Cleveland Indians: Recent catching play for Tribe shows serious problem

Manager Terry Francona #77 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates with catcher Austin Hedges #17 (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Manager Terry Francona #77 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates with catcher Austin Hedges #17 (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /
Roberto Perez, Cleveland Indians
Roberto Perez #55 of the Cleveland Indians (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /

Recent catching play for Cleveland Indians shows serious problem

Cleveland Indians catcher René Rivera tracked a breaking pitch from Seattle’s Rafael Montero. It started in near his hands, and the journeyman catcher — now with his 10th major league team — loaded and swung. Montero had left the slider just high enough for Rivera to drive it high into the afternoon Cleveland sky.

On the broadcast, Matt Underwood initially thought it was gone, but adjusted once he saw the ball carom off the wall. Josh Naylor scored, Bobby Bradley scored. Cleveland began the inning down 4-1, but that hit sent the game to extra innings, where the Tribe would eventually notch the win.

Alright, that was fun, magical, even. Watching Rivera, 37, who hasn’t been worth more than one win since 2014 — he finished the season with a 2.7 WAR — slap that extra base hit was really fun. It’s what baseball is all about. No matter who, when or where, someone can always come through with a clutch hit. But that “awesome” factor wears off after a few days once you realize Rivera is currently one of two catchers on roster of the Cleveland Indians.

And the other one? Well, the technical starter once Roberto Perez went down has been Austin Hedges, who was hit in the head by a pitch on Friday. Perez isn’t slated to come back for a while. So for more than a month — and what will end up being a large part of the season — Cleveland will be without their main guy. If Cleveland wants to continue this success, they have to address their catching problem immediately.

Perez finished 2020 as the 11th-best catcher at framing, per Baseball Savant, better than 80% of the league. He had the 14th-quickest pop time in 2019, and averaged catching 0.02 more runners at second than he allowed stolen bases. The defensive statistics have been undeniable, and have been the main reason why the front office of the Cleveland Indians is okay with a career .209 hitter in the lineup most days.

Austin Hedges hasn’t worked out in Cleveland since coming over in the Mike Clevenger trade, with his WOBA declining and strikeout percentage increasing, per Baseball Savant. He was never meant to be a starter. Since Perez’s injury thrusted him from the bench, he’s only had two multi-hit games and has struck out 27 times. The story behind the plate has been no different. He had a career-high strike rate of 53.6% in 2019. But that number has since declined to 47.8%.

Perez is commanding behind the plate and has the experience as a leader that no other backstop in the organization possesses. His injury clearly left a huge hole behind the plate, but the team seems content with biding their time until Perez comes back, then hoping that he can return to his regular self.

This approach is flawed for a number of reasons. And no, this isn’t MLB The Show where the team can just pluck a veteran catcher off the free agency wire and plug him in. It’s an option, and it’d be hard to tell me Matt Wieters, even at 35 and six years removed from his last All Star season, wouldn’t be somewhat of a stop-gap until Perez’s return. But I get it, there’s real people involved. He’d need to be added to the 40-man roster, sent to the minors for a while, and a major league start might not happen for a few weeks. For all those reasons, the free agency option is out.

Unfortunately, No. 3 prospect Bo Naylor isn’t taking the Columbus-to-Cleveland Greyhound bus anytime soon, and there’s no other catchers listed on the Tribe’s 40-man roster. That means a move to bring up Gavin Collins or veteran Ryan Lavarnway — both splitting time as the Clippers’ starting catchers — would need a corresponding move. It’d be a game of “Name that Middle Reliever ” when choosing who to DFA, all to provide a defensive band aid until Perez returns.

But what happens when Hedges needs to miss a day or gets injured, like just recently when he’s been day-to-day? Major league clubs shouldn’t just carry two healthy catchers on their 40-man. The front office should’ve taken Perez’s injury in stride, promoted a catcher (my choice would’ve been Lavarnway) and moved on without the headache. Hedge’s close call is a painful reminder of how risky the two-catcher approach is.

With the current conundrum aside, there’s also the reality of Perez’s $7 million team option for 2022. After a cold start at the plate and a long stint on the IL, how inclined will the club be to pick up the expensive (for the Dolan’s) contract? They won’t overpay via trade for a prime trade candidate like the Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras, but they need to recognize that there is no viable starting option until Bo Naylor arrives, which may be as many as three years away.

It’s a problem, and one many Cleveland fans should hope the team addresses at the deadline. Minor moves during the summer can turn into huge successes in the postseason (see Coco Crisp in 2016). But for now, that backstop position is nothing more than a glaring problem.

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