Following in the footsteps of the Rangers with Rougned Odor, Cleveland has decided to lock up one of its players a year before he's even arbitration eligible. On Sunday, Roberto Pérez agreed to a four-year extension worth a total of $9 million. The deal also includes two team option years in 2021 and 2022 worth $5.5 million and $7 million, respectively. The guaranteed years buy out his remaining pre-arbitration year and his three arbitration years. Unlike with Odor, Roberto Pérez will be making the minimum in his first year of his extension.
It’s unusual to lock up a backup catcher who has never started more than 61 games in a season. Furthermore, after the season that Cleveland’s catchers had in 2016, I am sure that nobody was expecting any of them to be getting more money. They were historically bad last year, which is why the team's failed attempt to trade for Jonathan Lucroy was so disappointing. Cleveland’s catchers combined for an abysmal 46 wRC+ in 2016. The second-worst catchers were those on the Padres, who were much better with a 61 wRC+.
Pérez himself hit a paltry .183/.285/.294 in 2016. However, that came with a .229 BABIP in only 184 PA. He has never gotten consistent playing time since debuting in 2014, so it is hard to assess his true talent. Steamer projects him at .222/.315/.351 for 2017, which is very close to his career line of .220/.318/.355. An 81 wRC+ is not bad from a backup catcher.
It's worth noting, though, that Pérez had a flukishly good year in 2015 with a 108 wRC+. I say flukish because he had a 21.2 percent HR/FB ratio. Ryan Romano, one of the managing editors here at Beyond the Box score, made a good argument for why Cleveland should have sold high on him after that season.
As Romano noted, Pérez has excellent plate discipline. His career 12.1 percent walk rate is tied with new teammate Edwin Encarnación for 32nd in baseball among hitters with at least 500 PA since he debuted in 2014. He ranks sixth among catchers who meet that same criteria. Part of how he accomplishes this is by doing an excellent job at not swinging at pitches outside the zone. Using the same criteria again, Pérez’s 21.4 percent O-Swing rate ranks as the 10th-lowest in baseball. The league average over that time is roughly 30 percent.
What should come as no surprise about a catcher from Puerto Rico (and this is coming from a fellow boricua), Pérez is a good defensive catcher. Besides the conventional aspects of catching, he is also skilled at
making fools out of the umpires pitch-framing. He ranked in the top ten in 2016 at called strikes above average (CSAA), per Baseball Prospectus. He has quite the arm, too, with a career 43 percent caught stealing rate.
As weird as it is to hand an extension to a backup catcher, it is for so little money that there is almost no downside to it. Former FanGraphs prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel once mentioned the untapped potential in Pérez’s bat, and how Cleveland believes he could be an everyday player. With this extension, it's clear that the Cleveland front office still believers this.
In 2016, Pérez was worth 1.1 WARP, which factors in his pitch-framing skills. That was in only 61 games, which is pretty impressive given how poorly he hit. If Yan Gomes continues to be a cipher on offense, it will open the door for Pérez to play every day. It is hard to project how well a backup catcher will perform in a starting role, but if he's worth even 1 WARP, that is more than enough for what he is getting paid. The downside would be that a contending team needs more than that from their catcher, regardless of what it's paying him.
If Cleveland is right about Pérez, and he becomes a 2-3 WARP catcher or better, they will look like geniuses. Even if he is below-average for the duration of the deal, there is so little money involved that it practically doesn’t matter. A small market team like Cleveland needs to be taking risks like this, though $9 million over four years is barely any risk at all.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.