In November, the Indians dealt their 2018 All-Star catcher Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals for prospects. In turn, backup catcher Roberto Perez became the new starter. The same Roberto Perez that accumulated 0.1 fWAR with a wRC+ of 40 in 2018 had become the starting catcher on a major league team. The move obviously was not because the Indians thought Perez would win them more games behind the plate, given that Gomes posted an fWAR of 2.5 in 2018 in comparison to Perez’s 0.1, albeit in substantially less innings. The move saved the Indians seven million dollars, and cutting payroll was a common theme in the offseason for Cleveland. However, what made this move different could not have been foreseen in November. It may be too early to say that the Indians accidentally made an upgrade at the catcher position, but it is unlikely at this point that they will see a downgrade.
As previously mentioned, Yan Gomes accumulated 2.5 fWAR last season as Cleveland’s starting catcher. Perez, his replacement, is on pace for roughly 2.9 fWAR while on pace to play in almost exactly as many games in which Gomes played in 2018. In addition, Perez has been recently heating up. He was named the catcher of the Team of the Month for the month of June. His OPS has skyrocketed over the month, as it went from .724 on May 31st to .809 on June 30th, after peaking at .843. That .809 mark at the end of the month is nearly 50 points higher than what his predecessor Yan Gomes had in 2018. Offense, especially at the catcher position, is only half the battle. For Perez, defense was never the issue with putting him in the lineup. As the backup catcher in 2018, Perez equaled the amount of defensive runs saved that Gomes had as the starter, with 4. Now as the starter, Perez has already accumulated 9 DRS, and the All-Star break hasn’t even occurred yet. His numbers also stack up well against the rest of the league. He currently ranks eighth among catchers with 200 plate appearances or more in fWAR. That is not exactly phenomenal, but we’re talking about a guy who had 0.1 fWAR in all of 2018, and is now outperforming his predecessor. If we isolate his defensive play behind the plate, Perez really shines. His 9 DRS already this season currently rank third among qualified catchers, behind only Austin Hedges of the Padres and J.T. Realmuto of the Marlins. Perez has been as good as the Indians could have hoped, and he isn’t even the only part to evaluate in this trade.
The trade made in the offseason dealt Gomes to Washington and made Perez the starting catcher. That is the immediate effect of this move that can be seen in 2019 at the major league level. However, while the main point of the deal was to save Cleveland some cash, minor league outfielder Daniel Johnson also came over in the trade. Johnson, in both AA Akron and AAA Columbus this season, has performed quite well. In almost the same amount of games in AA as AAA (39 games in Akron, 33 games in Columbus), Johnson has slashed .270/.355/.529, good for an OPS of .884. This performance was good enough to give him a spot in the All Star Futures Game in Cleveland. If all goes well, it is very possible that Johnson can become a contributor for the Indians at the major league level. He almost certainly will not see a major league field in 2019, but he could get the call in the near future after. At the time, it seemed to be a near worthless return for the All-Star catcher, but Daniel Johnson is moving up the ranks of the Indians farm system quicker than most thought.
Just to be clear, this trade was an anomaly of Indians offseason moves. The thought behind the deal was the same as other offseason transactions, but the result was not. Indians upper management was entirely prepared for this move to make them worse in 2019, and just about everybody agreed with that. Is it possible that the team liked the progress Perez was making, foresaw this level of production from him, and made the trade to allow him to be the starter? Yes, but if we compare it to the motives and results of other behavior, it is more reasonable to think this is not the case. It is more likely that Cleveland just got lucky with Perez’s breaking out and Johnson’s promising performance in the minors, all while saving seven million dollars. The thought behind the trade for Cleveland is important for the big picture, because this is how the team is being operated. However, for this trade, and only this trade, the important part is that this deal has made the Indians a better team. Obviously, other factors outside of the catching position, including the Indians’ choice to not spend the money they saved in the deal, have led to a major regression from 2018.
By no stretch has Roberto Perez has been otherworldly in 2019. By most metrics he has been a Top Ten but not Top Five catcher this season. With the current depth of the position in baseball that obviously is not great, but it is also about as much as the Indians, or anyone, could have wanted out of Perez this season. Many people, including me, saw the catcher position as a major hole in this team coming into 2019. At the very least, Perez has completely proved that notion wrong with his play. The team is not performing well, but it is clear that Perez is not the problem. In the current state of the catcher position, a catcher that provides positive value and, at least in 2019, is Top Ten in the league, is certainly good enough. If Perez can continue to play at this level, this front office looks incredibly smart for making this move. Unfortunately for them, just about everything else they have done will most likely overshadow this bright spot.
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