I love Salvador Perez.
You love Perez, too. Everyone loves Perez. He is the definition of fan favorite for a host of reasons--he's good, he's infectiously optimistic and excited, he loves to mess with his teammates, he's full of energy, and he's mature beyond his years. He does little things that endear himself to everybody, and it's all so very effortless. Perez is genuine, and it's sometimes difficult to find that in a profession where success is paramount and everyone is a millionaire.
Perez will play his age 26 season this year. Despite being relatively young--Kris Bryant, defending National League Rookie of the Year for the Chicago Cubs, is only one and a half years younger than Perez with only one season to his name--this will be Perez' sixth season in Royal blue.
On August 10, 2011, a 21 year-old Perez graced Major League Baseball with his presence for the first time. It was an absurd game, as Perez collected his first RBI, first hit, and exhibited excellent defense with unflinching poise.
He finished the year appearing in 39 games, hitting .331/.361/.473 with superb defense. This was his best offensive year, as his overall average was sustained by an unrealistic batting average on balls in play, but Perez continued to be an offensive force. From 2011-2013, Perez hit .301/.331/.451. Though he only walked 4% of the time, Perez was an excellent contact hitter with decent raw power, and only struck out 11.1% of the time. By Fangraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement, Perez was the 13th best catcher in all of baseball over that time. Perez achieved that rank despite playing between 98 and 201 fewer games than the 12 catchers ahead of him. It was safe to say that Perez was one of the best catchers in baseball, a rising star.
Defensively, Perez was always excellent, a skill that he has parlayed into three consecutive Gold Gloves. But in the minor leagues, defense-first catchers are everywhere--it's the offense that allows them to get to the big leagues. Perez did not have that offensive pedigree in the minors, and that is why his prospect ranking never gathered momentum. In November 2010, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus listed Perez as the Royals' 20th best prospect, behind such rousing names as Chris Dwyer, Johnny Giavotella, Robinson Yambati, Aaron Crow, and Derrick Robinson. Due to his ranking, Perez only earned a one-sentence description:
This outstanding defender made nice progress with his bat; he could move up next year.
That latter part would be an understatement. Perez began 2011 in AA Northwest Arkansas and ended in Kansas City, spending a mere 12 games in AAA Omaha.
The thing about Perez is that nobody--nobody--thought he was going to be an intense offensive force, outside of predictions that his power could develop nicely. His strength was always his defense, and a fantastic defender with adequate offense is still very valuable. Perez' minor league offensive numbers were inconspicuously pedestrian; in A+ Wilmington and above, Perez was basically a league-average hitter at each stop. His offensive success was basically Daisy Ridley--attractive and arriving suddenly out of nowhere.
Then 2014 happened. Then 2015 happened. Perez' batting average went from .300 to .260. His walk rate decreased at the same time his strikeout rate increased. His on base percentage plummeted. Perhaps at the core of this, Perez swung at about 39% of pitches outside the zone from 2011-2013 to around 45% from 2014-2015, going from making contact to those pitches about 85% of the time to about 75% of the time. In summary, what little plate discipline Perez possessed sprouted legs and crawled away to vacation at the beach, impacting all of his other skills.
For Perez, it is a Tale of two Cities, or something, best of times/worst of times, Europe, Charles Dickens, etc. Have a gander:
So here lies the question: how good is Salvador Perez, really?
2011-2013 Perez is All-Star caliber, capable of MVP-seasons, the type of player whose raw production is thoroughly irreplaceable, one of the best catchers in all of baseball.
2014-2015 Perez is a good catcher, capable of All-Star seasons, the type of player whose raw production can be grudgingly replaced. If Perez is 2015 Perez, then he's actually a below average player--but past history suggests that is an aberration.
Perez is underpaid, regardless of whether or not he will receive a reworking of his deal. But whether or not the Royals rework his deal is dependent on his talent and production going forward.
See, if Perez is actually 2014-2015 Perez, then he will continue to be profoundly overrated. Again according to Fangraphs' WAR, Perez was the 8th most valuable catcher over the last two years despite starting more games behind the dish than, well, anyone. Eighth-best is good, but it's clearly not the 'best in baseball' assertion somebody's going to make in the comment section.
And here's another thing--if Perez is actually a good hitter, then he can be used as a designated hitter to give him some half off-days to keep his body fresh. Catching is the most physically demanding position on the diamond. Perez is a big guy who has already had one major knee surgery, so it wouldn't be a stretch for him to go down the Sandy Alomar Jr. path of injuries (Alomar never played more than 100 games in a year after his age 32 season). Alternatively, Perez could go down the Joe Mauer path, a path where the danger of continued head injuries pushes him to a different position at 30 (and Perez has already been on the DL for concussions). If Perez is a poor hitter, then his value disintegrates once he moves from behind the dish.
I love Salvador Perez. But I prefer the precise, patient Perez of 2012 over the one who swung at four balls above his shoulders against Madison Bumgarner in Game Seven in 2014. A productive postseason Perez helped lead to a World Series trophy in 2015. Hopefully, a productive Perez in the future can lead to more.