Even before winning his third Silver Slugger Award since 2016, Salvador Pérez was among the most accomplished Royals in franchise history. And while he is known far more for his defensive capabilities, as told by his five Gold Gloves, he is now tied with George Brett for the most Silver Sluggers in Royals history.
For anybody who has watched Perez play since his big league debut in 2011, that is kind of a weird sentence to read because Sal has been a below league average hitter for much of his career. Perez has played in six full seasons and he has been a league average or better hitter in just two of them. And even in those seasons, he just barely got over the line with a 106 wRC+ in 2013 and a 102 wRC+ in 2017.
In each other season, he has averaged an 89 wRC+, which is significantly below league average. For his career, he has logged -34.2 offensive runs above average. And yet, somehow, he has been deemed the best offensive catcher in an exaggerated offensive environment as many times as Carlton Fisk and more times than Yadier Molina and Russell Martin. He needs just one more Silver Slugger to equal Buster Posey’s total and two more to match Jorge Posada and Joe Mauer.
We all know that these awards are not exactly a practice in science. Lorenzo Cain was as dominant of a defensive force as the league saw from 2013-2018 and he didn’t win a Gold Glove until 2019, arguably his worst defensive season. With that in mind, Perez is building a strong offensive legacy despite being a severely below average hitter. To explain this, you can look at three significant factors.
To start, Pérez has the benefit of playing a position that is historically weak offensively. In 2019, MLB catchers logged an 85 wRC+, significantly worse than any other position and offensive production at the position is routinely in the league’s basement. So using a positional argument, Sal is one of the stronger hitters at his position.
He is also a work horse at a position that doesn’t often have a ton of qualifying players. In 2016, Perez won the Silver Slugger with the lowest qualified wRC+ in the American League among catchers. But he was only competing with two other catchers — Russell Martin and Stephen Vogt.
Every other American League position had at least eight qualifiers, including a whopping 14 first basemen. Being in the lineup everyday helps his case each year.
But the third and most important factor for his 2020 Silver Slugger was that he was really, really good. He was significantly better at the plate than the next best American League catcher, even in a strong season offensively.
The obvious problem here is the small sample size. And the question becomes whether or not his small sample of games is any indicator of what is to come for Sal. Based on his history, we can take a pretty drastic regression in 2021 to the bank. So let’s not act like he is going to slug .633 over a full season, a mark that would challenge George Brett’s 1980 campaign.
But, is it possible that Sal could finally find an offensive peak in his 30s? It isn’t completely unheard of, and while it’s a tacky comparison, the catcher just down I-70 isn’t a bad case study.
Pérez has always played in Yadier Molina’s shadow. While Pérez is touted for his defense, the metrics say that Molina is far better and that Pérez is a bit overrated. However, even as park adjusted numbers suggest that both were light hitters through their age-27 seasons, Pérez’s home run numbers have created a sort of mirage. The reality is that Molina and Pérez are not comparable, especially as Fangraphs began accounting for pitch framing. Molina is a better defender by a wide margin and while his three Silver Sluggers might suggest Pérez is a better hitter by a wide margin, that just doesn’t seem to be the case.
The real reason for the Molina comparison, however, is because of how he performed at the plate after his age-27 season. While Molina was a light hitter through his age-27 season, he became one of the best offensive catchers in baseball from 2011-2016, producing two MVP caliber seasons during that span.
Sal missed a season, which puts him at a disadvantage, but is there any chance that his brief 2020 season is an indication of what is to come? An evaluation of the sample size and his career splits suggest that it’s probably not. While Sal’s season was unbelievable, he didn’t even have enough plate appearances to be a qualifier in an already shortened season. And he has historically been a better first half hitter. His 1.9 percent walk rate wouldn’t hold up during a full season, but the 31 percent mark he put up in 2018 wouldn’t be a substantial improvement.
However, if anything, Sal showed us that he has plenty left in the tank. While his plate discipline will likely prevent him from being an above-average hitter for any length of time, his power and strength will always be a threat.
This season of Salvador Perez was a ton fun because he was legitimately the best offensive catcher in baseball and one of the best hitters in the game at large. He wasn’t just carried by high home run numbers for his position.
Maybe it’s unlikely that he puts together anything like we saw in 2020 over a full season, but it would be a lot of fun if he did and a few strong seasons at the plate could make his offensively legacy less of a novelty.
How would you grade Salvador Pérez’s 2020 season?
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