Indians Need a Healthy Bounce-back Year from Gomes in 2017

While the Cleveland Indians knew heading into the season that they might not get the level of production that they had hoped for from the offense due to the uncertainty surrounding injured outfielder Michael Brantley, they did not foresee the offensive struggles and injuries awaiting their starting backstop, Yan Gomes.

Gomes appeared in the fewest amount of games that he had played in during his four years in Cleveland. A season-long slump led to speculation that the team would find an upgrade at the catching position – and they nearly did before Milwaukee’s catcher Jonathan Lucroy derailed a proposed five-player swap between the Brewers and Indians. Gomes then suffered a separated shoulder in mid-July in a game in Minnesota, putting his season in jeopardy. As if that was not damaging enough, he was plunked in the right hand in what was likely his final rehab at bat while working with the Akron RubberDucks and sustained a non-displaced fracture in mid-September.

As if all of that did not hurt the team enough, when he was healthy and on the field, his bat was nowhere near as potent as it had been throughout his career. He was offering power and extra base hits at a good clip (accounting for half of his entire hit total for the year), but did very little else with the bat. His strikeout rate was 2% over his career average. He swung at more strikes than any point in his Major League career, but he also accumulated the highest rate of swinging strikes since his rookie season. He continued to not draw walks with any sort of frequency, so the .167 batting average he provided only nudged up to a .201 on-base percentage after his nine walks in 264 trips to the plate in 2016.

It was all a far cry from the man who hit .294 in his first season in Cleveland in 2013 and the one who won the Silver Slugger Award at catcher the following season when he had 25 doubles, 21 homers, and drove in 74 runs in 135 games.

Gomes never truly got going during this past season. In the schedule’s first month, he was in the lineup for 18 games and, at the plate, had just two multi-hit games. The highlight of the month was what would amount to be the best game of his season, when he went 3-for-5 and was a triple short of the cycle while scoring three times and driving in five in a 10-1 win in Detroit over the Tigers. While he had three doubles and three homers for the month, he also had three games pulling off the hat trick – striking out three times in a game.

Buried underneath a .200 batting average and .221 OBP after the first month, Gomes added an incredibly trying May to extend his hitting woes. He mirrored his April results with three more doubles and three more home runs while adding a triple in 21 games, but he averaged a strikeout every four trips to the plate and his batting average for the month was a paltry .148 with a .205 OBP after five more walks. To compound the problem further, the team had lost backup catcher Roberto Perez to injury, so it became increasingly more difficult to try to get the struggling Gomes out of the lineup with journeyman catcher Chris Gimenez just back in the fold with the club and learning a new pitching staff.

Gomes logged 20 games of action in June and the team was 15-5 in games that he appeared behind the plate. His game calling skills and his handling of the pitching staff helped carry him when his bat weighed him down. He had one of his better months at the plate, hitting .212 with a .235 OBP, hitting eight singles, four doubles, two homers, and drawing one walk with one hit by pitch.

Gomes - Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Gomes – Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Despite what could have been seen as a potentially positive change of course for the long-slumping catcher, it instead looked more like an aberration in July, when he put up a .054/.079/.081 slash line in 12 games. He had a single, a double, and one walk in 38 plate appearances and appeared to be pressing that much more at the dish. The month included an 0-for-27 stretch in a span of nine games before he reached safely in his first at bat against the Twins on July 17. In the cruel twist of fate that haunted Gomes all season, his groundout to third in his next at bat sent him sprawling to the Target Field turf and to the disabled list with a separated shoulder.

To his credit, and maybe all the more in spite of the season that he had, he incredibly returned from the broken hand he suffered while rehabbing his shoulder in the minors just two weeks after the hit by pitch in that mid-September contest. He entered a pair of games behind the plate late as a defensive replacement and he got a starting nod in the season finale against the Kansas City Royals, triumphantly hitting a two-run home run in the third inning off of Ian Kennedy to give the Indians a 2-1 lead in what would be a 3-2 victory for the club.

His almost miraculous return to the lineup led to him being included on the postseason roster for all three rounds. He did not appear in either the ALDS or ALCS as the team rode the production of the backup Perez, but he appeared in four games of the World Series, going hitless in four plate appearances with two strikeouts and a double play ball.

An important key for the coming season for the Tribe will be the results that they can get from Gomes and Perez in the lineup. After a season lost to slumps and injuries, can Gomes rebound and be the hitter that he once was at the plate? He was signed to a long-term deal to be the team’s starting backstop of the future and is one of the veteran leaders on the club and a trusted game caller behind the plate. Defensively, he remains one of the top arms behind the plate in the game, owning the fifth-best caught stealing percentage of active Major Leaguers.

Because of the strong contributions he makes in other facets of the game, the Indians could theoretically afford to get less from him at the plate than he has supplied in the past year or two, but in an offense designed around the manufacturing of runs, the more production that Cleveland can get from Gomes in the bottom third of the lineup while moving up or driving in runners from the middle third of the order can only help the Tribe’s bottom line. Whether Gomes does it via the home run ball, a well struck gapper, or a sacrifice fly does not matter, but batting marks below the Mendoza line will likely leave the team longing for more. Furthermore, his backup Perez’s value comes more for his work behind the plate and less for his work at it (.183 average in 2016 with six doubles, one triple, three homers, and 17 RBI in 61 games), so having the tandem both providing little offensively will leave the lineup with a notable void.

The Indians need all of the offense that they can muster and getting a healthy and contributing Gomes will be a big step for the club as it looks to defend its American League pennant and makes another push back to the World Series in 2017.

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

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