Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 55 – Roberto Perez

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Countdown to Opening Day – 55 days

Things continue to look up for Cleveland Indians catcher Roberto Perez.

While the regular season provided Perez with a broken thumb, a shortened rehab assignment, and offensive numbers overall that fell short of what the team may have wanted from its catching position (and he was not alone in that struggle in Cleveland in 2016), the Indians backup backstop gave the club his usual steady game calling and defensive production with an impressive performance in the World Series.

Elsa/Getty Images
Elsa/Getty Images

The third-year big leaguer’s story is made all the more impressive when remembering that he was a light-hitting catcher throughout his minor league career after being selected in the 33rd round of the 2008 draft out of Florida Gateway College and that he has overcome Bell’s palsy, an autoimmune disease that causes paralysis of facial muscles and left him without the ability to blink his left eye without assistance. To help treat the condition, he has undergone acupuncture treatment as often as three times a week to stimulate the muscles of his face, sometimes with an extra electrical boost behind it.

With nearly a full season’s worth of games played in his Major League career now, Perez will return to the Cleveland roster for 2017 as the backup to Yan Gomes, a significant role for the Indians as they hope their former slugging catcher can stay healthy for a full season and can find a piece of his former mashing Silver Slugger ways to give the Tribe yet another offensive weapon in an already stacked lineup.

Perez will get the opportunity to prepare for the 2017 season with some early high-intensity games as he is expected to be the main backup behind seven-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glove winning St. Louis Cardinals starting catcher Yadier Molina on Puerto Rico’s team of 28 for March’s World Baseball Classic. He will get to suit up among the best from his native island, including Indians teammate Francisco Lindor, World Series opponent Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Carlos Beltran, and more.

Perez spent a portion of January training with Molina, something that can only help the 28-year-old improve upon his game further.

He made his debut in July of 2014 for Cleveland, hitting his only home run for the season in his very first game in the Majors. He drove in four runs on the year over 29 games while hitting .271. He was back on the roster in 2015 for the full season as Gomes’ backup and worked in 70 games, hitting .228 with a .348 on-base percentage. He showed an ability to put a charge in the ball, hitting nine doubles and seven home runs while driving in 21, but also showed a good eye at the plate.

Perez had seen little work over the first month of last season when he was injured in a play at home plate against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 30. He was hitless through his first 15 plate appearances, but had drawn six walks when he landed on the disabled list with a broken right thumb.

He was working his way back to form on a rehab assignment in July when the Indians lost Gomes to a separated shoulder in a game in Minnesota just after the All-Star break. Needing a catcher desperately, the Indians elected to return Perez to the roster and his offensive woes continued as he worked his way back from the injury. He got his first hit of the season in his eighth game on July 24 and added another one a week later, but heading into the final two months of the season, Perez was hitting a robust .080 with a .324 on-base percentage through his first dozen games (37 plate appearances).

Thrust into regular catching duties, he took just five games off in August. After going hitless to start the first five games of the month, the bat came to life some, capped by his first homer of the season on August 24 in Oakland and a 4-for-5 day at the plate two days later in Texas.

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

He spent September and the first few days of October seeing the same steady use in manager Terry Francona’s lineup as he hit .226 for the month with a .279 OBP and a .310 BAbip after hitting .182 in August. He matched his August doubles production with three and added his first triple of the season and a home run with eight RBI for the month. Overlooked some was his ability to sacrifice, as he had five sacrifice hits and a sac fly in the final month of the season.

Gomes came back from his shoulder and wrist injuries in the final days of the regular season, but he was not in a position to resume his starting duties. Perez instead carried the team himself throughout the postseason, appearing in all 15 games the team played in the playoffs. He hit .222 against Boston in the ALDS with two hits and hit a solo home run in his first career postseason at bat in the third inning against Rick Porcello to put the Indians on top in Game 1. He struggled some with the Toronto staff in the ALCS, hitting .143 with a walk and a sacrifice, but responded big on the biggest stage, hitting a pair of home runs in the Indians’ Game 1 win against Chicago in the World Series. He would get four hits in total in the seven-game series, but added in four walks and a sacrifice to wrap up his year.

While the offensive numbers were light, his defensive metrics were good behind the plate. He was charged with just two errors for the season, the fewest of his career while leading to a .996 fielding percentage. After seeing 22 wild pitches while behind the plate in 2015, that number dropped to ten in 2016. For the second consecutive season, he had the top range factor per nine innings among American League catchers. And after boasting a strong 42% caught stealing percentage in 2015, he threw out 13 of 26 would-be base stealers for one of the top marks in all of baseball and the top percentage in the AL.

After the season, Perez spent time with family, including his new son born during the World Series, and enjoyed a three-week break before starting his off-season conditioning program.

Perez will be a crucial piece of the Indians success in 2017, as they will need a quality backup plan in the event that Gomes cannot produce consistently at the plate or finds himself missing significant time again on the disabled list. Cleveland does not need Perez to be a big, booming bat off of the bench but rather a sound game caller, pitch framer, and man with a cannon for a right throwing arm to contain and eliminate the opposition’s running game. With a slew of journeyman catchers in camp (Adam Moore, Guillermo Quiroz, Erik Kratz) looking for jobs in the game and with top catching prospect Francisco Mejia still a couple of years away, Perez’s time to play is right now and the Indians will need everything that he can bring to both sides of the plate.

Other notable Indians to wear the number 55: Orel Hershiser (1995-1997), Danys Baez (2001-2003), Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez (2006-2012)

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

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