A Case for Yan Gomes as the Best Catcher in Baseball

Gomes has emerged as one of the most productive catchers in baseball this season, but is it enough to consider him the best in game?

In his first full season behind the plate, Yan Gomes has quietly emerged as one of the most productive catchers in all of baseball. The 27-year-old exhibits all the necessary tools to flourish behind the dish for the foreseeable future, too. And no, I’m not referring to the “tools of ignorance” – his equipment. Gomes is a well-rounded athlete who renders a good glove, an above average arm, decent speed and a plethora of power.

The Indians’ front office rewarded Gomes in March by inking him to a six-year, $23-million contract extension, locking down their budding backstop of the future at a bargain price (2014: $0.6M, 2015: $1M, 2016: $2.5M, 2017: $4.5M, 2018: $6M, 2019: $7M). The deal has already begun paying dividends for the Tribe in the form of some ridiculous run production and run prevention, more value than Clevelanders could’ve ever imagined.

Background Check, Why So Defensive?

After maintaining a marginal role for the majority of last season, Gomes seized the opportunity to take on the everyday catching duties last August. Prior to the promotion, Gomes played backup to then-catcher Carlos Santana before working his way into starting 44 of the club’s final 67 games. Here’s how they squared up behind the mask last year.

Yan Gomes8548-30 (.615)3.564292040.8%
Carlos Santana8443-38 (.530)4.055511117.7%

Add the defensive difference to his above average offensive production – Gomes hit .294 with an .826 OPS and 11 home runs – and the evidence is in the writing of the check as to why he got paid prior to Opening Day.

Fast forward to this year, his first full season as the primary catcher in Cleveland, and all the intricacies that come along with calling games on a nightly basis.

As the general on the diamond, he’s handled his pitching staff fairly well thus far. In addition, while the Major League average caught stealing rate is 27.3%, Gomes has gunned down 33.3% of attempted thievery. Despite his reduced role in 2013, Gomes has amassed 45 caught base-stealers over the past two seasons, third best only behind Russell Martin (62) and Buster Posey (46).

However, it should be noted that good catchers in baseball are similar to shutdown cornerbacks on the gridiron. They don’t flaunt big stat lines because opponents don’t dare test them – see Yadier Molina, for example. Look for base runners to take a more conservative approach on the paths if Gomes continues to gun them down at a high clip.

Downright Offensive

This year at the plate, Gomes is stroking a .285 average and an .809 OPS with 16 home runs and 52 RBI. But since the All-Star break, he’s swinging the hottest bat in the American League, if not in all of baseball. Here are his second-half lines among qualified catchers and all qualified position players.

GomesCatcher's RankOverall Rank

Granted, he's only played 22 games since the mid-season break. So let’s take it one step further.

In 42 games since June 17th, Gomes has cooked up a sizzling .329/.357./.597 slash line with nine bombs. Through his first 60 games of the season, he slashed .255/.307/.401 with only seven homers.

So what’s changed between his mediocre spring and the heat of his summer swing?

Well, Gomes’ peripheral and batted ball statistics don’t tell us much. His already lowly walk rate has bottomed out at 4.5%, and continues to be a major concern. In similar fashion, his strikeout rates are steady with his career line sitting just above the league average. To that point, Gomes needs to learn how to take a free pass and cut down on his whiff rate if he wants to sustain this recent success.

Gomes has worked a .385 average on balls in play since mid-June, 0.75 points higher than the first two months. The league average .299 BABIP would cause people to rightfully believe that this doesn’t represent his true talent. But for a guy who’s boasted a .342 and .339 BABIP the past two seasons in Cleveland, maybe it’s not as much of an anomaly as we had thought. His home run to fly ball rate has nearly doubled between the splits and we should expect some regression, but there’s no questioning his power. It’s legit. He currently ranks 20th in the Majors in batted ball distance averaging just a hair under 300 feet per and is fourth among catchers with 16 homers, pacing himself to shell 22 for the season.

Here’s the kicker though. Over the past two months, he’s brought a newly acquired aggressiveness to the plate. Gomes has a decent eye, but is swinging at nearly 13% more pitches outside the zone and 8% more total pitches he’s seeing. His total contact percentage is leveled at his previous rate but his contact on strikes is up almost 5%, hovering just south of 90% which confirms he has no trouble putting the bat on the ball.

Stay with me, we’re almost there. He’s seeing 8% more first-pitch strikes than he saw at the beginning of the year. In the Majors, roughly two out of every three first pitches are fastballs in relation to about 60% of any pitch being a fastball. Hand in hand with Gomes’ aggressive approach, he has been absolutely pulverizing fastballs of late. His fastball runs above average (wFB) has catapulted from -5.2 before mid-June to 7.8 since. That’s an estimated run expectancy variation of 13 runs – nothing to sneeze at. Translation: basically he’s transformed into a first pitch fastball masher this summer. Realistically though, it’s only a matter of time until the scouting report is out and pitchers start feeding him junk food early and often.

84% of his 388 plate appearances this season have come from the seven-, eight- or nine-hole. Dating back to last Friday, for the first time in his career he’s drawn three consecutive starts out of the five spot. If he can find a home in the meat of the Indians’ order, his counting stats should see a solid boost.

One final trend from his two-season career in Cleveland that really jumps off the stat sheet is when Yan Gomes eats at the plate, the Indians feast in the standings. Look at how the Tribe have fared since he joined the club.

In Wins103387.361.414.6021.016
In Losses87323.205.240.345.585

The team seems to tick on Gomes’ watch. Throughout his young career he’s been an above average hitter, and when your residence is behind the dish, being above average in the box is more than sufficient.

Jack of all Trades

To bring it full circle, let’s roll out some all-encompassing offensive and defensive metrics. Here are the top 10 catchers in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) and Runs Above Replacement (RAR) who have seen at least 300 plate appearances and caught 600 or more innings this season.

Jonathan Lucroy (MIL)24.2.379141-19640.14.42.54
Yan Gomes (CLE)11.8.35112643634.93.81.11
Devin Mesoraco (CIN)22.8.407161-21030.73.42.02
Russell Martin (PIT)13.0.366137431030.33.31.24
Buster Posey (SF)9.1.338122-10-326.92.90.92
Salvador Perez (KC)2.6.3191014-11026.82.90.15
Evan Gattis (ATL)12.8.3651350-5-424.12.61.25
Yadier Molina (STL)4.5.3291114-2623.62.60.41
Carlos Ruiz (PHI)5.1.33211112419.52.10.60
Miguel Montero (ARI)6.7.332107-2-2-519.02.10.45

Among qualified catchers (300 plate appearances and 600 innings), Gomes ranks in the top five of every advanced statistic. Besides Russell Martin – who has seen nearly 100 less plate appearances and 200 less innings behind the plate – Gomes is the only player to post top five lines across the board.

Gomes is undoubtedly the American League’s best two-way catcher this season. He and Salvador Perez are the only AL representatives in the top 10, and as the metrics allude, Perez doesn’t parade the same offensive presence that Gomes displays in Cleveland. At this juncture, I wouldn’t plug him in front of NL MVP candidate Jonathan Lucroy, but a strong case could be made for Gomes being the best all-around catcher in the game right now.

According to Fantasy Pros, which compiles fantasy baseball average draft position data from Yahoo, ESPN, CBS, NFBC and MockDraftCentral, Gomes was the 12th catcher to come off the board this year, taken 229th overall. Our algorithms project Gomes’ powwow at the plate to continue to the tune of a .282 average, .838 OPS with seven bombs and 26 RBI in 154 remaining plate appearances – giving him a .284 average, .817 OPS, 23 homer and 78 RBI line for the season – a hefty return on investment for the Indians’ front office and fantasy owners alike.

So while they’re all having Gomes’ cake and eating it too, he’s out there each night earning minimum wage on his All-Star production. Sometimes life just isn’t fair, and on that note, I think I’ll go cut myself another slice.