The Obvious, Hidden Value of Roberto Perez

PerezBy: August Fagerstrom / @AugustF_MLB

When an athlete suffers a serious injury, I think the first thing we should do is take a moment to reflect.

Take a moment to reflect simply on the fragility of life and the human body. On all the hours of hard work that athlete has dedicated towards honing his or her craft, and how many of those hours will be erased by the injury. On what kind of consequences it might have on the future and livelihood of that athlete and his or her family, and the emotions they all might be feeling at the time of the injury. On what the equivalent of a torn ACL for an athlete might be for you at your job, and the effect it would have on you as a person.

At the very least, it’s an exercise in human compassion that can’t hurt, and it’s certainly more productive than worrying about your fantasy baseball team.

That being said, after an appropriate amount of time has passed, it’s still reasonable to worry about your fantasy team (maybe you’ve got money invested in it) and it’s still reasonable to wonder about the implications of that injury on your favorite real-life team (you’ve got time and emotion invested in it).

By now, we’ve had ample time to digest and come to terms with Yan Gomes’ injury, and it stinks for all parties involved. But even though it stinks, the injury, as is often the case with bad things in life, comes with a silver lining if you look hard enough.

The silver lining, for Roberto Perez, is that he now gets a chance to live out his dream and be an everyday player at the Major League level. The silver lining, for the rest of us, is that we get a chance to see what that looks like. The other silver lining is that it might not be so bad for the Tribe.

You’re familiar with Perez’s reputation behind the plate by now. Several years back, even before he he reached the Triple-A level, scouts said things like this:

“Every pitcher in the organization who I ask about throwing to Roberto raves about the experience, talking about how much they enjoy it when he’s behind the plate. Perez has no weaknesses behind the plate, doing everything you’d expect out of a Gold Glove catcher.”

Now that he’s at the Major League level, his coaches are saying things like this:

“He’s a backup here because we have Yan Gomes,” said Sandy Alomar Jr., the Tribe’s first-base coach and a former Major League catcher. “Anywhere else, he could start.”

I say obvious in the title because we all know it’s there. I say hidden because a catcher’s craft behind the plate is still something that’s easy to miss in real-time, and the magnitude of its value is something that’s underrated by the casual fan. Before Tuesday’s game against the White Sox, Trevor Bauer called it a “valuable skill that’s very overlooked by the general public.” Given that Roberto Perez will be this team’s everyday catcher for the next six-to-eight weeks, this all seems like something that warrants further examination.

First, some numbers, for context. For the better part of the last decade, some of baseball’s brightest minds have dedicated their working lives to accurately quantify pitch framing. They’ve come a long way. One of the pioneers of the subject, Mike Fast, then of Baseball Prospectus, quickly got scooped up to work for the Houston Astros once they saw his work. Others have followed a similar path. These guys know what they’re doing, is the point.

The most recent update in measuring pitch framing, published by Jonathan Judge, Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks, can be found here. Included, for the first time, was Minor League framing. Where did Perez rank?

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 4.34.51 PM

Among the best. In limited time at the Major League level, Perez’s framing, prorated to something like a full season’s worth of work, has also graded out around +15 runs above average. We have a good idea of what Perez is worth in this regard, and it’s worth quite a bit.

Maybe you have a difficult time contextualizing what “15 runs” — or about 1.5 WAR — really means over the course of a season. If it helps, 15 runs is what Alex Gordon was worth at the plate last season. It’s what Andrelton Simmons was worth with the glove. It’s what Billy Hamilton and Mike Trout were worth on the bases, combined. In other words, a lot.

In Bauer’s first start of the season, he struck out 11 batters. Perez was behind the dish. Six of those 11 strikeouts were called. Ask Bauer, and he’ll tell you he got some help.

“Roberto definitely got me a couple,” Bauer said. “When you get to two strikes, that’s probably the biggest difference maker when you have a good framer. You can throw a cutter a couple inches off the plate — a really good pitcher’s pitch, people aren’t going to be able to do much with it — and it’s a ball. But, if the guy catches it right, sometimes it’s a strike.”

That sounds a lot like what this looks like:

Perez1

That’s a huge pitch. It’s a pitch that, according to PITCHf/x, was outside the strike zone. With a poor receiver, that’s a leadoff walk. With Perez, the most dangerous hitter in the White Sox lineup — Jose Abreu — has to go grab some bench.

Another strike three on a ball outside the PITCHf/x strike zone:

Perez2

A low pitch, that got Bauer ahead 0-2 on George Springer:

Perez3

This is just two games, and these aren’t even all the examples I could show. Gaining a sense of how this can add up to be worth so much over the course of a season?

It might help illuminate how sound Perez’s technique is by seeing a poor framer in action. If you watched the Indians at all before the Gomes/Perez era, you’ve already seen it. Carlos Santana, Lou Marson and Kelly Shoppach all routinely graded among the league’s worst pitch framers.

Talk to Perez about his technique and you hear him stress things like staying “under the ball.”

“There are different drills we do to work on it,” Perez said. “Instead of catching a pitch, they’ll throw me balls low and I barehand them. I just try to go under the ball and stay soft. I try not to panic. That’s it. You have to trust your hands sometimes.”

That last .gif, against Springer, is a great example of receiving from under the ball.

The following, by Santana, is not:

Santana2

That’s a pitch well within the PITCHf/x strike zone that Santana caught from the top and jabbed down, out of the zone, for a ball. It should have been strike three.

You hear Perez talk about soft hands and staying relaxed. A sudden jerk of the head is sometimes all it takes to subconsciously convince an umpire that a pitch missed its spot for a ball. Watch Perez, and his head always stays still. It’s most evident in the middle of the series of three Perez .gifs above.

With Santana, you see the opposite of relaxed, or soft:

Santana1

Comparing the two is like night and day.

And this isn’t the only part of Perez’s game that is elite, defensively. Whip up a quick leaderboard of all catchers who have caught at least 250 innings since the start of last year and put everyone’s numbers on a per-inning scale, and you’ll find Perez as the league’s best catcher at blocking balls in the dirt:

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 5.23.09 PM

That’s Perez, then the guy who is so good at blocking pitches his only job is to catch R.A. Dickey, then the consensus best defensive catcher in baseball, and then the field.

You’ll also find Perez in the top three catchers at controlling the run game:

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 5.25.38 PM

Surely, we’re dealing with some sample size issues here, but catcher stats stabilize fairly quickly, given that they’re involved in every pitch, and the point here isn’t to definitively rank Perez in each category, but that it’s rare to see a catcher be elite in all three main areas of defense, as all signs point to Perez being. Even Gomes is just a scratch pitch blocker, and whatever edge Gomes might have with the arm (and it’s not clear there is one — they have the same career CS%), Perez likely makes up with his framing abilities (although Gomes is a plus framer, too).

Are the Indians going to miss Gomes’ bat in the lineup? Of course. Who wouldn’t? But the most important job for a catcher isn’t to hit. Ask any team, and they’d rather have the glove-first catcher who can’t hit over the bat-first catcher who can’t receive. If that weren’t true, Wilin Rosario would still have a job and Jose Molina wouldn’t have had a 16-year career.

If this were an Indians team of years past, with a guy like Marson or Shoppach as the backup catcher, yeah, they’d probably be hurt more substantially if they lost a guy like Gomes for eight weeks. Credit the organization for changing course and correctly valuing guys like Perez.

At the very least, the pitching staff isn’t going to lose a beat with Perez behind the dish. They might even be a little better off, thanks to slightly fewer passed balls. And if Perez can hit anything like the 2014 Triple-A version of himself — y’know, the one that wasn’t dealing with facial paralysis — the difference between him and Gomes over the course of an eight week stretch is probably smaller than you think. Might not even be a win.

It’s not going to be so bad, Tribe fans. Indians’ pitchers are in good hands. Literally.

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