“Try and catch the wind”
Yan Gomes walked by, and an Indians official said, “There goes our starting catcher.”
Indeed, the transition is complete. Gomes has started at catcher in 22 of the Indians’ last 36 games. Publicly, Terry Francona says what you’d expect him to say, but the proof is in the pudding – or, more accurately, the lineup card – and it says Gomes has graduated from the “Goon Squad” and essentially supplanted Carlos Santana behind the plate.
As far as compelling storylines within the Indians’ 2013 season are concerned, this strikes me as the most meaningful in both the short- and long-term view. As far back as May, members of the club were privately acknowledging that the Indians were simply a better team with Gomes behind the plate. At the time, though, it was hard to know how Gomes’ production would hold up to the weight of a larger sample.
Well, 251 plate appearances is a pretty sizable sample. Within that sample, Gomes has hit .303/.355/.518. Francona’s trust is such that when the Indians opened a pivotal three-game set against the Royals on Monday night with a tough right-hander – Ervin Santana – on the mound, Gomes got the green light. Sure enough, he made the most of it, throwing out two would-be base stealers and launching a solo homer (his 10th of the season) in the fifth. And Santana, in the DH spot, made the most of it, too, with his seventh-inning pole poke.
The Indians won, 4-3, and it’s worth wondering if the result would have been the same had the lineup been otherwise.
The numbers speak for themselves: With Santana behind the dish, Tribe pitchers have a 4.13 ERA, opposing baserunners are thrown out just 15.5 percent of the time (9 of 58) and the Tribe is 41-38. With Gomes, it’s a 3.68 ERA, a 46.9 percent (15 of 32) caught stealing rate and a 36-26 record.
Gomes, you could argue, has been the most valuable Indians player not named Kipnis.
For the last couple years, I’ve been among those advocating for the Indians to permanently move Santana, for good of his body and his bat, with the obvious caveat that you had to have a suitable replacement option for him behind the plate. That caveat loomed large, because Lou Marson never asserted himself enough offensively to stake a real claim to the job, and catching talent that can acquit itself offensively is one of the game’s more difficult finds.
Nobody was necessarily sure the Indians had found it when they acquired Gomes and Mike Aviles in the Esmil Rogers trade last November. He had a terrific offensive season at Triple-A Las Vegas in 2012, but evaluators tend to take Pacific Coast League numbers with a grain of salt, particularly in the hitters’ dream that is Vegas’ Cashman Field. Besides, Gomes was only a part-time catcher in Vegas, and he played primarily at first-base in his 43-game rookie break-in (over four stints) with the Blue Jays, posting an uninspiring .631 OPS. With the Blue Jays, he was a man without a specific position or a clear future. With the Tribe, he is the future. Behind the plate.
Santana is the future, too. He’s signed through at least 2016. I’m sure the Indians could net a hefty haul for him if they took the bold step of making him available this winter, but I doubt they’d go in that direction. What they’ll need is for Santana to buy into the idea that a permanent position switch is best for him in the long run.
That’s a tough sell, because that Nick Swisher contract isn’t going anywhere, and the 32-year-old Swisher seems best-suited to first base at this stage in his career, particularly if you read into what the advanced metrics say about his regression in right (and, yes, the Indians are a better defensive club with Drew Stubbs in right, unquestionably). So short of moving Santana back to his original position at third (not bloody likely) or giving him the bulk of time at first over Swisher (a superior defender), you’re asking a 27-year-old to spend his prime years relegated to DH duties.
It’s a tricky one, especially if Santana is one of those players who simply struggles with the mental waiting game that comes when you’re a bat-only ballplayer. In his career, he has an .802 OPS as a catcher and .868 mark as a first baseman, but, as a DH, it’s .729. That trend extends to this season: .823 as C, .890 as 1B, .751 as DH.
The DH splits, to date, refute this, but the working theory is that if you take Santana away from the physical grind of catching and getting pinged by foul balls off the facemask or unblocked pitches in the dirt (we’ve seen that a time or two this season), you’ll get more out of his bat. With Victor Martinez, the Indians could make the argument that V-Mart’s bat was made all the more valuable by his position placement. With Santana, that argument still applies, but there’s more raw power in play, and you wonder if the Indians can tap into that power more frequently if Santana changes positions. For the longest time, the discussion was more conceptual, but Santana’s continued regression as a catcher and Gomes’ surprising emergence this season have forced the issue.
These are the kind of conversations typical of September: What have we learned from the season at hand, and how does it apply to the seasons ahead? For the Indians, this kind of discourse has been the only excitement in September in recent seasons.
But not in 2013. In 2013, the conversation takes place in the midst of a potential playoff push. And for that, the Indians have their new starting catcher to thank.