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Fixing Yan Gomes

The world sure changed for Yan Gomes on April 11, 2015.

On that night, early in the 2015 season, the then-Detroit Tigers outfielder Rajai Davis slid into home. That phrase alone sounds innocent enough, but it gets variably more complicated when you add Yan Gomes' right leg to the equation.

In a tight 6-5 game with the bases loaded and one-out, and Davis on third, J.D. Martinez hit a slow roller to first baseman Carlos Santana. It's important to note that it was slow, because it took the double play ball out of the equation for Santana, who is rough at the position defensively anyways. Santana charged the ball, realized he couldn't make the double play, and threw the ball home for the force out.

You have to love the nuances of baseball. If the ball was hit a little harder, or had there been a better defensive first baseman, who knows what happens. Unfortunately, in this game of life, the perfect storm of bad was about to collide in the form of a 5'9" future Cleveland Indians' outfielder.

The ball reached Gomes glove a split second before the Davis-slide, and the Tigers' outfielder clipped Gomes' right leg (a clean baseball slide, by the way) as it was planted firmly on the plate. Gomes collapsed under his weight in one of those horrific-looking, leg-fold-under plays that make you cringe just thinking about it (admit it, you just cringed). EHC's Adam Burke was there, and while this isn't his exact quote, it went something like this: "He's going to be out for a long time."

It turns out that his MCL was sprained, and instead of the diagnosis being 9-12 months because of tears, it was 6-8 weeks because of the sprain. Of course, pondering any sort of knee ligament injury for a position that requires you to crouch on a daily basis made this diagnosis seem almost preposterous.

But, 42-days later, exactly six weeks to the day, there was Gomes, behind the plate once again for your Cleveland Indians. I'm not going to sit here and over-criticize the move, because it's been done ad nauseam over the past 13 months. But, it's a legitimate question, based on his overall performance since May of 2015, and especially during the 2016 season.

The numbers offensively? In the 157 games he's played since (this article was written prior to Sunday's game), Gomes's slash is .208/.244/.368/.612, with 21 walks, 167 K's, 31 doubles, 20 homers and 77 RBI. While his .251 BABIP in those 157 games would suggest an improvement looming in the future, the eye test spells out something vastly different. I mean, his 2016 BABIP is a ludicrous .193. How can he not improve? I'll get to that in a second.

Defensively, Gomes looks every bit as athletic as he has in past years, but if you look deeper, there are some concerns there as well. Prior to his injury in 2015, Gomes was considered one of the best catchers in all of baseball in nearly every aspect. I still think that he calls a great game, has the trust of his rotation, and has a fantastic arm. But there are clearly some diminishing skills.

In 2013 and 2014, Gomes was one of the best framers behind the plate based on all the varied ways of measuring it. Framing is quite simply making pitches outside the strike zone, look like strikes. Gomes used to be exceptional at the skill, but since his injury, he's been average, to below average.

In 2015, the year of Gomes injury, both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus ranked Gomes not only one of the worst framers in all of baseball (he was top ten in his first two seasons), but he was the worst framer of any of the Indians' catchers that year. While Roberto Perez isn't a surprise, perhaps the fact that Adam Moore and Brett Hayes were better in there short stints really says it all.

Gomes continued to struggle framing this season, currently ranking 75th out of the 88 catchers that have caught games, and 67th out of the 90 catchers measured on StatCorner.

(Just to put that in perspective, former Indians prospect Tony Wolters, recently signed by the Colorado Rockies, made the jump to the big leagues this year from Double-A, and is currently 8th on the BP list, and 6th on the SC list. While I'm not going to get into the semantics of pitch-framing in this piece, I'll just say that it helps explain how important defense in general, and framing in particular, are important. Wolters is hitting .215, with one homer this year as the Rockies back-up.)

Is the framing a sign in-and-of-itself? Absolutely. It doesn't mean that Gomes is bad defensively, but it's another fairly significant negative to a player that's arguably the worst offensive player in baseball right now. The fact that Gomes and Wolters are comparable overall based on 2016 stats really says it all, even keeping in mind that Wolters is a defensive back-up for Colorado right now.

Offensively, Gomes looks lost absolutely lost at the plate. The former middle-of-the order slugger has turned into an offensive black hole. If you take a closer look at his .193 BABIP, there are cursory warning signs that point to something more than just dumb luck.

He's just not making good contact.

His line drive rate is down 10% from last year, while his fly ball percentage is up 5%. Almost half of his batted balls are of the fly ball variety, and that's never a good thing.

While he's not swinging at MORE pitches outside the zone (38.4% of his swings are outside the zone, while his career average is 36%), he's making considerably less contact on those pitches than in the past (60.6% in 2016, vs. 65% career).

Is it because of the injury? Is it because of poor eyesight? Is he just lost?

If you look at Gomes' swing, it doesn't look tremendously different than the 2014 swing.

  Gomes--2014  
  Gomes--June 2016  
You can see that in 2014, Gomes has the bat more forward and upright, compared to his 2016, and while I'd love to make this discussion simple, I decided to roll through some footage of Gomes in other at bats in 2016. That swing, against the Blue Jays, was on July 3rd, and resulted in an RBI single. I went back to the beginning of the year, and found this interesting at bat, against David Price.

Gomes--April 2016
You can see here, Gomes is vastly more upright, with the bat cocked on his shoulder. I only mention this because it's clear that Gomes is searching through swings.

Here's another swing, later in April.

Gomes--Late April 2016
Here, you can see that the bat is slightly off the shoulder, and he's slightly more crouched, and while it's similar to the swing in earlier April, it's equally clear that he's moving slightly earlier. Perhaps it's because of the righty, or perhaps he's trying to get the bat through the ball quicker.

Who knows.

This isn't supposed to be an in-depth look at the intricacies of a swing. Obviously, we have two righties and two lefties, and we have different points in the delivery. This can cause a slight variance in stance. My point here is that within a three month time frame, you have a much more upright Gomes, moving towards a much more crouched Gomes, with different load points for each swing.

Is his swing longer? Perhaps, but it doesn't look like it's something that should be causing a sub-.200 BABIP.

He just looks lost.

Could it be the eyesight? Burning River Baseball's Joe Coblitz noted Yan Gomes glasses in a solid piece this past June. We all remember Jhonny Peralta's struggles, and here's a really nice piece written by Will Carroll that discusses Peralta's improved numbers. While it's clear that Gomes shifted to contacts this year, then the glasses, and now a conglomerate of both, I wanted to take a look at some catchers who have had LASIK surgery in year's past, like Peralta, to see if there's any sort of dramatic difference.

Brian McCann had the surgery after the 2007 season, when he was 24-years old. When he was 22 in 2006, he finished 117 out of 118 for pitch framing, and followed that up in 2007 by finishing 21st. After the Lasik, McCann finished in the top two of BP's pitch framing over the next five seasons, and has been lower than 12th only once since then.

It's important to note that framing for a catcher is certainly more than eyesight, since the best catcher's position their bodies to both slightly shield the umpire, and allow the glow to move in slightly, as opposed to reaching, but it is a curious leap. Some of that could have been youthful improvement, but you have to wonder how much seeing better had to do with it.

(On a sidenote, McCann's first Lasik surgery didn't take. He began having blurred vision in his eye during the 2009 season, went on the DL, then wore prescription glasses for the rest of the year, before having a second surgery at the end of the 2009 season.)

An even more curious case of Lasik surgery is the Nationals backstop, Wilson Ramos who has had a similar trajectory as Gomes, and the same age. He was found to have vision issues prior to this season, and had the Lasik surgery in spring, missing a week of spring training. While it's early, and a small sample size, Ramos is currently an All-Star (first time), hitting .330, with a current 7.8% BB rate (career 6.2, and hadn't been above 5.0 since 2013) and a career best 13% K rate. His o-swing% is down 8% from last year (and 5% over his career rate), and he's currently 11th in framing, according to BP.

Now Ramos had been in the top five in framing in 2013, and fourth in 2014, but both were as part-timers, and long before his eyesight became a visual issue. In 2014, he finished 79th, and in 2015, 25th. Ramos has always been a solid defender, but is having his career best season after the surgery, when eyesight was targeted as being a major part of his struggles in 2015.

Could it be vision with regards to Yan Gomes, as opposed to the injury that derailed his 2015 season, and has seemingly sent him on this downward trajectory? Could Lasik be the cure that allows him to hit the ball better, and return him to form regarding his pitch framing?

If it were only that easy.

Here's what we know: Yan Gomes simply can't hit right now, and there aren't any clear signs as to why. Did coming back to soon set him on a downward spiral that he hasn't been able to get out of, or is his vision deteriorating enough to make it harder for him to see the ball?

Maybe it's a combination of both, but whatever it is, something needs to be done, both for his sake, and for the sake of the team. While Gomes is clearly an asset behind the plate with his pitching staff, he's not near the asset he was prior to 2015. Sure, his cannon arm is rifling down runners at a 37% clip (his best since his rookie season, and 7% over league average), but can the Indians afford to have his bat in the line-up if anyone else regresses offensively? While many of his metrics are still above average defensively, his framing is declining, and his offense isn't bearable. While his contract is affordable, a much more cost-effective catcher is getting set to return in two weeks.

Perez can frame the ball better, and get on base, with defense that is as good or better than Gomes to begin with. With Chris Gimenez attaching himself to Trevor Bauer, is it time to send Gomes to the minors, or perhaps a trip to the DL, so his vision can get a legitimate fix?

It's quite the conundrum to be in, understanding that this rotation is very accustomed to Gomes, and more importantly, trust him behind the plate. While we can only assume they feel the same way regarding Perez, Gomes remains a major cog on this team. Unfortunately, he's a major cog that's playing his way out of the line-up.

In a piece written by The Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes, there's no mention of the eye issues that cropped up at the beginning of June, but one does have to wonder if the only clear way for the Indians to see Gomes in their playoff future, is if he corrects the vision that has undoubtedly effected his 2016 season, before it blurs the Indians chances at October glory.
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