Salvador Perez is a franchise cornerstone for the Kansas City Royals. Only 25 years old, the gleeful Venezuelan catcher signed an extension with the Royals that delays his free agency until 2020 at the latest. As a member of the Royals, Perez has done it all. He batted over .300 in both 2011 and 2012, and his total offensive output was 19% better than league average according to adjusted OPS over those two seasons. In 2013 and 2014, Perez made the All-Star game, and in 2014 became the first Royals player to start since Jermaine Dye in 2000. Perez began accumulating what is sure to be a large Gold Glove collection in 2013, winning the award again in 2014. Perez has been worth over 10 WAR to date.
Then, last October, he was a core member of the American League Champions, our very own Kansas City Royals. Perez hit the game-winning single in the Wild Card Game. It looked like this.
That never gets old.
The Royals know they've got a gem in Perez. After a few years, Perez's high upside has stabilized, and his total lack of plate discipline caps his offensive output to average or merely good. Still, Perez is a defensive wizard at the plate and a clear leader of this team. Perez is often compared to Yadier Molina, who is one of the greatest catchers of our generation. That's a great compliment for Salvador.
Unfortunately, Ned Yost, a former catcher himself in the big leagues, has played Perez far too much. This is a giant issue. If Yost doesn't stop overplaying Perez, Yost will drive his career into the ground. This must stop.
For what it is worth, Yost knows that he has played Perez quite a bit. Before the winter meetings in December, Yost overtly spoke to this problem:
During his media session Monday at the MLB Winter Meetings, Yost praised Perez multiple times for his defensive and his bat, while also admitting that something needs to change next season.
"I can't catch Sal 150 games again," Yost said. "I can't. I'll kill the kid."
Perez caught the most games and most innings in MLB last season — 1,249 innings in 146 games. We're icing our knees just writing that.
Yes, you read that correctly. Perez started 143 games at catcher, playing in additional three as a late-inning replacement. Perez played an additional four games, utilized either as a designated hitter or pinch-hitter. That's 150 games played for the regular season. Perez played an additional 15 games in the postseason, bringing his total games played number to 165 and an innings count behind the plate to 1,384.
This stress became evident in his performance. In July, August, and September of last season, Perez had an OPS of .568, .629, and .597, respectively, accumulating a pathetic 4 walks in 307 plate appearances. In the postseason, Perez' OPS was .509, and he gathered one walk in 60 plate appearances. A composite OPS in the .500s and a walk rate of 1.7% from July on was a far departure from his previous career numbers. Injury or fatigue seems to be the most likely of culprits.
This season, we've seen a similar sort of thing so far. Perez leads the league in innings played at catcher; Perez has played 282 innings, an 18-inning lead over the next most-played catcher, Derek Norris. Perez has played in 33 of the 34 games played by Kansas City. In April, Perez put up a .825 OPS. In May so far, Perez has put up a .447 OPS. He has only walked twice on his own, one more intentionally by the pitcher. This has led to a sub-.300 OBP.
Now, there are obvious questions about small sample size here, and this season's data by no means proves anything. Last year's data doesn't prove anything. But it might suggest something, that either Perez is injured or he is fatigued. Playing catcher is the hardest thing to do defensively, and it's why the positional adjustment for WAR is more than any other position. A catcher interacts with every single pitch--even on pitches that are hit, a catcher is prepared to catch the ball and goes through the physical motions. Catchers must block pitches, prevent baserunners from advancing on steals, and repeatedly throw the ball back to the pitcher a few hundred times a game. Mentally, the position is extraordinarily taxing. Catchers are tasked with calling which pitches are thrown, framing said pitches, keeping tabs on their pitchers and keeping them from trouble, and catchers never get any play off. All of this is done while repeatedly squatting and standing up, a physical exertion that has destroyed many knees. Catchers also routinely endure foul balls that ricochet off their person, padded area or not.
Perez is 25 years old. He has already had major knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus in 2012. In 2013, he suffered a concussion after a foul ball caromed off his helmet and went to the 7-day disabled list. Furthermore, Perez has caught more innings from 2013 to now than any other catcher in baseball. The gap between Perez and the second place is wide; Perez has caught 2637.2 innings over that time period, 289 more innings than Jonathan Lucroy.
Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Joe Mauer are two precautionary tales. Perez is a large man, listed at 6 foot 3 inches, 240 pounds on the official roster. Mauer, 6' 5" and 220 pounds, winner of three Gold Gloves as a catcher, began mixing in first base in 2011 after a lengthy trip to the disabled list and stopped playing catcher at all in 2014. Mauer averaged in the realm of 900 innings a season as a catcher from 2005-2010. Alomar, 6' 5" and 200 pounds, never once played more than 127 games in a season and was ravaged by a myriad of knee and back injuries due to the stress of playing catcher.
It is in the Royals best interest if Perez remains a catcher for his career. It is in Perez' best interest if he is able to use his knees past his 30s. Ned Yost must stop using Perez as much as he is. Perez is a great asset, but only if he is not consumed by the greed of constant winning. While, yes, Drew Butera or Erik Kratz will be a downgrade and give the Royals a poorer chance to win should they play, the long-term consequences must be considered. After all, baseball is a marathon.