CLEVELAND (92.3 the Fan) – The Indians’ catcher position is looked at as an offensive albatross, and for good reason. Over the past two seasons, the position has produced a -49.5 oWAR according to Fangraphs.
It is no secret that the numbers are not kind to the position, but the defensive value (23 dWAR) has been enough to keep both Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez on the field.
It is easy to write both players off as losses at the plate, but that would be short-sighted considering Perez’s quantifiable contributions to the team.
Baseball is a results-based game, making Perez’s .185/.279/.269 slash line and 49 wRC+ look like a total loss in a vacuum, but the backup catcher actually leads the team in at least one category.
Pitches per plate appearance.
Perez does not qualify because of only having 136 plate appearances, but in that time he is seeing 4.42 pitches per appearance. That is part of the reason his on-base percentage is higher than his slugging. Perez has 16 walks and 22 hits, 7 of them for extra bases.
“He’s always been a guy that works counts, doesn’t go out of the zone very often,” Manager Terry Francona said. “Early in the year he wasn’t getting those walks which is kind of uncharacteristic of him. But the last six weeks or so, he’s been a lot closer to that guy. I know his average is down, but he had a ways to go.”
Francona’s assertion is dead on, as Perez has swung at the 11th-fewest pitches outside of the zone among hitters with 130 plate appearances. Given Perez sees a team-low 57.7% of pitches for strikes, that is probably the correct approach.
Some of how he approaches the game is born out of being comfortable in his role. Because Perez is not an everyday player, he says he is taking what he is given, looking to pick out the right pitch and go the other way.
“When you play every day, you kind of have the feeling of what you’re trying to do what you can at the plate. When you’re not playing that much, you’re playing once or twice a week, you’re just trying to see more pitches, trying to hit the ball the other way and make the pitcher work,” Perez said.
Part of the issue Perez’s patience has not translated into successful results is because early in the season, as Francona said, he was not walking nor was he going the opposite way. Perez’s walk-rate (11.8%) and pull-rate (40.2%) are both career worsts, given you see going the opposite way as the best approach; but both numbers have improved since June 1st in limited opportunity.
Even with his overall struggles, Perez has found a way to thrive in the clutch.
Again, with a small sample size of 49 plate appearances deemed “high-leverage,” Perez boasts a career wRC+ of 139, .374 wOBA, and .878 OPS, all better numbers than low- (86, .300, .670) or medium- (58, .259, .573) leverage situations.
In 2017, Perez has two hits and two walks in eight high-leverage plate appearances. Even in the 2016 post-season, Perez turned in seven walks, a double and three home runs in 52 plate appearances.
Again, recognizing his struggles overall, Perez said he feels he thrives in clutch situations, but is just trying to put bat to ball.
“I want to drive in that run,” he said. “In those situations, it’s hard to just go out there and swing, but I work the count. Like I said, try to stay middle-away and get a pitch to hit. I think in that situation, the pitcher is just trying to get you out and make you chase, it’s a matter of staying within yourself and put the ball in play.”
The combined patience and knack for the big moment played out again on Monday as Perez worked an eight-pitch at bat in the 5th before driving in the go-ahead run with a double to deep center.
Perez’s intelligence is obvious in the fact that he has earned the trust of Trevor Bauer, a man with a known fascination with matters of intellect. Part of that intelligence is what has allowed Perez to identify the best pitch in the biggest situations, despite maybe not possessing the same gifts as other hitters.
“I think being a catcher, you kind of go out there thinking as a catcher, how they’re going to throw you with runners on base, no runners on. I think as a catcher when I’m hitting. That kind of gives me an idea of how the pitcher is going to attack me.”