It isn’t every day a catcher comes to the big leagues with the defensive fanfare that surrounded Salvador Perez before his debut in Tampa in 2011. Prior to his promotion to the big leagues, we started to hear such wonderful things about him and how Ned Yost wanted him in the majors at the beginning of 2011. I think we can all agree that would have been a little insane considering he’d never played above A-ball prior to the 2011, but I think we can also agree that he’s surprised us a lot with his offense while making good on the promise of great defense. Of course, along the way, Perez suffered a knee injury and missed over two months of the 2012 season. It may be something that happened once and will be nothing more than a blip on the radar of his career, but it’s worth noting that a catcher in his early 20s having already suffered a pretty severe knee injury isn’t always the best thing in the world.
As I mentioned above, the offense Salvador Perez has shown in his brief but impressive time with the Royals has been pretty surprising to just about anybody who follows prospects. I think most people believed there was some serious power potential, but I’m not sure anyone thought it would happen so quickly. As someone who believe in statistical analysis and all that good stuff, I’m required to point out the major flaw in his offensive game and that’s his inability to take a walk. That said, if you have a player who doesn’t ever walk, you want them to strike out almost as infrequently, and Perez does just that. He makes a ton of contact and is so freakishly strong that he’s able to overcome some of his hacker tendencies with sheer strength. His career line through 115 big league games is .311/.339/.471 with 14 homers and 60 runs batted in. He has 40 extra base hits in that time, which is pretty darn solid for a catcher. I think the power is real, but I’m a little concerned about the batting average remaining as high as it is.
It’s a huge leap to assume Salvador Perez will continue to perform offensively at the levels he’s performed (though not impossible), but it isn’t difficult to envision him remaining at the defensive level he’s shown in his young career. That includes a rocket arm that has broken the Royals record for most runners picked off ever…in just 115 games. On one hand, the Royals would love to see him behind the plate for 140 games per year for the next seven seasons using his arm to control the running game, his receiving skills to keep pitchers feeling confident in pitches that go in the dirt and his game calling skills to help boost a pitching staff that could go through ebbs and flows due to budget constraints. On the other hand, he won’t be 23 years old until May 10 and, like I said above, he’s already had a very serious knee injury. And he’s 6’5″ which is extremely tall for a catcher. The height becomes an issue when he has to get up and down from a deep crouch hundreds of times every day. It’s just tough on the knees.
The most common comparable player to Perez is Sandy Alomar, Jr. and that comp is one that looks pretty darn good even after two partial big league years for Perez. In his career, Alomar had a 36 point split between batting average and on base percentage and at times flashed the power we’ve seen from Perez. Of course, you can’t talk about Alomar’s career without talking about the injuries that besieged him for many seasons. The bulk of Alomar’s career came between 1990 and 2006 and he only played more than 100 games four times in that time period. He averaged just 92 games per season in his first eight seasons, which is what the Royals control in Salvador Perez’s career. Now, just because they’re similar sizes, have similar defensive reputations and have similar offensive games doesn’t mean their injuries will be the same, but you have to wonder what kind of career Alomar would have had if the Indians had used him a little differently, a little more like they use their current catcher, Carlos Santana.
In Santana’s two full big league seasons, he has played in 298 games. Now, the conversation is a little different with him because he isn’t elite defensively, but he does provide sort of the blueprint I’d like to see the Royals take with Perez. Of those 298 games, 195 games have been behind the plate, 83 have been at first and 28 have been as the designated hitter. Santana has also appeared as an outfielder once and a pinch hitter a smattering of times. I think Perez needs to be behind the plate more than Santana, but also could stand to see some time at first base for two reasons. The first is that it will give his knees a bit of a break. Until Eric Hosmer becomes the hitter many believe he can be, it wouldn’t hurt him to sit against some tough lefties with Perez handling first base duties. The second reason is that I believe Salvador Perez is the guy to replace Eric Hosmer. I hope I’m wrong, but I just don’t think Perez can stick behind the plate as an every day catcher for too terribly long. The Royals might as well start now to get him some reps at first base.
Many of baseball’s elite catchers either end up playing 120-130 games per year or their teams find ways to keep them in the game at other positions. I know Salvador Perez is a bit of a different case because much of his value lies in his defense behind the plate, but if he can find a way to keep hitting like he has (and hopefully that walk rate will go up as he gets a little more feared), the Royals have to find a way to get him a little rest from the wear and tear of being behind the plate. Keith Blackburn wrote a couple weeks ago that Perez’s contract with the Royals might be the best contract in baseball, and now it’s time for the Royals to protect that investment. I’m not calling for a drastic decrease, but instead of 145 games, the Royals need to count on Perez for maybe 125-130 and give him some reps elsewhere.
Follow me on Twitter @DBLesky