What’s Wrong With Yan Gomes?

When the Tribe signed Yan Gomes to a six-year, $23 million contract prior to the 2014 season, they expected his 2013 production to continue. That year, he had a .294/.345/.481 slash line and slugged eleven home runs in only 88 games. Chris Antonetti certainly felt good about the signing when Gomes won the Silver Slugger Award in 2014 after he hit .278 with 21 home runs. He had the highest fWAR among AL catchers that year, at 4.5, and led all catchers with a walloping .194 isolated power.

Gomes hasn’t been able to replicate that season since then. He never fully rebounded from a right knee injury last April, hitting only .231 in 95 games in 2015. However, there was hope at the end of the year that he found his swing after he posted a .256/.280/.462 slash line in September and a career best 26.4% line drive rate.

This year, he is the worst hitter in baseball and not one seems to know why. His current slash line is .177/.216/.344 and he has more strikeouts (50) than hits and walks combined (40). Among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances, Gomes ranks dead last in average, on-base percentage, wRC+, and win probability added. In his 50 starts he has only five multi-hit games with the last one coming all the way back on May 28 until a two-hit effort on Monday night.

Many have speculated about Gomes’s struggles at the plate, but none have come to a conclusion about what is ailing the catcher.

One theory is just plain bad luck. A quick glance at his .188 BABIP heading into Monday’s game might be an indication of that, but a deeper dive into his batted ball numbers tell a different story. Gomes has a 15% line drive rate, his lowest since his rookie year, and an infield fly ball rate of 12.3%, his highest in his career. It’s hard to get hits when you’re hitting pop ups and not hitting line drives, so that explains his low BABIP. Plus, there’s no way bad luck can explain a batting average that bad over 54 games.

Gomes’s batted ball numbers also tell us that he’s changed from hitting line drives to fly balls. His overall fly ball percentage has increased every year from 37.3% in 2012 to 46.4% this year. To add on to that, his career best line drive percentage last year has plummeted to 15% this season. Basically, every time Gomes hits a ball in play there’s a 50-50 chance it will be a fly ball. Intuitively one would think that line drives become hits more often than fly balls. And, according to data from FanGraphs, this turns out to be true. Fly balls turn into hits at only a 21% clip while line drives become hits 69% of the time. Gomes isn’t getting hits because he’s hitting too many fly balls.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There’s still no explanation as to why he’s hitting more fly balls. Joe Coblitz of Burning River Baseball suggests Gomes has a vision problem. At the tail end of May, he started wearing sports glasses because his contacts weren’t working as well as he hoped. However, Gomes hasn’t improved since the switch, batting .143 in the 13 games heading into Monday since donning the glasses. Merritt Rohlfing of SB Nation saw a change in Gomes’s swing this year. This could be another likely explanation, and he does go on to say that Gomes should improve as he gets more used to the swing.

Whatever the reason, the bottom line is Gomes is not hitting well. Terry Francona has moved him down in the order to eighth after putting him in the six hole to start the year. The fewer at bats for Gomes right now, the better. Unfortunately for the Tribe, since Roberto Perez is out with a broken thumb, Gomes can’t rest too much. No offense to Chris Gimenez, but he’s been just as bad as Gomes this year (.173/.241/.308) and will likely be DFA’d when Perez returns.

There are signs that Gomes can improve. Despite all of his struggles, Gomes has inexplicably come in through the clutch. He’s put up a .295/.327/.591 slash line to go along with 23 RBI in 49 trips to the plate with runners in scoring position. With the added pressure of two outs and runners in scoring position, he’s even better, posting a .300/.391/.600 slash line. So despite hitting under the Mendoza line overall when the Tribe needs him to get in hit in the clutch, he still manages to deliver. To add on to that, Gomes has still been a solid behind the plate. FanGraphs ranked him fourth among all catchers in defensive runs above average with 5.7.

That’s why Tribe fans shouldn’t be worried about Gomes. He can still contribute to the ball club on a daily basis. The catcher just needs one big day at the plate, perhaps a 4-for-4 day, to start a nice streak and get rolling again.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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