Every team has injuries, but the Indians’ injury-bug bit perhaps their most valuable piece and ruined his—and effectively their—season in 2015.
On April 11, in the top of the ninth inning of just the fifth game of the season, catcher Yan Gomes was trying to keep his foot on home plate for a force out as Tigers outfielder Rajai Davis slid in and clipped his right foot. The play was innocent enough, both teams agreed afterwards that Davis did nothing wrong, but the aftermath proved costly and was perhaps more detrimental to the Indians season than many realize.
Gomes sprained the Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) in his right knee on the play and missed the team’s next 38 games as a result. The tangibles lost were obvious and certainly bad enough, but the intangibles that went missing when Gomes went down were irreplaceable.
Gomes’ spot on the roster for the next month and a half was taken up by journeyman catcher Brett Hayes, but the heavy lifting of the catching duties was handled by regular backup Roberto Perez. Perez showed some flashes of his potential in his first steady taste of Major League playing time by getting some big hits and hitting a few home runs, but Perez’s .171 batting average while Gomes was missing left a whole lot to be desired.
In addition to a bit of an anemic bat replacing the 2014 Silver Slugger winner for the position, Perez seemed to struggle with his handle of the pitching staff in Gomes’ absence as well.
“When Gomes went down, that’s when the pitching started struggling a little bit,” Perez said in May. “That’s never happened to me before. That’s always been my strength.”
In late April and early May, the Indians pitching staff suffered through its worst stretch of the season, undoubtedly in no small part due to the loss of their best catcher. Corey Kluber, in particular, missed his battery mate by plodding through his toughest stretch of time in two years. The 2014 Cy Young Award winner had routinely praised Gomes during his historic run the year before and requested that his catcher be present when he collected his hardware in January. According to Bill James’ Game Score metric, Kluber posted the top three worst starts of his season (27, 34 and 36), followed by his fifth worst (40), in four consecutive outings without Gomes. Over the four-game stretch, Kluber posted a 0-4 record with an unthinkable 7.43 ERA. Opponents batted .373 off of him with a .473 OBP.
Perez had been widely-known for his defensive abilities as he came up through the minor leagues. Perhaps ignoring some of the numbers or taking into account his catcher’s inexperience, Manager Terry Francona still beamed about Perez’s performance and handling of the pitching staff.
“For a kid that young and that inexperienced to feel the ownership of the staff, I was really impressed,” Francona said. “He felt the responsibility of commanding that staff.”
The Indians pitching staff posted a 3.71 staff ERA and allowed 4.23 runs per game in Perez’s 70 games behind the dish in 2015. By comparison, those numbers dropped to a 3.52 ERA with 3.77 runs per game when Gomes was catching. The staff ERA for Gomes earned him a new career best (3.56 in 2013) and lowered his career catcher’s ERA to a solid 3.63.
The decrease in runs per game when Gomes played, undoubtedly, was in-part due to his defensive prowess as well. In 2014, Gomes was rated as the eleventh best catcher in overall defensive rating. Defensive rating takes into account pitch framing, arm strength and accuracy and blocking the ball. Gomes’ 2015 .996 fielding percentage was over the league average of .994 for a catcher and his 8.84 RF/G (Range Factor/Game) was well above the league average of 8.21. These were all statistics missed while Gomes was out for nearly two months.
Additionally, opposing baserunners simply do not run when Gomes is behind the plate. While Perez threw out a whopping 42% of the runners that tried to steal against him, he still did not have the pedigree and respect of the opposition that a proven commodity like Gomes does. In 2014, runners attempted to steal 97 times in 1082 innings (0.81 times/9inn) against Gomes, and 5.9% of the time that the next base was open. The numbers all dropped in 2015, as the runners made just 58 attempts in 800 innings (0.65 times/9inn) and 5.5% of the time the next base was open. The decrease in players running wild is in direct correlation to the fact that Gomes has gunned down a higher percentage of runners than that of the league average every year that he has played in Cleveland.
Even with the traditional and more advanced statistics screaming that Gomes’ injury plagued the defense and pitching staff, his absence was felt the most in the batting lineup.
Gomes entered the season as the Indians five-hole hitter and was expected to be an anchor in the lineup, just as he had been the previous year and a half. All-Star dreams were squished when Gomes went down with his injury and when he returned, Gomes seemed to be a shell of his former self.
Since arriving in Cleveland via trade from Toronto, Gomes had posted a .284 batting average with 32 home runs, 112 RBI and 43 doubles in 223 games from 2013 to 2014. Once he returned from the disabled list in late May, Gomes seemed to be playing catch-up with the rest of the league and one of the Indians’ most consistent hitters never seemed to get his swing all the way back. For the season, Gomes slumped his way to a career-low .231 average with 12 home runs and 45 RBI. Perhaps never fully recovered, Gomes’ average was below the .200 mark as late as June 28.
The good news for Gomes, the Indians, and their fans is that Gomes has the next three months to continue the healing process before working on getting back into game-shape in February. An unproductive Gomes in 2016 could certainly mean another unproductive season for the franchise, as the most irreplaceable player on the roster affects every single aspect of the team.
Photo: Mark Duncan/Associated Press