Watching Salvador Perez break is a lot more fun than knowing he will break.
Written by Kyle Magin
Salvador Perez, the lovable, goofy 6’5” Kansas City Royals backstop is 25 and already well on his way to his baseball dotage. The amiable Venezuelan takes foul balls, the ends of bats and wild pitches off his face, chest, arms, hands and fingers constantly.
He took three in the first three innings of Tuesday’s smackdown of Toronto alone and you could tell Joe Buck was choking back the urge to say ‘he got his bell rung’ in this PC age of concussion awareness as the giant catcher was taking smelling salts in the Rogers Centre dugout. During game 1, Jays’ slugger Josh Donaldson’s bat caught Perez’s forefinger on his catching hand as the third baseman followed through on a swing. For the rest of the inning, Perez received the ball gingerly, pulling his hand out of his mitt at every spare moment and visibly wincing whenever a pitch came in. He’s always smiling about this abuse and getting back into his crouch, and announcers like to compliment his toughness, so it’s kind of endearing and even morbidly entertaining at this point.
Perez isn’t the first big catcher to take a beating. For smaller, quicker men like Pudge Rodriguez or the Jays’ Russell Martin, receiving the ball is a manageable grind, one that shortens careers by a few years mainly because squatting for a living and dealing with clinically insane pitchers will do that to a person. For large catchers—like Perez, the San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey and Minnesota Twins’ Joe Mauer—the years erode away a lot quicker. Their bodies attract a lot more punishment.
Thing is, Posey and Mauer both had something Perez does not have—elite-level bats. You would have heard of Posey—career .859 OPS, career.351 batting average with runners in scoring position, 26.9 at-bat to home run ratio—and Mauer—.845 OPS, .352 RISP, 45.6 AB/HR—even if they didn’t catch. You can make a lot of money playing first base with worse numbers. Perez is a nice player—.737 OPS, .311 RISP, 32 AB/HR—but aside from hitting homeruns at roughly the same rate as Posey, he trails the other two by a significant margin in almost every important batting category. Move Perez to first base or somewhere in the outfield corners—positions where elite-level bats with off-brand defensive abilities are routinely stashed—and he’s a marginal big-leaguer, at best.
The Twins and Giants, to a lesser extent, have pretty much decided that their big catchers are too valuable to do much catching. Major injuries caused by collisions and the daily grind behind the plate have sidelined both of them for significant stretches during their careers as backstops. Mauer moved over to first base a few seasons ago and this year enjoyed a bit of a career renaissance now that he doesn’t have to take the beating every day. Posey is in the midst of a three-year reduction in his catching duties—he was the behind the plate for 106 games this year, down from 111 games last year and 121 in 2013. It’s expected that he’ll continue to find starts at first base—where his workload has increased for three straight seasons—and DH during interleague play to preserve the pop in his maple Marruci bat. While both were gifted at receiving, working pitchers and policing the basepaths, nobody enters a Maserati in a demolition derby.
Perez, in that context, is most definitely a Ford. The man was born—if not made—to catch. He’s the two-time defending gold-glover with a knack for handling his pitchers and is among the best defensive catchers in the game when it comes to putting a righteous scare into would-be base stealers. He’s a lynchpin in the Royals’ greatest run of success in nearly 30 years and a fun player for his fans to enjoy. But there’s no life for a mediocre-hitting catcher when catching isn’t physically possible any more. There won’t be any sustained stretch of starts at first base, where the qualifications for the job are such that Mo Vaughn remained employable well into his 275 lb days.
And that’s the rub with Perez. He’s fun to watch, but he’s not good enough to protect, so barring a consistent improvement in his hitting, KC will get a front-row seat to the wreck.