When the Indians traded Esmil Rogers to the Blue Jays in exchange for Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes, they probably didn’t think they’d be acquiring the second most valuable offensive player of a team on the cusp of the playoffs. But that’s what happened, as Yan Gomes has surprised everyone by putting up 3.6 fWAR in just 297 PA. He’s made good contact at the plate and flashed some serious power, leading to a .293/.350/.487 line and a 135 wRC+, the 3rd best of all catchers with at least 200 PA.
The Indians have been used to above average offensive contribution from their catchers, as Carlos Santana has been 4th among all MLB catchers in wRC+ (127) since he came into the majors in 2010. However, Santana has never been able to provide much value defensively. He was converted to a catcher after being signed by the Dodgers in 2005, not getting significant time at catcher until 2007. He’s been very durable, playing at least 700 innings behind the plate 3 years in a row now, but his defense has never been better than average, and has shown serious flaws at times.
Gomes played catcher almost exclusively in the lower minors after being drafted in the 9th round by the Blue Jays in 2009. He threw out 30% of runners in 178 minor league games. He played some games at first and third in AAA in 2012, and caught in only 9 of his 43 MLB games in 2012. So his bat had to be good in order for him to get the kind of playing time he’s seen this year. But Gomes has used that playing time to showcase some surprisingly effective defensive skills.
To examine how Gomes has been better than Santana defensively, I will look at three factors of catcher defense: throwing out base runners, blocking pitches, and framing pitches.
The most obvious difference between the two players is their ability to throw out potential base stealers. Santana has thrown out 25% of base stealers in his career, but is just 11/62 this year (18%). Gomes has been fantastic, throwing out 20/47 base stealers (43%). John Dewan’s Defensive Runs Saved statistic, which estimates runs a catcher saves by preventing stolen bases, estimates that Gomes saved 8 runs compared to the average catcher, while Santana has been 2 runs below average.
To better understand how the two catchers throw out runners, I took a look at some video of both players throwing down to second. I selected 5 plays for each player where they threw out a potential base stealer. For each play, I measured the “Pop Time”, or the time from when the catcher catches the ball to when his throw is caught by the second baseman or shortstop. I watched the video frame by frame for these estimates, which I’d imagine is at least close to the accuracy of a scout using a stopwatch. I broke down the “Pop Time” into “Transfer Time”, the time between the ball hitting the catcher’s glove and being released from his hand, and “Throw Time”, the time from his release to the ball hitting the second baseman or shortstops’s glove.
The Transfer and Throw times are in Frames, which is equal to 1/30 of a second.
Santana has a strong arm, averaging a 35.6 frame throw, but Gomes has a much faster transfer time, clocking in at 17 frames on two different plays. Four of Gomes’ five pop times are faster than every single one of Santana’s pop times. Preventing stolen bases involves more than just the catcher, but if Gomes can get the ball to second base almost a full tenth of a second faster on average than Santana, it’s not too surprising that he’s throwing out runners at twice the rate. Here’s the fastest throw down to second I timed, a 1.73 pop time from last Thursday’s game against Houston:
Getting the ball down to second in 1.73 seconds is extremely impressive, and Gomes does so here with a very accurate throw. A quick release is very important because it gives the catcher a chance if a runner gets a good jump. The pitch above was in a good location to throw on, but that doesn’t always happen. Let’s compare two transfers by Santana and Gomes on pitches up and in to right handed hitters. Gomes is on top and Santana is on bottom.
I slowed the clips down and started them both at the moment the pitch hits the glove so you can get a better look at their mechanics. Gomes’ footwork is noticeably better, as he plants his front foot much quicker than Santana. Santana needs to take two separate steps to get the throw off, while Gomes moves both feet in one fluid motion. No matter how fast Santana gets the ball out of the glove, this difference in footwork makes Gomes’ release faster and puts him in a better position to make an accurate throw.
Gomes has also done a better job of blocking pitches in the dirt. In 2011, Bojan Koprivica created a model for estimating the chance that any given pitch could be a passed ball or wild pitch based on pitch speed, location, and batter handedness. He used these estimates to calculate the runs a catcher saved by blocking pitches in the dirt. That model estimates that Santana has been 4 runs below average this year as he’s allowed 44 wild pitches and 5 passed balls compared to an expected 33 PB+WP. Gomes has been better at one run below average. This is not the first year Santana has struggled in this category, as he was 4.6 runs below average last year. Gomes still has some room to improve in this category, but there’s nothing to suggest that he can’t improve his blocking the same way he improved his throwing this year.
The last area of catcher defense is one that is often overlooked but has seen a big increase in attention the past couple years: catcher framing. Over at StatCorner.com, Matt Carruth calculates runs saved by framing by calculating the number of pitches out of the strike zone that were called strikes and pitches in the strike zone that were called balls. Since 2010, Santana has been the worst catcher in baseball in this metric, amassing 62 runs below average. He was the worst among MLB catchers in 2011 (-24 runs) and 2012 (-25 runs) before improving slightly this year (-7 runs).
One thing that has helped the Tribe’s pitching staff immensely is that Gomes has been much better at framing pitches this year. According to StatCorner, Gomes has been 12 runs above average at framing pitches this year, 19 runs better than Santana. To investigate this difference, I used Jon Roegele’s strike zone equation to estimate a strike zone based on the actual calls made by umpires. I altered the equation slightly to select pitches close to the edge of the zone. Here are all the pitches thrown to Gomes and Santana that were out of the zone but close to the edge. Called strikes are the black dots, called balls are the red dots.
We can see that with Gomes behind the plate, Indians pitchers get many more called strikes, especially low in the zone. When we narrow the pitches shown above down to just pitches between 1.2 ft and 1.6 ft off the ground, Gomes gets the strike call 32.7% of the time while Santana gets the call just 10.8% of the time. Getting the low strike call is very important for all pitchers. You can’t strike guys out if they don’t have to chase low pitches, and you can’t force ground balls if batter can take everything at the knees. After over 3 years of not getting favorable calls the Tribe’s pitching staff finally has a friend in Gomes.
That difference on pitches low in the zone persists when we look at pitches that were in the strike zone yet called a ball. In the graphs below, called strikes are the red dots and called balls are the black dots.
Santana struggles on pitches low in the zone and pitches to his glove hand side. Any way you slice it, Gomes has been able to do a much better job influencing the umpires this year. Since there is no Pitch F/X the minor leagues, we don’t have anything to compare Gomes’ framing stats to, but they’ve been a pleasant addition. It’s probably not a stretch to say that part of the Tribe’s pitching staff’s outstanding second half performance is due to pitching to Gomes more often.
I’ve enjoyed watching Gomes get the majority of playing time behind the plate this year and while it’s hard to imagine him continuing to hit as well as he’s hitting, if he can combine above average power with his seemingly elite ability to throw out base stealers and frame pitches, he can be a integral piece of a playoff-caliber team.