In an offseason marked largely by stasis and inaction, the Royals biggest addition to their lineup will be a familiar face. The question is, how much do you trust Salvador Perez to improve what was a fetid Royals offense in 2019?
When we last saw Perez in Kansas City, he was putting the finishing touches on a 2018 season that saw him hit .235/.274/.439 with a wRC+ of 89. It was the fourth time in five seasons Perez finished with below average production at the plate according to wRC+. The Baseball Prospectus metric of DRC+ is a little more forgiving, hanging a mark of 104 on his 2018 (four percent better than league average) and having him above average for four out of the last five seasons he’s played. (Can’t metrics be fun? Save it. That’s a rhetorical question.)
One thing both metrics agree upon is the fact that Perez’s 2017 was his best offensive season out of the last five. They also agree that he has failed to reach the offensive production he tantalized with in his sophomore season of 2012. He’s been remarkably consistent in his previous five years, hitting .254/.285/.438 over 2,748 plate appearances. At Baseball-Reference, Perez has hovered between an 88 and 91 OPS+ during that time, with again the 2017 season (a 106 OPS+) as his outlier.
While it appears the metrics slightly disagree with how to measure Perez’s production, it feels safe to say he’s roughly a major league average hitter. Sometimes he’ll be slightly above-average. Other times, he’ll be slightly below. But he’s a safe bet to be right around average, with his power production making up for his on base shortcomings.
And that’s a good thing for the Royals. Especially given the state of league-wide offensive performances from catchers. And their own alternatives on the roster.
Last year, MLB catchers posted a collective line of .238/.309/.408. It’s not shocking that this was the most offensively challenged position in the game. However, in 2019 Royals catchers took that challenge and doubled or tripled down. Martin Maldonado, Cam Gallagher, Meibrys Viloria and Nick Dini combined to hit .224/.288/.349. The weren’t the worst performing group of backstops with bats (thank you, Detroit and Texas), but they were in the conversation.
Offensive Production of Royals Catchers - 2019
PECOTA projects another solid, if unspectacular year for Perez at the plate. It has a line of .256/.292/.481 with a DRC+ of 103. That lumps him in a group with Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield and Ryan McBroom (!) as average to slightly above average bats. (For the purposes of this, I’m ignoring the awesomeness of Jorge Soler who is projected to be far and away the best Royals offensive performer in 2020, just like he was last year.) Again, that jives with the past performance we’ve seen from Perez. The projection makes sense.
But here’s the deal. According to DRC+, last season the Royals possessed just three above average bats in their lineup. That man Soler paced the team with a DRC+ of 142 and was followed by Dozier (118 DRC+) and Merrifield (110 DRC+). While PECOTA projects a drop in production—or regression—from all listed above, it’s not unreasonable to cast an eye at Perez as a solid, middle of the order bat. (Well, as solid and as middle of the order you can have for a team that will certainly fall over 90 losses again.)
Last year, the Royals received breakout performances from Soler and Dozier and the usual steady offensive output from Merrifield. Without any other productive bats below them in the lineup (Adalberto Mondesi finished with an 82 wRC+ and 75 DRC+ in 443 plate appearances, and after a solid opening salvo, Alex Gordon had a rough second half) the offense struggled to 4.3 runs per game, well below the league average of 4.8 R/G, and better than only Detroit in the American League. This year, with Perez in the lineup from the jump, the Royals should be a better offense, if only because it gives the lineup a solid, league average bat in a position where there really wasn’t one last season. In a winter where the Royals big move was signing Makel Franco, the return of Perez to the lineup should count as another addition. Not necessarily a proactive one, but an addition nonetheless.
Of course all of this carries the caveat of “as long as he’s healthy enough to start the season.” As of mid-February, Perez is approaching the one year anniversary of his surgery and only just started throwing from home plate to second base a couple of weeks ago. He’s clearly in the homestretch of his rehab and the Royals will obviously project an aura of “all systems go” around their catcher. But we will have to wait and see how Perez performs in camp and how his elbow can hold up to the rigors behind the plate.
The silver lining of this injury (if you are inclined to look that direction) is this was a full year off from the wear and tear behind the plate. Remember, the Royals and Ned Yost rode Perez unlike any other catcher during their championship years. The innings behind the plate had to have taken a toll and perhaps have prevented Perez from reaching his offensive potential. Maybe, just maybe, the year off will inject a little more life in the bat.
But even if Perez returns and is just the same old hitter, matching his PECOTA projection above, it still represents an upgrade. When you’re rebuilding, even the small steps forward count.