The year was 2014. Taylor Swift was running wild on the Billboard charts, Transformers was inexplicably tops at the box-office, and the state of Ohio boasted two of the best young catchers in baseball. Devin Mesoraco was being compared to Johnny Bench after blasting 25 bombs and slashing .273/.359/.534 in 440 plate appearances. His cross-state counterpart, Yan Gomes, broke out as well, smacking 21 homers with a .785 OPS and stellar defense. Then just as quickly as the hype train got started, the wheels came off, pretty much literally.
Injuries, regression, or some combination of both have ravaged the promise that Mesoraco and Gomes carried only two short years ago. That said, both players offer interesting bounce-back potential that could present decent value, especially in dynasty leagues. Let the Battle for Ohio (or at least for catchers in their late 20’s that are both coming off injury riddled seasons) begin!
Outside of his breakout 2014 season, Mesoraco has struggled to produce an average that would make him an asset in the category. However, that season’s success can be attributed in part to adjustments in his stance and approach, both of which factored in to him swinging at only 26.8 percent of pitches outside of the zone. By chasing less, he didn’t succumb to weak contact as much and made fewer soft outs. If he can carry these promising changes into 2017 and beyond, it’s definitely possible for him to retain the batting average improvement he saw in 2014.
Gomes swings at everything, which probably isn’t the best recipe for batting average success (unless you are future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero). Other than Gomes’s BABIP inflated 2013 and 2014 numbers (.342 and .326 BABIP, respectively), he has not shown any ability to consistently hit for average. Yes, he suffered from a hilariously low .189 BABIP in 2016, resulting in a paltry .167 average, but even if that number regresses closer to average, it might not be enough to make Gomes a batting average asset. Advantage: Mesoraco
This one’s pretty easy. As mentioned above, Gomes is, um, a bit of a free-swinger. Last season, Gomes swung at 56.9 percent of all pitches that he saw, a number over 10 percentage points higher than league average and tied for sixth highest in all of baseball (with at least 250 plate appearances). That list is a veritable who’s who of the low-OBP club, and Gomes fits right in. His career walk rate is 4.4 percent, which is buoyed by a patience “explosion” outlier (5.6 percent in 2013) and is likely falling as you read this.
On the other hand, Mesoraco walks sometimes, which gives him a decided advantage in this matchup. Since 2014, he has consistently (as consistent as an oft-injured slugger can be, but we’ll get to that) put up walk totals over nine percent, making him the clear pick here. Advantage: Mesoraco
Both of these guys have proven that they have some pop, and both of these guys have hit at least 20 homers in a season. The question becomes: which one can better harness that power moving forward (super-obvious question alert)?
As mentioned previously, Mesoraco made some changes in his approach heading into the 2014 season, which helped him drive more flyballs. Injuries have slowed his progress so he hasn’t been able to build on that development, but it has been there before. Gomes has always been a fly-ball hitter with a league average HR:FB rate. At the end of the day, I’ll take the guy with the better contact skills if all else is basically the same. Advantage: Mesoraco
It seems like a fool’s errand to project runs and RBI, especially in dynasty leagues, but I like to engage in a smidge of foolishness from time to time, so here we go. Mesoraco will likely have the benefit of hitting closer to the middle of the lineup, and we’ve already established that he will get on base more often than Gomes. However, the Cleveland lineup should be miles ahead of its Cincinnati counterpart, so Gomes will likely have more opportunities to drive in and potentially score runs. We’ll give Gomes a definite edge in 2017, and then a slight edge after that. Advantage: Gomes
Nope. Advantage: Push
Gomes’s nickname, “Yanimal,” sort of sounds like he made it up himself. I’m out. Conversely, as the pride of Punxsutawney, PA, Mesoraco’s monkier, “The Groundhog,” is the dopest. Bing! Advantage: Mesoraco
Oh boy, ALL OF THE INJURIES. ALL OF THE RISK. Mesoraco has been limited to 106 plate appearances in the past two seasons. Combined. That’s not ideal. Surgery to repair a hip impingement ended his 2015 campaign in June of that season. He didn’t even make it that far in 2016, thanks to a torn labrum. While Mesoraco and team officials are optimistic that he can be back behind the plate for the beginning of the 2017 season, those are two really bad injuries, especially for a catcher. The hip injury, in particular, had the team flirting with putting Mesoraco in the outfield, which seems like just the worst, least fun kind of flirting. It’s possible that he comes back strong in 2017, but the history might just be a little too checkered at this point.
While Gomes hasn’t fallen victim to the same degree of devastation on the injury front, he also hasn’t been a beacon of health. A bevy of injuries (broken hand, separated shoulder, sprained MCL, etc.) have cost Gomes considerable time over the past two seasons, as he has only appeared in 169 games after shouldering (you better believe I went there) a full starter’s workload in 2014. While his injuries have accounted for multiple stints on the DL, Gomes hasn’t suffered any maladies that have kept him out for full seasons or even the majority of seasons. That’s all he needs to take this one. Advantage: Gomes
Playing Time Risk
Both of these players signed extensions prior to their breakout seasons, so their teams have every incentive to provide a long leash. That said, while both missed time nursing their respective injuries, their backups stepped in to lay claim to starting roles.
In Mesoraco’s absence, the Reds tossed the keys to Tucker Barnhart. No, Barnhart didn’t set the world on fire, but at .257/.323/.379, he’s been exactly fine. As we well know, exactly fine is actually pretty decent at the dish. Barnhart likely won’t push Mesoraco off his spot, but he’s serviceable enough for the Reds to not rush Mesoraco back if he’s not back close to 100 percent health.
In Cleveland, Roberto Perez wishes he had Barnhart’s slash line. Last season Perez hit .183/.285/.294 in 184 plate appearances, which is, um, unpleasant. But Perez’s value isn’t at the plate, it’s behind it. In limited action, Perez put up a 10.5 adjusted FRAA, placing him among the game’s defensive elite. Gomes, by comparison, struggled, posting a -5.9 adjusted FRAA. Once known as a defensive stalwart, his numbers have been in steady decline since 2014 (possibly coinciding with injuries, but it’s still not terribly encouraging). Add the gushing praise showered on Perez during the team’s 2016 playoff run to the equation and Gomes could be in a battle for his position as early as this season. Advantage: Mesoraco
Both of these guys are obviously huge risks, coming off of injuries and otherwise uninspiring performances. But at the same time, both of these guys have top-five catcher upside, and they’ve done it before. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Gomes had a bounceback season in 2017, but if I have to pick (And I do, I checked. And then double-checked. And then tried to get out of it.), I’m taking Mesoraco. In dynasty formats, I’ll take his slight edge in age and upside, and I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that he can stay on the field. Advantage: Mesoraco