As he evaluated his club’s catching corps during the offseason, and then examined the likeliest outside candidates to be added, Davey Martinez quickly came to one conclusion: Yan Gomes was going to be the Nationals’ No. 1 catcher in 2021.
And that wasn’t a bad thing in the manager’s mind.
“I talked to him a lot this winter and told him that he would get the bulk of the catching this year,” Martinez said from West Palm Beach, Fla., during a Zoom session with reporters. “I want him to handle the pitching staff, and he’s all up for it. We did a lot of stuff with him over the winter as far as how much he should play. I think that he can handle five or six times a week out there.”
Those numbers are going to catch a lot of people by surprise. Are the Nationals really about to hand over that much workload to the 33-year-old who the last two seasons served as a backup to Kurt Suzuki?
Yes, they are. But here’s the thing: It’s not that dramatic an increase in workload. Believe it or not, Gomes really was the Nats’ No. 1 catcher the last two years.
Did you know Gomes started more games behind the plate than Suzuki? Yep, the final tally in 2019-20 was 120-100. Gomes also got more significant playing time than Suzuki during the 2019 postseason. He was the guy behind the plate for the final outs of the National League Division Series, NL Championship Series and World Series.
So when he learned the plan for 2021 from his manager, Gomes was neither surprised nor daunted.
“I was obviously excited about it,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve done in the past.”
Truth be told, Gomes has been a starting catcher almost his entire career. He’s started at least 50 percent of his team’s total games in six of the last seven seasons, dating back to 2014 in Cleveland when he started a career-high 121 games.
And it turns out he’s been a more productive hitter the more he plays.
“To be honest, I do better when I’m catching consistently,” he said. “I had to try to get used to that last year. My body still felt great. But I don’t think it’s going to be something that’s new to my body. I’ve done it before, and my body actually usually feels better that way.”
Gomes’ best sustained stretch since joining the Nationals came in September 2019, when he started 13 of 14 games while Suzuki was dealing with a sore elbow. He proceeded to hit .292 (14-for-48) with four doubles, four homers, nine RBIs and a .971 OPS.
“Consistency is a big part of this game,” he said. “And when I do get more consistent at-bats, I do feel like I get a little bit more calm. Not every game you’re trying to earn playing time. ... It’s just something that you’re able to make easier adjustments, instead of doing it one day and then waiting a couple days to go make that adjustment you’ve been working on. You’re able to get instant feedback right away. I feel like that’s a reason.”
Gomes was a fairly productive hitter last season, finishing with a .284 batting average, six doubles, four homers and a .787 OPS that ranked 12th among all big league catchers who played at least 30 games.
The Nationals don’t need him to be an integral part of their 2021 lineup. But they do need him to provide enough quality at-bats from the 7- or 8-hole to help sustain rallies.
More than that, they need him to work well with a pitching staff that needs to return to its previously elite perch. Though veteran Alex Avila (signed to a one-year deal late in the winter) has experience catching Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester, Martinez wants Gomes to serve as their batterymates most of the time.
“What I love about Yan is his preparation,” the manager said. “He takes catching seriously. He takes control of our pitchers and he loves to communicate with those guys on a daily basis.”
Gomes prides himself on having developed relationships with his pitchers long before they actually work together in a game. He made a point to call each of them after he was acquired in December 2018, making sure they got to know each other then so they’d already be on the same page by the time they met in person at spring training.
“I just want to get their number and get that awkward stage out of the way,” he said. “I did that with Stephen (Strasburg), Max, Corbin when I first got traded. That first week, you just want to get to know guys. ... Then you start building that trust. And that’s something I feel like is really important from a catcher’s standpoint.”
At this point, the big names in the Nationals rotation have plenty of experience working with Gomes. Scherzer has pitched to him 14 times, Strasburg has 18 times and Corbin leads the way with 44.
You may have thought of him as the Nats’ backup catcher for a while now. Turns out you should’ve been thinking of him as their No. 1 guy all along.