Indians Reminded of the Value of Catcher Perez in 2016

When catcher Roberto Perez went down with a broken thumb after a play at home plate in Philadelphia against the Phillies on April 30 this past season, it put the Cleveland Indians in a compromising situation.

With no reliable depth at the Triple-A level (which included journeymen Major Leaguers Adam Moore and Guillermo Quiroz), they were forced to look outside of the organization for help. They found that assistance in Chris Gimenez, their two-time former backstop who served as a quality game caller who seemed to settle starting pitcher Trevor Bauer on the mound, but provided little offense from behind the plate.

Having a strong backup catcher may not have been as important of a need in most circumstances, but unfortunately for the Indians, their primary catcher Yan Gomes was in the midst of putting together his worst offensive season of his Major League career before his own injuries would derail his season.

Perez, the Indians’ 33rd round pick in the 2008 draft out of Florida Gateway College in Lake City, Florida, was in just his third season in the Majors. The offensive side of his game had not been his strength, although he had hit for high average and doubles power in his debut year in 2014 and had shown some pop with his bat the next season, when he appeared in 70 games for Cleveland and hit seven home runs while working behind Gomes consistently.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Perez was playing just his fourth game of the season when a play at the plate turned into a devastating early season injury for the Tribe. With just 15 plate appearances in those four starts, he had yet to reach base with a hit, but had drawn six walks, reached on an error, and had a sacrifice fly while driving in one run.

Perez was working through his rehab assignment in the minors when Gomes went down in July with a separated shoulder in a game in Minnesota. It forced the Indians to consider bringing him back prematurely instead of letting Perez get enough playing time and at bats to be as ready as possible for a return to Major League action. Cleveland was already rumored to be sniffing around Milwaukee’s All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy to help resolve the lack of contributions coming from the Indians’ catching options, so losing the starting catcher, even with lackluster numbers, was a significant blow to all facets of the game.

Rushed back, Perez’s bat was still silenced. He got a single in his eighth game on July 24 and added his second in game 12 on July 31 to end that month with a .080 batting average for the season, but a .324 on-base percentage to make up some for his inability to get on base with the bat.

The trade for Lucroy nearly happened, with all of the pieces appearing in place, with the exception of the veteran’s permission. The approval would not come, as he would decline the trade to Cleveland on July 31 and would end up in Texas with the Rangers the next day.

The Indians were forced to stand pat with two catchers contributing almost nothing in the lineup and Perez became the everyday option for the club. He worked heavily throughout August, appearing at one point in 13 straight games (10 starts). He got a pair of hits on August 7 against the New York Yankees, including his first extra base hit, and had a season-high four singles in five at bats with three runs batted in during the team’s 12-1 blowout of the Rangers in Texas on August 26. The month ended with his average at a paltry .154 with an OBP of .288.

He continued his regular work behind the plate and started to find his groove at the plate. In the second week of the month, he strung together hits in six of seven games and seven of nine. By the end of the regular season, his average was up to .183 in his 61 games with a .285 OBP and .294 slugging mark with six doubles, a triple, three homers, and 17 RBI.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

He got his first taste of the postseason, despite the miraculous return of Gomes from his shoulder and wrist injuries. Despite the amazing and improbable comeback of the team’s primary catcher, Perez started each and every game of the playoffs for the Indians.

Perez caught every inning of the ALDS against Boston and the ALCS against Toronto. He supplied the second run of the postseason for the Indians, hitting a solo homer in the third inning in Game 1 against the Red Sox to tie the game at two, leading a charge of three home runs in the inning. After two hits and a pair of walks in that series, he had a single, a double, a walk, and one RBI against the Blue Jays.

He had possibly the biggest game of his career on October 25 in Cleveland as the Indians hosted the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the World Series. He hit a pair of homers and drove in four runs as the Indians won, 6-0. He added a single in Game 3 and hit a solo homer in the Game 6 loss.

Even with his shortened season, Perez was again one of the top defensive catchers in the game. He finished third among the American League catchers in range factor per game and tops in the league for the second straight season in range factor per nine innings. His total zone runs from his position were fourth-best in the league. Of all catchers in the Majors who had at least ten stolen base attempts against them, Perez was tops in the game with a 50% caught stealing percentage (13 stolen in 26 chances). It was better than the 48.1% thrown out by the game’s top catching arm, Kansas City’s Salvador Perez, but the Indians’ Perez did not have enough games and attempts to qualify.

One of the lesser discussed questions about the Indians heading into the 2017 season will be what kind of production that they can get from a healthy Gomes back in the lineup. The 28-year-old Perez provides a security blanket, giving the team a durable and reliable defensive catcher and a solid game caller in support of Gomes. Perez’s arm helps keep opposing teams at bay, subtracting potential runs from the base paths while making up for the lack of runs he plates during his time in the batter’s box. With the Indians next-best catching option (Francisco Mejia) several years away despite landing on the 40-man roster this offseason, Perez’s place on Cleveland’s bench becomes that much more important to the club’s success in 2017.

Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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