Cleveland Indians’ Roberto Perez: From Bell’s Palsy to the Big Leagues

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Cleveland Indians catcher Roberto Perez hits a two-run home run in the eighth inning against the New York Yankees in his debut. Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy John surgeries, ACL tears, torn rotator cuffs, pulled obliques, concussions, broken bones…these are injuries fans have come to know and almost expect from players.  Catchers in particular are at risk for injury with the poundings they’ll take behind the plate. But Bell’s Palsy?  Not exactly the typical health issue you’d expect to hear plaguing a top prospect. Yet that’s exactly what Indians catcher Roberto Perez had to deal with in 2013.  At one point he couldn’t even close his left eye, and the Indians asked him if he wanted to go on the disabled list.  His response?

"“I love to play baseball, I love to catch and I love to help my team win. I knew something was wrong with my face, but I didn’t want to stop playing. I really wanted to make it to the big leagues, but I struggled last year.“They (the Indians) told me they wanted to shut me down. I told them, ‘No, I want to keep playing.’ I wanted to get called up. I wanted to help the team win.“"

Let that sink in for a minute…a right-handed batter that couldn’t close his left eye, couldn’t even blink. Asked if he wanted to stop playing, and he defiantly said no. But what about the risk of injury from not being able to see?  Be it determination or downright stupidity, Roberto Perez played on…

"“I really didn’t think about it. I just ignored it. I just wanted to keep playing. I think about it now and I should have shut it down.“This year everything has worked out. My face is better. I’m just glad to be here.”"

I don’t know about you reading this, but I can’t think of a type of player I would want more than a guy like Perez. A guy that will go out and play and give his all, sacrificing his body and health in the process. Can’t ask for much more now can you?

When 2014 started it looked as though Perez would be spending the entire year in AAA.  The Indians decided to go with Carlos Santana as the sole backup catcher to Yan Gomes. Given how Gomes and Santana performed offensively in 2013 it didn’t seem like there’d be any room for a “3rd catcher” on the roster.  Perez himself wasn’t given much of a chance by the Indians in Spring Training to make the club.  Perez was even Rule 5 Draft eligible last winter but was left unprotected by the Indians and never seemed in any real danger of being selected (and wasn’t).  While this didn’t mean the Indians still weren’t confident in Perez, it showed how far he stumbled with his rough 2013.  It would appear 2014 would see Perez spending a lot of time in the capital of the Buckeye State, without much hope of seeing the big league roster. However, the long baseball season tends to ruin even the best plans.

In theory having Santana as the backup catcher seemed like a smart move as it allowed Francona to have some extra roster flexibility by not having to carry a catcher only backup. However, it soon became apparent that relying on Santana to start every day at 3B (and later 1B) while also catching was not in the best interest of the club. Santana struggled while juggling multiple positions, and a concussion that landed Santana on the 7-day DL was likely the final straw. The Indians first turned to George Kottaras to help out behind the plate, and while the early returns were very good, by early summer the Indians decided it was time to turn to one of their top catching prospects in Roberto Perez.

Perez got off to a hot start in AAA, batting a blistering .409 with 4 HR and a 1.246 OPS in the month of April. While he cooled off some after that, through the first week of July Perez was sporting a .305/.405/.517 triple slash with 8 HR and 20 extra base hits in 53 games. He was elected to the AAA All-Star game; however, before he was able to play in that game the Indians added him to the big league roster on July 8th. Perez made his debut on July 10th and made it one to remember with an RBI single and Home Run versus the New York Yankees.

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Overall Roberto Perez had a modest offensive rookie stint, batting .271 with a .311 OBP and .676 OPS.   Not exactly eye-popping numbers; however, where Perez really shined was on defense, a trait that has been his main calling card since joining the Indians’ organization back in 2008.  From 2009 thru 2012 Perez threw out 38% of would be base stealers, and at the big league level this season he threw out 36% of would be base stealers. The league average was just 27%.  While many question the validity of advanced metrics, particularly with catchers, Perez nevertheless posted a +6 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in a mere 29 games.  Small sample size for sure but results and the eye test agree that Perez is a very good defensive catcher.

So what does the future hold for Perez?

Perez should open 2015 as the backup to catcher Yan Gomes. How much playing time he will see will be something to watch. Given his strong defense the Tribe could be afforded the luxury of resting Gomes (a Gold Glove finalist) without fear of a drop=off defensively. On the other hand given Perez’s strong defense and ability to hold his own with the bat, could he be a potential trade candidate this winter?  Good, young catchers are valuable assets in today’s game. Indians will be in no hurry to move Perez but do not be surprised if his name comes up in trade rumors this winter.  In any case, fact remains that the Indians have not one but two big league catchers on their current big league roster, neither of which are named Carlos Santana, a statement that would have been ludicrous a mere 20 months ago.

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