Salvador Perez has always been a very interesting player. If you had told Royals officials back in 2009 that Salvador Perez would hit at least 20 homers once in his career, let alone in four consecutive seasons, and likely six without a pandemic, they would have taken that in a heartbeat.
His bat has always been icing on the cake. Even so, it has also left us wanting more. In three of those four 20+ homer seasons, Sal had a wRC+ greater than league average (100) just once. In fact, he has only had a wRC+ greater than 90 just once in those four seasons. His lack of on-base skills, paired with the beating he takes behind home plate on a yearly basis has kept him from providing a whole lot of offensive value, despite the Silver Sluggers and home run numbers.
Back in December, I ran a 2020 review of Sal’s pandemic-shortened season, and the thesis for 2021 was pretty simple: Will 2021 Sal look more like 2013-18 Sal (94 wRC+) or more like 2020 Sal (162 wRC+)?
We all knew that 2020 was an aberration, but the hope was that rather than regressing fully back to his 2013-18 form, he could settle in somewhere in the middle. Yadier Molina was a pretty healthy example of a catcher that didn’t hit too well prior to his age-27 season, so maybe Sal could too.
So far in 2021, that’s exactly what has happened. His 124 wRC+ through 53 games is almost smack dab in the middle of his 162 wRC+ from last season and his 94 wRC+ from the previous six seasons. His 12 homers are tied for the most in all of baseball among catchers and that 124 wRC+ is the second-best among qualified catchers.
And true to form, Perez is doing it in his unique, free-swinging fashion. Among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances, none have walked less frequently than Sal’s 2.3% rate. But it goes deeper than that. If he continues at this pace, he’ll be the first catcher in this millennium to post a season with at least a 124 wRC+ that walked less than 2.5% of the time. Of those 72 such seasons from a catcher, only three walked in fewer than 5% of their plate appearances.
So how is Sal doing it? Well, three things. For starters, offense is down across the league. With adjusted stats like wRC+, league-wide offense is important. For instance, Paul DeJong had a .762 OPS in 2019, good for an exactly league-average 100 wRC+. This season, Andrew Benintendi has posted a .749 OPS, which has been good for a 111 wRC+. That is important context.
But another more important reason is that Sal is flat raking. As someone who has never walked, Perez has always been dependent on hitting the ball really hard and really far. This year he’s doing both.
Only seven players in baseball have a higher average exit velocity than Sal. He is tied with Vlad Jr. for the most 95 MPH+ batted ball events with 85 and only three batters have hit the ball at least 95 MPH more frequently than Sal. His .349 wOBA would not only be a career-high by a long shot, but his .374 xwOBA suggests he’s actually been better than his number suggest.
Whether or not this will continue is, of course, yet to be seen. But he is on pace to hit over 30 homers and drive in over 100 runs for the first time in his career, while also walking 15 times. It’s really quite something.
And lastly, it should be noted that he’s actually getting some help.
For the first time in his Royals career, he is sharing a good bit of the reps behind home plate with another player. Cam Gallagher has started 11 games behind home plate, representing around 20% of games played. 2016 is the only season in Sal’s career where another catcher caught at least 20% of the team’s games. He has caught 22% of the innings this season, thanks to a recent uptick from May 16-29, when he started behind the plate six times.
We have never really seen Sal play an entire season with any sort of rest, and to be fair, he hasn’t rested this season. He has played every single game. But he has been the DH in 12 of those games, well on his way to a career-high in that category. Year after year, we have seen Perez be decently productive at the plate, only to have the physical toll of catching every day catch up to him.
At this moment, we are seeing that again. Sal is one of the best hitting catchers in baseball, not too far off from the Buster Posey’s and Will Smith’s of the league. It is still yet to be seen whether he’ll be able to turn that into a full season of production, but maybe the smaller load of defensive innings will help make that a reality.