The Answer Behind the Plate is Gomes

The offseason in Major League Baseball is filled with speculation and questions about how teams’ rosters will be composed for the coming season.

Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona answered one big question about 2014 on Wednesday, when he announced that Yan Gomes would be the team’s everyday catcher for next season.

For those who watched Gomes behind the plate in his first season with the Indians in 2013, the announcement came as no major surprise.

Francona was a guest on The Bull and the Fox on Cleveland’s 92.3 The Fan on Wednesday afternoon and shared the information over the course of his interview.

“We’ve told Carlos Santana and we told Gomes and Gomes will assume the majority of the catching duties,” said Francona. “Nothing against Carlos, but Gomer was the force behind the plate and when you add his offense and the fact that we can move Santana somewhere else, whether it be first base, DH, who knows, that’s something we’ve got to figure out. Then all of a sudden, our lineup gets deeper and our defense gets better.”

Gomes started last season at Triple-A Columbus before being recalled on two different occasions due to the injuries suffered by former backup Lou Marson. The Indians initially wanted to get Gomes consistent at bats and felt that those opportunities would not be able to come with the Major League club. In a limited sample size in the International League, Gomes hit .300 with a .417 on-base percentage, drove in three runs, and slugged four doubles in six games.

Marson’s injury opened the door for Gomes and he took full advantage of his opportunities, when able to crack the lineup. Having an established catcher behind the plate in Santana, his playing time was limited early on.

He had a pair of home runs and a pair of triples in the first month of the season, but in May, he batted .370 with three home runs and eleven RBI. Despite not playing every day, he put together a seven game hitting streak and had hits in ten of his 13 games. The highlight of his month was his three-run walkoff home run on May 20th to knock off the Seattle Mariners in extra innings, 10-8, to complete a four-game sweep. He had two home runs on the afternoon.

Gomes remained reliable and provided pop in the Indians lineup. His consistent play helped to force his way onto the field on a more permanent basis, moving Santana into a role as a first baseman and designated hitter and part-time catcher.

Gomes appeared in 43 games in the final two months of the season, hitting .297 over that stretch with another four home runs and 12 RBI. He was not in the lineup just three times in September while the team made their postseason push. He hit in nine straight games with an official at bat, beginning with his final three games of August and ending after a week in September, the longest hitting streak of his brief Major League career.

He ended the season with a .294 batting average in 88 games, hit eleven home runs, and had 38 runs driven in.

The team, from a record standpoint, certainly benefited with Gomes in the lineup. The Indians were 55-33 in games that Gomes appeared in and 49-31 when Gomes was in the starting lineup.

In the field, his play earned him a Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award as the Indians’ top defensive player of the 2013 season earlier this month. The newer award, determined by a formula that takes into account basic fielding statistics, scouting reports, and sabermetric data, began last season.

Gomes caught 85 games for the Indians in his first season with Cleveland, including 79 times as the starter. He logged 710 innings behind the plate and, in the exact same amount of chances, made one fewer error than Santana. He finished the season with the second-best range factor per nine innings for an AL catcher (9.23), the second most assists by an AL catcher (65), and the tenth-best defensive WAR in the league (1.8) and tops on the Indians roster, according to Baseball-Reference.com. His 4.0 wins above replacement trailed just Jason Kipnis (5.9) and Santana (4.4).

Santana appeared in 84 games at catcher, including 81 starts. He caught 712 2/3 innings for Cleveland and had four errors, earning him a .995 fielding percentage, just lower than Gomes’s .996. His fielding percentage was the best of his career, but the season also marked his least number of starts behind the dish since his injury-shortened rookie season in 2010.

Gomes caught the eye of the league with the laser arm he used to gun down 40.8% of would-be base stealers (20 runners caught in 49 attempts). That effort was the second highest caught-stealing percentage in the American League of catchers who logged at least 200 innings behind the plate, trailing the 42.5% of Gold Glove winning catcher Joe Mauer.

By comparison, Santana threw out just eleven of 62 base stealers for a career-worst 18% caught stealing percentage, eight percentage points worse than his numbers in 2012. His numbers were in the bottom quarter of all catchers who had at least one stolen base attempted against them over the course of the season.

The Brazilian born backstop Gomes was also credited with calling a better game behind the plate than Santana. Indians pitchers had a 3.56 ERA when throwing to Gomes. That ERA jumped to 4.05 when Santana was catching.

Gomes may have been able to protect his pitchers better with his defensive abilities to cut down on the number of wild pitches and passed balls accrued over the course of a game. Gomes had one fewer passed ball allowed (four) than Santana (five), but Gomes allowed 17 fewer wild pitches. Santana allowed 44 on the season, the third-highest total in the AL despite playing 402 2/3 innings fewer than Salvador Perez (49) and 292 1/3 innings fewer than A.J. Pierzynski (45).

The change in game callers may be a difficult piece of news for the Indians former starting catcher. Santana, when asked back on September 10th about his lack of playing time behind the plate, shared with reporters that he was having a hard time not being the starting catcher for the club.

“This is a little hard for me because catcher is my position,” Santana said at that time. “That’s how it would be for any player. But the manager put Yan behind the plate and he’s done a good job, so we’re better hitting and catching, too. It’s affected me a little bit, but I’m not thinking about it. I’m thinking about winning. I’m trying to help my team. Everybody knows I have the ability to do more than just catch. I can play first base or DH. The most important thing for me is staying in the lineup every day.”

Santana’s role for 2014 remains up in the air. His bat merits an every day spot in the lineup, but how much of his playing time will come at first base, designated hitter, and catcher remains to be seen.

Santana led the team in games played in 2013 with 154 appearances, one short of his career high established two years ago. He either led or was in the top three of numerous offensive categories for the Indians, including batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, walks, hits, doubles, home runs, runs scored, runs driven in, and plate appearances. His walk total was second best in the American League and the fifth highest rate in the Majors.

Throughout his career, Santana has been a better hitter when not behind the plate. Last season was no different. Santana hit .249 with eleven home runs when in the lineup catching. He batted .287 with five home runs as the team’s first baseman and .288 with four home runs when in the lineup as the team’s designated hitter.

Having two qualified, Major League caliber catchers is a nice problem for the Indians to have moving forward. Less time with Santana and his defensive woes behind the plate, coupled with the prowess of Gomes with the glove, would presumably create fewer miscues at home, saving the pitching staff and the team several runs over the course of the season.

Many teams carry a defensive-minded catcher as a backup that does not excel with the bat and therefore cannot be afforded the everyday catching duties. Such was the case with Marson in the past few years. His glove and arm kept him on the 25-man roster, but his inconsistent and light-hitting bat kept him out of the lineup on a regular basis.

Now, Marson’s status is also an unknown. Coming back from a season lost to injuries, will he be offered arbitration by the team? Will he find himself starting the season back in Triple-A Columbus? Will he be carried by the club as a third catcher on the roster for the times that Santana is in the lineup as a DH to avoid similar conflicts like the one the Indians batting order suffered on April 6th, 2013, when Santana started at DH and Marson was behind the plate? In that game, Marson left the game in the fourth inning after a home plate collision with Tampa Bay’s Desmond Jennings and Santana had to move behind the plate, forcing the Indians to play the remainder of the game without a DH.

If Marson is (presumably) out of the picture for the Indians’ 25-man roster breaking camp in 2014, could the team add another low-cost veteran from somewhere else around the league, as they did last season for the stretch run with Kelly Shoppach?

Francona naming Gomes as the primary catcher on the Indians roster moving forward answered one big question about the offseason, but leaves wide open another regarding Santana. His destination in the lineup will be determined by any potential roster transactions made over the next four months.

Regardless of where he plays, the Indians are a much better team right now with Santana and Gomes playing together in the starting lineup than with Gomes as a member of the bench.

The biggest question surrounding Gomes now may be: does he get to be an honorary member of the bench’s Goon Squad now, that he has been promoted from his backup role to the starting nine?

Photo: Otto Greule, Jr./Getty Images

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