As the Cleveland Indians clawed their way to a 4-3 extra-inning win over the Detroit Tigers on Sunday afternoon, Tribe faithful rejoiced that the Wahoos were atop the leader board in the AL Central with Mother’s Day in the rear view mirror. Sure, the Indians were able to top the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics, but it was what they did against the Tigers and their infinite payroll that would matter. Once the Comerica Park visitor’s clubhouse cleared and various streaks were discussed—what with the Tribe winning 15 of their last 20, several wins being of high-leverage fashion—one such run that should be a story line is that of reserve catcher Yan Gomes.
Certainly, Gomes’ 3-for-4 afternoon against the Motor City Kitties was worth the notice; the reserve catcher raised his average from .133 on April 20 to .268 (.840 OPS) following Sunday’s win. And if perception is worth more than numbers, the man they call “Yanimal” always appears to have his name linked to huge plays, even if they are outs. (On Tuesday night when the typically hard-hitting Indians could not muster much in the way of offense, it was Gomes’ 415-foot sacrifice flyout that scored Santana (who was playing first base) for the game’s lone run; on May 3 he scored on a squeeze bunt off of the bat of second baseman Jason Kipnis.) But while the Indians have been one of the game’s hottest-hitting teams throughout the last month, and Gomes as added to such despite sporadic plate appearances, they have won their last 10 consecutive games with him behind the plate. Correlation can be spurious given the sample size, but the Tribe’s pitchers—the consensus “weak link” when it comes to the 25-man roster under the watch of Terry Francona—have seen their collective earned run average plummet from 4.52 with Carlos Santana donning the gear to a measly 2.71 when Gomes is the man flashing the signs.
In the same game where the 25-year-old Gomes was the hero with his sacrifice fly, it was his arm that allowed the Indians to preserve the win after catching Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes attempting to steal second base. The out would be the second of the ninth inning; closer Chris Perez would subsequently seal the victory with another one of his mantle full of saves. It was Gomes’ fourth would-be base stealer who was sent to the dugout prematurely. Only two base-runners have been successful against him.
Francona, the Indians’ manager, praises Gomes’ work ethic. Gomes’ teammates praise his own managerial skills behind the plate. His effectiveness can be boiled down to equal parts: calling the best pitches thus putting his pitcher at an advantage, and visibly and audibly throwing curveballs of his own to would-be hitters. In Sunday’s extra-innings victory over the Tigers, it was Gomes who would quietly confuse Tiger batters with his stance, mixing a higher stance typically reserved for pouncing on curveballs with the singular finger which summons his pitchers’ fastball. Keep a close eye on the ninth 10th inning and you will see Gomes calling for the fastball before positioning himself higher and pounding his glove—signaling the ears and peripheral vision of the man standing in the batter’s box, an off-speed pitch was likely on the way. Meanwhile, Detroit’s Matt Tuiasosopo attempted to play the hero, was left flailing, late, at a Coy Allen fastball. Game over.
This past winter, when the Indians acquired shortstop Mike Aviles from the Toronto Blue Jays for the price of one Esmil Rogers, many looked past the catcher-slash-infielder named Gomes who was thrown into the mix despite the fact that he had a lot of qualities Clevelanders covet: right-handed, solid average, positionally versatile, nickname-ready and Brazilian1. He helped Brazil qualify for their first ever birth in the World Baseball Classic. Fast forward to May 13 and Gomes has started less than a third of the Indians’ games thus far through 2013, but he’s caught nearly half of their wins.
“We saw that in Spring Training,” Francona said of Gomes earlier this month. “Even with his lack of really catching a lot [with Toronto], he’s really grasped game planning and things like that. He’s understanding that his job is to get the pitcher through the game. There’s a lot of things that impressed us, but that was one of them.”
The big decision will come when the Indians are forced with potentially activating Lou Marson from the 15-day disabled list. Marson, struggling through 2013 both at the plate and with his ability to avoid injuries, is yet to record a hit in his three games behind the plate. Worse, the Indians have lost all three games. Marson, while being on the receiving end of a 3.09 ERA behind the plate, has allowed four stolen bases in his three games. Where Marson has not been able to record any run-saving metrics2, Gomes has already been credited with saving four runs (DRS) when compared to the average catcher. Carlos Santana’s current DRS: -6.
This is not to say that the Indians should find a new home for one of baseball’s best hitters to date. Between Santana, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds—the three men who can essentially split duty between first base and designated hitter—we have 4.7 wins above replacement. Add up the Tigers’ top three hitters and you get a WAR of 4.2. Giving Gomes an everyday slot would be at the expense of one of these, unless the Indians moved Mark Reynolds to third base on a more-frequent basis. But this is to say that Gomes has vaulted himself from the status of a throw-in to that which betters the remaining big-league link to the Cliff Lee deal. Marson is widely considered to be a solid clubhouse guy; his willingness and desire to stay in the game following a collision with Tampa Bay’s Desmond Jennings is just one of the many examples. But if Gomes continues to produce the way he has thus far, Chris Antonetti may be forced to move forward with the younger, fresher backstop.
While his play has given him a line item or the occasional quote in a mainstream media game recap, Gomes’ play—on a larger scale—has been worthy of so much more. Gomes will tweet out random items, whether it is a retroactive “Thank You” (in Portuguese, of course) to his Brazilian followers or the occasional unassuming talking point regarding MMA; following the Tribe’s big win and subsequent first-place standing on Sunday night, while the rest of Wahooland was reveling in the series win, Gomes’ only shout-out was to the Mothers for who the day was named. At some point, the Indians will lose a game with him behind the plate. It may come this week, it may come next month.
And while a lot of focus will be on whatever the box score may say next to “Gomes” from an offensive perspective, there have been enough games in 2013 to know that his presence behind the plate is a positive when it comes to both the effectiveness of the team’s pitching staff and the runs saved thanks to his arm. For a team that has “starting pitching” firmly entrenched as it’s biggest question mark, it would only make sense to have the Yanimal behind the dish as often as possible. Anything that happens when he swaps the catcher’s mask for a batting helmet is just a bonus.
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)