gomes is the veteran with substantially more experience with the staff– and stronger knowledge of the opposing hitters,– there simply isn’t a meaningful difference. The other difference is that Perez was much tougher to run on.
So there you have it. I simply don’t see the enormous chasm between the players that everyone else does. My priorities if I were running the 2016 team, would be:
- See if Perez can hit better if he gets more playing time.
- Not permit Gomes to play 120 games, unless he hits much better than he did in 2015 and 2016.
I would not assume Gomes will regain his Silver Slugger form if he can only stay healthy. If anything, I’d assume Perez will continue to grow as a hitter. He isn’t going to be Johnny Bench– but if he gets around ,240, his defense is enough to keep him playing for another ten years.
I mentioned this stuff to a friend, who replied “Yeah, but Gomes is tearing it up in Arizona. He might he back.” OK, Gomes is hitting .355 with a 1.057 OPS. But Perez is hitting .333 (.917 OPS). It’s not an enormous difference.
That he replied “Yeah, but who was Perez facing?” indicates the problem.
One more comparison, then I’m done. The Indians went 39-26 (.600) in games Gomes started, and 33-20 (.623) in Perez’s starts. In the post-season, they’ve gone 0-1 with Gomes starting and 10-5 with Perez.
It might just be an accident. But it ain’t a reason to go with Gomes.