Week 2 of the 2019 Cleveland Indians season had quite the emotional arc. Having been composed of unsatisfying success, an ethical dilemma, and a deceptively serious injury, it had the makings of the plot line to an episode of hit NBC television program This Is Us. Sure there was a five-game win streak, but it was against weak opposition and was offensively fueled by some unlikely sources. Yes, Mike Clevinger overpowered the Blue Jays for five dominant innings, but at the cost of an intact right Teres Major. Next thing we know, it’s going to come out that Jose Ramirez’s slump is housefire-related or something.1
At least it turned out to be a successful week, even if it was a little too theatrical to be a great one.2 The Defenders of the Cuyahoga beat up on some bad teams, taking care of the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers to the tune of a 5-1 record. Carlos Santana, still on a torrid pace, book-ended the week with memorable performances. True to this week’s motif, he began the week in dramatic fashion by sending a ninth-inning fastball into the left-field stands and also the visiting Blue Jays back to their hotel rooms, and he concluded it emphatically by reaching base all five times, a feat he had accomplished just five times before. Including yesterday’s game, Santana’s ratio of walks per strikeout trails only some guy named Mike Trout (and Maikel Franco, but who cares about him?). But, Santana wasn’t the only guy to hit the ball this week. Leonys Martin twice tatered, Hanley Ramirez had an impressive three-walk game, and Tyler Naquin was spraying the ball all over the outfield. But perhaps the most improbable contributor is ostensibly light-hitting catcher Roberto Pérez, who’s the subject of this week’s Long Ball.
Roberto Pérez has more than earned his light-hitting label. From 2016 to 2018, Pérez, who was back-up to Yan Gomes at the time, compiled between 175 and 250 plate appearances. His batting line amounted to a triple-slash 43% below league average; just three hitters (min. 600 PAs) were less productive than he was over that stretch. And yet, in 2019, the Tribe flipped Pérez the keys to the castle by trading Gomes to Washington without any proven replacements at the backstop. With the excuse of irregular playing time having been defenestrated, 2019 is Roberto Pérez’s opportunity to establish himself as more than a backup catcher, someone who can hold his own with the bat.
It’s difficult to remember now, but way back in prehistoric 2015, Roberto Pérez provided the Indians with 2.2 fWAR, fourth highest on the squad. Much of that value was with the glove,3 but he also contributed at the dish, sporting a .348 OBP driven by a near 15% BB-rate. This after a 2014 Triple-A performance during which he slashed .305/.405/.513 before being called up to the Bigs. On the flip side, Yan Gomes filled the role of disappointing catcher, struggling to meet expectations after inking a long-term deal. The roles reversed in the following years, there is some precedent for Roberto Pérez having real MLB offensive success.
The train route for Perez’s return to Big League production has two stops. The first is his eye at the plate, which he has maintained even during his three down years. He has yet to record a single-digit BB-rate since his rookie year, and that he’s been consistently above-average in limiting his swings at pitches out of the zone is just further evidence of his disciplined approach.
The second stop on the route back to offensive success involves honing his natural raw power, which he has yet to accomplish as a Major Leaguer on a consistent basis. In fact, it may not even be obvious that Perez has any raw power in the first place; believe me though, it’s there as many who remember the 2016 postseason will recall. During the Statcast era, Roberto Perez’s maximum exit velocity is 113.4 MPH, ahead of Indians sluggers like Carlos Santana, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Ramirez as well as His Yokedness himself, Yandy Diaz. See for yourself, Perez’s hardest hit ball rolled to the outfield wall despite barely traveling above the infielders’ heads:
Flash forward to this year, and Roberto Perez remains one of the Indians most likely to strike the ball really, really hard, and he has the rare talent to do it to all three fields. Check out this lineout from April 1st against the White Sox:
Notice White Sox center fielder Adam Engel’s route to the ball. He was running straight toward right field before realizing that the ball was headed deeper than expected, forcing him into a banana-shaped route. Now, Engel possesses impressive range and was still able to track the ball down, but generally, line drives hit 105+ MPH fall in for hits. It’s not out of the question that with more consistent playing time, Perez could be able to harness his power frequently enough to make us all forget about Yan Gomes.
When one imagines a hitter admiring their home run, one may picture a long line drive or fly ball to which the batter salutes off in the distance. Perez, on this dinger, looks straight up and leans out of the box frustratedly as if it were a pop-up…which it was, more or less. It was launched at an angle of 45 degrees, making it the second most towering homer in Indians Statcast history. I mean, look how long it was in the air.
After finishing a series win on Thursday in Detroit, Cleveland heads to Kansas City for a three-game set, followed by a visit to T-Mobile Park to face the red-hot Seattle Mariners. Will the Indians be the team to shut down Seattle’s mighty offense? I’ll let you know next week, same time, same place.