Upgrading the Indians Largest Hole

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The Cleveland Indians entered 2016 with what appeared to be two starting caliber catchers with differing skill sets. The outlook following 2016 has become somewhat more dreary as Indians catchers combined to be the worst catching unit in baseball in 2016, with Fangraphs WAR of -0.7 and a wRC+ of 46!

To put this in context, 100 is a league average wRC+. A wRC+ of 46 means that Indians catchers were 54 percent below league average offense, devastatingly poor production. Stated with other data, Indians catchers slogged to an OPS of .562, about 150 points lower than would be ideal.

There is hope for positive regression to the mean, however.1 The question is, which catcher provides more optimism for league average performance? Your answer? Roberto Perez.

Time for projections:

Perez is projected for a .666 OPS and 1 WAR over 60 games. Part of the WAR per game gap stems from significant defensive value.2. Yan Gomes, meanwhile, is projected for a .682 OPS and 1.1 WAR over 100 games. The projections are fairly close but tools wise there is a more clear gap in overall value.

For a moment, a thought on projections. People thoroughly distrust them but the nature of the projection system is different than I think many expect. While the systems spit out a detailed projection, this projection merely reflects likelihood of outcomes. Projections systems from a large collection of simulations dump out the best fit which we should acknowledge as a baseline to construct expectations rather than a concrete number to rely upon.

Fangraph’s inclusion of catcher framing is not included with the same precision as value estimators created by Baseball Prospectus. In this category Perez is one of the best in baseball and his game planning, pitch blocking ability were integral to a long playoff run. Perez is an exceptional game framer which plays up the production of talent already on hand.

Last season with Gomes injuries, struggle with framing and Perez only playing 61 games, the Indians were an average team in terms pitch framing, with slightly negative value in runs earned above average. With a full season of Perez, and by full season I mean 120 games, the Indians defensive value will step forward.

Time to make the case for Roberto Perez league average catcher, keeping in mind that league average at pre-arbitration costs is phenomenal and would represent a nearly 2-3 WAR upgrade over 2016 catcher production.

Perez has two elite skills: Defense and plate discipline. Perez rocks an elite walk rate easily projectable over 11 percent. Perez simply does not chase pitches outside the strike zone. League average O-swing percentage (chasing pitches outside the strike zone) was 30.3 percent in 2016; Perez’s career chase rate is 21 percent. He has a phenomenal eye which wears pitchers out. Further, Perez adds just enough power to make the offense work in totality.

Perez struggled a bit in his 60-game sample in 2016, with a 58 wRC+. While this is still significantly better than Indians catchers overall, it also includes the Perez being rushed back from a thumb injury due to Gomes’ injury with little in the way of rehab time. Perez started to look comfortable again in September and October, ending the season with a wRC+ of 68 in September and then raking in a 15-game playoff sample for an OPS of .719.

In reviewing Perez, there is no reason not to expect an OPS between .650 and .690 building a wRC+ in the 80s. Add in elite defense and we have an easy way for a catcher to get to 2+ WAR which would be a net gain of 3 WAR versus 2016. More conservative, the Indians can expect an easy two-win gain. While regression can be expected at other positions for the Indians in 2017, the net gain the Indians expect catcher for 2017 is large. The Indians are betting on a guy with two elite skills defense/plate discipline to anchor a struggling position. These are the right bets to make.

  1.  Regression to the mean is a strange discussion when we are discussing the 99th percentile performer in a sport/field. []
  2. Important in Perez offensive projection, the numbers used as inputs include a season where a played with significant injury due to Bell’s Palsy, which gives rise to more optimism on an already solid projection []