Yan Gomes and Cleveland’s Luck

Who knew Yan Gomes was the key to playoff contention? When he and Mike Aviles were traded from Toronto to Cleveland for Esmil Rogers, the Jays were in the midst of a massive off-season makeover that was supposed to make them American League East contenders. They were sending two redundant bench pieces away to Cleveland — a team unlikely to chase down Detroit for the AL Central title — for a bit of pitching upside. Fast forward to today: the Jays have been out of realistic contention for months, while Cleveland currently has 20 or 30 percent chance of making the playoffs, depending on which set of odds one consults. Gomes has hit .302/.353/.513 (140 wRC+) with good defense this year, while Toronto’s J.P. Arencibia has hit .205/.241/.382 (65 wRC+) with terrible defense.
Clearly, the trade has been the difference.

Jokes aside, Gomes has played surprisingly well this season, and lately has even supplanted Carlos Santana (who has been getting starts at first and DH) as Cleveland’s primary catcher. Part of that has to do with Santana’s struggles behind the plate this year, but Gomes’ good play has also been a factor. It would be easy to say Cleveland got lucky, but every team has its share of unexpected good and bad performances.

While the trade obviously looks bad for Toronto in hindsight, enough people probably understand what a disaster J.P. Arencibia has been on both sides of the ball this season that there is no point in once again twisting the knife. Moreover, few would have seen this coming from Gomes, who actually played college ball with Arencibia at Tennessee. Even when our own Marc Hulet cautiously saw Gomes as a potential contributor upon his call-up to Toronto last season, he hardly endorsed him beyond being a possible utility bench bat who could fill at the corners and occasionally at catcher. At all of those positions, Hulet remarked, his glove was “average-at-best.”

Gomes did not exactly set the world on fire in his 111 plate appearances for the Blue Jays last year, hitting .204/.264/.367 (67 wRC+). He rarely walked, and struck out nearly 30 percent of the time. He did show a bit of power (.163 ISO), but not enough. Sure, it was a small sample, but his minor league numbers did not really show that there was a ton of potential there.

This season has not been a terribly large sample either, at just 255 plate appearances, but it has been different enough from last season to instill more confident in Gomes, while not being so different as to seem completely flukey. Gomes still does not opt for the free pass much, keeping his walk rate around six percent. One big difference has been that Gomes has addressed his issues with contact, moving it from 70 percent to over 82 percent. It is still a small overall sample, but it does show that Gomes can get the bat on the ball enough to make some things happen, and his walk rate is under 20 percent this season.

A big part of Gomes’ jump in performance is fluctuation in his BABIP — just .246 last year, this season it is up to .339. Most FanGraphs readers probably know that neither is likely representative of his true talent. While we are still talking about a small sample for all peripherals, BABIP is one of the least stable of them. What is more promising for Gomes’ present and future, along with his improved contact, is power. Both relate metrics relate to true talent in smaller samples than just about anything else. One probably should not latch onto Gomes’ .211 ISO this year as a jump in true talent — his rate of home runs on contact is actually slightly down from last season. The main difference from last year is an increased rate of doubles and triples. Nonetheless, his power is good, and if he can keep his strikeouts in the range of just below average, he can be about a roughly average hitter overall. Now, “roughly average” is a far cry from his 140 wRC+ so far this season, and maybe he is better. Maybe he is worse. Again, this is a player with less than 400 MLB plate appearances.

Still, if Gomes is “just” a league average hitter, that is more than fine for a catcher. And that, perhaps, has been one of the bigger surprises with Gomes this year. Again, part of his increased playing time at catcher lately may well be that Carlos Santana is struggling behind the plate. Part of the reason for Gomes not being seriously considered as more than a possible bench player before was his lack of ability to play a position where his bat would be good enough. One should acknowledge both the sample size issues and other difficulties with measuring catcher (or any) defense, but so far, Gomes has been excellent according to most metrics, being several runs above average. He has thrown out nearly 50 percent of the attempted steals against him. The caught stealing numbers might be inflated if runners are trying to test him more often than they should, but he has held his own behind the plate. But again, even if Gomes is just an average bat with an average glove, that is more than good enough to make him a viable every day catcher.

It is not clear that this is what Cleveland plans to do in the long term or if they should. It is an intriguing possibility, especially given the relatively small price they paid to get Gomes, who looked like an afterthoughtcoming into the season. If Gomes does end up being the long-term starting catcher for Cleveland, it should not be taken as a slam on Carlos Santana. Santana hits well enough to justify a spot at first or DH, and it is not as if he cannot play catcher at all. Santana might be just a part-time catcher, but he is still a full-time player. With Mark Reynolds gone, DH is open for Santana on days when Gomes catches. If Nick Swisher moves out to right, Santana can play first. It is a nice situation for Cleveland.

Back in August, I wrote about some of 2013’s surprisingly valuable bench pieces. It was a piece mostly inspired by another one of Cleveland’s off-season budget acquisitions, Ryan Raburn, who has been another big factor behind Cleveland’s run this year. In that post, I wrote “I could also have included Yan Gomes here.” In retrospect, I am glad I did not, since it looks like he might be more than a bench player. I doubt Cleveland saw things much differently to open the year. In that sense, they probably got lucky with Gomes. On the other hand, they obviously saw something in him when they traded for him and gave him a chance.

As for the short-term, if Cleveland was fortunate with big performances from players like Gomes and Raburn, it is not as if everything went perfectly for them this season. Mark Reynolds had a big first month then fell off of a cliff and was released. Neither of their biggest off-season signings, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, have played up to expectations. This happens with most teams. In Cleveland’s case, it adds up to a rather surprising shot at playoff relevance.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Alex Anthopolous
Alex Anthopolous