Yan Gomes was a revelation for the Indians in 2013. He began the year in Columbus because Lou Marson was blocking him, but by the end of the year he'd become one of the most important players on the team, taking over as the primary catcher down the stretch. He's still making the MLB minimum (~$500,000), giving the Tribe tremendous bang for their buck, which is obviously important for a team whose payroll will again be a lot closer to the league's bottom than its top in 2014.
Gomes' defense was among the best by any backstop in baseball. He didn't let many pitches get by him, he threw out 41% of attempted base thieves in 2013 (2nd in the American League), and made 65 assists, the most per-inning by any catcher in the league (min. 600 innings). If you prefer newer metrics, Gomes also led the AL in Total Defensive Runs Saved, and (on a per-inning basis) the defensive component of both the FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference versions of WAR.
I looked at the seven catchers in 2012 who were in the same ballpark as Gomes was this season (in defensive fWAR), and found that six of them were above average again in 2013 (Bobby Wilson didn't play in MLB this year). Six of the top ten in assists by a catcher in 2012 were in the top ten again in 2013. I wouldn't claim any of that's particularly scientific, but it seems like mild evidence catcher defense is relatively consistent. Anyway, I can't think of any clear reason to expect Gomes' defense to fall off by much next season.
That would make him a solid player, but made him special in 2013 was combining elite defense with a very good bat. Here's a quick look at his numbers at the plate:
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
There were 30 players in 2013 who spent most of their time at catcher and had 300+ plate appearances. Among those 30, Gomes' OPS+ ranked 4th, behind only Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, and Carlos Santana, who are the three best-hitting catchers of the last five years. Is that offensive production as sustainable as his defense?
Batting average on ball in play (BABIP), walk rate (BB%), and isolated power (ISO), are three important underlying factors that go into more commonly known metrics such as batting average, OBP, and SLG. Let's look at Gomes' 2013 production and minor league numbers in each of those three areas in order to assess what we might see from him in 2014.
Each plate appearance ends one of four ways: a walk, a strikeout, a home run, or a ball hit into play. BABIP removes the first three outcomes from the equation and looks at a player's batting average on only the balls hit into the field of play. Studies show there's a large amount of luck in a given player's year-to-year changes, so if you see someone with a particularly high BABIP one year, there's a good chance it's going to fall off a lot the next season (taking other rate stats with it).
Gomes' BABIP in 2013 was .342, AL average was .298, and Gomes placed in the top 10% of all AL hitters with 300+ PA. League average is not necessarily a good comparison point though, because different players do have different norms (fast players, for example, tend to have high BABIPs). This quick-and-dirty study was submitted in the comments Sunday night (by YoDaddyWags):
YDW would be among the first to point out that those figures to not constitue a rigorous study, but they're legitimate data points, and if Gomes isn't league average in BABIP, this points to him being above average, rather than below it. I don't want this 'study' to be overly-favorable to Gomes, so I'll split the difference between the number YDW came up with and league average, which puts Gomes at a .309 BABIP.
Gomes walk rate in 2013 was 5.6%. League average in the AL was 8.1%, so Gomes was noticeably below average, placing in just the 19th percentile among AL hitters with 300+ plate appearances. There were 47 players with 300+ PA and a walk rate worse than 7.0%, Gomes' 133 OPS+ easily bested the rest of that crowd (Shane Victorino was a distant 2nd with an OPS+ of 119). Of the AL's top 20 in OPS+, Adrian Beltre was the only other hitter to join Gomes in the league's bottom half of walk rate. For MLB hitters, There are many ways to skin a cat, but most of them involve drawing walks at a better than average rate.
47.0% of all pitches to Gomes in 2013 were in the strike zone, which is a high rate (AL average was 44.6%), so to some extent he was challenged more often than the average hitter, but he also swung at 34.5% of outside the strike zone pitches he saw, well above the AL average (30.5%), which profiles him as a free swinger. Gomes' never had strong walk rates in the minors either, so it's unlikely he's going to suddenly develop Carlos Santana's patience. His walk rate did improve in his second season at Triple-A though, and in 2013 his walk rate was higher in the second half (6.0%) than the first (5.0%), so I think he could see a small rise in this metric come 2014, but probably not to anything higher than 7.0% or so, still below average.
Isolated power is slugging percentage minus batting average, telling you how many extra bases a player had per at bat. Gomes was at .188 in 2013. The AL average was .149, and among 140 AL player with 300+ PA, Gomes ranked 27th (one spot ahead of Santana for the team lead). Here are Gomes' ISO figures for the level he spent the most time at each year:
2010: .215 (High-A)
2011: .214 (Double-A)
2012: .230 (Triple-A)
Some drop off upon reaching MLB is to be expected, but power is also something that tends to develop with age, and many players see it increase when they arrive in the Majors, because their body is more developed. Gomes seems to have had all along, and is 26 years old, just about the ideal age for a player's power. Some year-to-year fluctuation is to be expected, but I don't think we should expect Gomes' ISO to fall off the cliff in 2014. Above-average numbers can generally be expected to decline a bit though, so I'm going to predict a 10% dip in Gomes' ISO, moving it to .169.
Putting it all together:
So, what if we make those adjustments to Gomes' 2013 numbers, dropping his BABIP to .309 (the in between point of AL average and what Gomes' minor league BABIP might lead us to predict), boosting his walk rate from 5.6% to 6.6%, and docking his isolated power by 10%, what kind of numbers do we get?
If you think any of the adjustments I made were unfair or unlikely, you can certainly adjust your own 'projections' accordingly, but I feel pretty good about my back-of-the-napkin methodology. I think the adjustments I made are realistic, which means the batting line just above is too. That's not tremendous offense, but it's good. The 2013 Indian it's closest to is Nick Swisher (.246/.341/.423), and his OPS+ was 117, which would drop Gomes from 'elite' among catchers, but keep him in the top ten.
I think Gomes is the real deal, and will be one of the Indians' best players in 2014.
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- Joe Wendle and Cody Anderson named Indians top minor leaguers of 2013