It has been fascinating to observe the offensive evolution of Salvador Perez. In his first few seasons in the show, the fresh-faced young catcher looked to be a .300 hitter that could give you 15 home runs over a full season. As he settled into his major league career, Perez lost some average in exchange for power, becoming more of a .260 hitter that could hit 20-25 homers in a season, but whose production was ultimately weighed down by a sub-.300 OBP. From 2014-2018, Salvy only cracked the 100 wRC+ mark once.
Salvy ruptured his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery during Spring Training of 2019, shelving him for the season. As he went through the rehab process into 2020, he started working individually with new Royals special assignment hitting coach Mike Tosar. That spring, something happened that forced MLB to push back the start of the 2020 season. When the season finally started in July, Perez looked like a brand-new hitter in his first action since 2018; he hit .307 through the first 22 games of the season. He went down with an eye issue after that and missed a few weeks. Upon returning on September 11, he promptly ripped off a streak of six consecutive multi-hit games. Salvy wasn’t just slapping the ball around either - he knocked seven dingers in his first 12 games back from the eye procedure.
Despite playing just 37 games, the 2020 season was by far Perez’s best at the dish. That turned out to just be the appetizer for 2021. Salvy obliterated his previous season-high home run total, smashing 48 to tie for the major league lead. He also posted his best batting average (.273) and OBP (.316) since 2013. In a full-length season, his 125 wRC+ was easily a career best.
The 2021 season was the culmination of changes that first showed up in 2018. That year his batted ball data took a leap, with his hard-hit rate rising from 38.9% to an elite mark of 47.5%. His barrel rate also rose correspondingly. Although his numbers that season actually took a slight step back compared to 2017, he seemed primed for a bounce back. In 2020, it appeared that Perez had made the same calculus that so many other hitters have in this era: one can live with some more strikeouts if it means slugging .550. It all came together in 2021 when he paired the highest flyball rate of his career with the third-highest hard-hit rate in all of baseball.
Alas, each of us are two years older now. In 2023, Perez seems to have regressed to the hitter he was prior to 2020, but now with more strikeouts. As of September 7, Perez is hitting .245/.286/.416, worth a career-low 82 wRC+. His offensive success has always felt tenuous. We all know he’s never seen a pitch he didn’t like, consistently showing a willingness to offer at anything within the vicinity of Kauffman Stadium. In 2023, no player swings as often as Salvy, and he also leads baseball in chases. That approach has always put a cap on his offensive production, in spite of his ability to do damage on seemingly any pitch. He could get away with that approach by hitting the hell out of the ball whenever he did connect. That’s simply not happening anymore. While Perez’s 2023 hard-hit rate of 44.7% is nothing to sneeze at, it’s a far cry from the elite rate he has produced over the last few seasons.
Hard-hit rate aside, what’s changed for Perez? One possibility: he has been unable to turn on fastballs the way he used to. Salvy consistently has feasted on four-seam fastballs. Going back to 2017, per Statcast, he posted a plus run-value against four-seamers every season, with his peak being a +13 mark in 2022 (or a +4.8 mark in 2020, if you prefer RV/100 pitches). That’s ended this season as Salvy has just a .324 wOBA against four-seamers — slightly lucky, considering his .315 xwOBA — which has produced a -3 run value. Pair that with his lowest pull-rate since 2012 and highest oppo-rate since his rookie 2011 season, it appears that Salvy simply can’t get around on heat regularly anymore. This could imply a loss of bat speed. One simply cannot get away with swinging at everything without the sufficient bat speed to make it work.
I’m not ready to declare Perez washed. He still retains a .326 xwOBA on the season which is around big-league average and actually a hair better than his 2022 mark. But the fact is, Salvy has an awful lot of mileage on those knees. Catching is very hard on the human body and guys that have caught as much as he has break down eventually. There are only ten catchers that have caught at least 9000 major league innings since 2005. Aside from Salvy, these are the fates of the other nine:
- Yadier Molina: The exception to the rule in a lot of ways, but was still only offensively productive in two of his final eight seasons, with the last of those at age 35.
- Brian McCann: Had his last star-level offensive season at age 29 and his last above-average one at 33.
- Russell Martin: Posted a 101 wRC+ at age 33, then never played more than 91 games in a season after that.
- Kurt Suzuki: Has only had one above-average season as a starter, which came at age 30.
- A.J. Pierzynski: Had random solid seasons at age 35 and 38 in a career that otherwise had more below-average seasons than above.
- Buster Posey: Played at an MVP level in 113 games at age 34, then hung ‘em up. Posey is also far and away the best player on this list.
- Chris Ianetta: Never qualified for the batting title in his career, but turned in his last good half-season at 34.
- Jonathon Lucroy: Had a strong age 30 season before injuries caught up to him.
- Matt Wieters: Producted his last strong full season at 26 and half-season at 29.
The track record of guys that have caught as much as Salvy has isn’t great. By the time they pass the 9000 innings mark, their bodies or their bats (or both) betray them. The Royals seem cognizant of this as he has played a lot more first base of late. But the hard truth is that a first baseman with a league average bat is not a capable major league starter.
Buster Posey got to go out while still a high-level performer. Few players have that luxury. Alex Gordon didn’t. Mike Sweeney didn’t. Zack Greinke won’t. As much as we wish to never see our franchise legends as bad baseball players, most of them end their career as such. Salvy might not be there yet, but he also isn’t far off.