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The unlikely rise of Roberto Pérez as a member of the Indians’ core

He was there from the beginning, even if we didn’t remember him.

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MLB: Cleveland Indians at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

For a good half-decade in Cleveland, the catching center of the world was none other than Yan Gomes, standard bearer for a new kind of Indians ball club. After a collective 2013-14 where he recorded a 122 OPS+ with nearly 8 WAR, it timed nicely with the rise of a team headed for an eventual pennant. After all, they had (in some capacity) the likes of Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, José Ramírez, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco, no matter how limited the time.

Yet Gomes, of that crew, would have the most tragic fall from grace, as a home plate collision courtesy of Rajai Davis would leave him permanently stunted from his previous All Star levels, posting just a 75 OPS+ since 2015.

Luckily for the Indians, there’s a benefit to having a deep system five years ago. When we think of rebuilding teams, the traditional thought immediately comes to first overall picks, high-value trades, and top prospect development as the pipeline for success.

This logic goes against what should be the non-intuitive choice; baseball teams require the most individual, small contributions to create a winner. Even Mike Trout can only increase a replacement level team’s win total from 48 to 57, while a Tom Brady could potentially create a quarter of your wins.

Brady aside, this brings us to a lesser character that shows how each of these individual players even on the periphery matter: Roberto Pérez. Pérez was a 29th round draft pick from the Dodgers, didn’t sign, and then was drafted two years later as a 33rd rounder... by the Indians. Starting off as the backup, he cemented himself as the permanent backup after—you guessed it—Yan Gomes suffered his injury, when having a solid defensive option became more important.

He hit just .198/.296/.337 despite his breakout 2016 postseason performance, and it seemed like he would indefinitely remain in that role. Now in 2019, at 30 years-old, he has a 123 wRC+ and only two players have a higher WARP: JT Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal.

A lot of that is defense, which he has always been particularly good at with both above-average framing and a 67th percentile pop time, but obviously the offensive element is what’s staggering. “I’m trying to lay off that slider down and away,” is how he described it to The Athletic, Another way of putting it is that he’s just taking what pitchers are throwing to him... feasting on pitches pitchers would normally throw to him with those career numbers.

His subsequent barrel rate has exploded, especially for fastballs (unsurprisingly based on the previous):

So in a way that shows growth, but it could also show a possible future weakness; as pitchers tend further from the zone, the harder it becomes to use that advantage. Let’s see if that’s the case with how pitchers attack him. It seems they already adjusted, as he got one location before...

...and another few after:

As player development continues to improve, we see more Roberto Pérez-like players emerge, even if it’s odd it takes place at age 30. Nonetheless, it seems like this is a real transition and adjustment and his 86th percentile hard hit rate isn’t illusory. Even if it was, he’d have done well enough to earn him at least a Very Good catching season, which has been hard to find since Gomes.