Aug 14, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez (13) congratulates relief pitcher Greg Holland (56) after the game against the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium. Kansas City won the game 5-0. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The Importance of Salvador Perez

If all goes according to plan, the rest of the decade will see Salvador Perez behind the plate in Kansas City. The Royals made the decision to lock him up early and for a long time. It’s only sensible to say that he’s a cornerstone of the next contending Royals team.

But looking at just 2013, Perez is as important as anyone to the Royals and perhaps the most important

There’s an easy comparison to what the Royals look like without Perez. When he was out of commission after meniscus surgery, the combination of Humberto Quintero and Brayan Pena combined to play in 81 games. In 266 plate appearances, they had a .240/.263/.342 line. Combined, they scored 13 runs.

In a word: miserable.

Perez returned on June 22 and played 76 games. In those appearances, he went to the plate 305 times and put up a .301/.328/.471 line. He scored 38 runs. On home runs alone, he almost matched the Pena/Quintero combo’s runs scored total while he was away. Beyond his bat, Perez contributed 1.4 defensive WAR in half a season. The Pena/Quintero combo had 1.2 in their 111 games for the entire year.

Here’s how important Perez is next year:

July 13, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins catcher Brett Hayes (9) during batting practice before a game against the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

That’s Brett Hayes, an offseason waiver claim from the Marlins. With the release of Brayan Pena (who’s now with the Detroit Tigers) and Adam Moore‘s assignment to Omaha, Hayes is the backup for next year (at least for now). In 1655 plate appearances in the minors, Hayes had a .681 OPS. As a big leaguer, it’s .627 including a rough .483 last year. It’s safe to say that if Perez gets hurt again, Hayes isn’t ready to step in as an everyday player (likely the Royals would turn to Moore or Manny Pina if that happened). Perez is a tough player to replace.

Assuming he stays healthy, 2013 will be the first full season Perez plays with the Royals. In his 76 games last year, he compiled 2.8 bWAR and 2.6 fWAR. That was more than Curtis Granderson‘s entire year. According to FanGraphs, his 2.6 WAR was 13th in the majors among catchers, but he only played half a year. Extrapolate that to 140 games and he’s at 4.78 WAR – that would put him 6th in the majors and behind only Joe Mauer in the American League. Perez was fourth overall in fWAR and fifth in bWAR on the Royals. Adjust for a full season and he’s behind only Alex Gordon.

Additionally, he’s been crushing the ball during his time in the Venezuelan Winter League. Even after an 0-4 game on Wednesday night,  he’s hitting .376 with eight homers in 28 games. He’s got less than two weeks there left (you can’t blame the Royals for pulling him to avoid injury) and while winter leagues aren’t great for evaluation purposes, Perez is continuing where he’s been since being called up late in 2011.

He’s never going to be a guy who walks a lot. It would add value and help him retain value as a batter in the event he slumps, but it’s not who he is. I can accept it in this context. He also doesn’t strike out often. His 12.7% K% in the big leagues in 2011 is the highest he’s had at any level. He brought that down to 8.9% in 2012 in the bigs. He makes contact and over the last two years, he’s hit a lot of line drives. Percentage-wise, liners become hits more than any other batted ball so as long as he can continue making that kind of contact, he’ll be hitting for average.

His line drive percentage in the big leagues (25.8%) has been higher than average (around 20%) , so he could see some decline. His career average is .311 – I’m not going to cry too much if he settles into a .280 hitting catcher, especially if he’s the “best catch-and-throw catcher in the American League right now” according to Joe Posnanski.

Stepping away from the spreadsheet, Perez is one of the key figures in the locker room. At 22, he’s already starting to be a team leader and pitchers love to throw to him by all accounts. He’s easy to like, always seems energetic. James Shields and Wade Davis mentioned Perez as a big part of their excitement in joining the team. There’s no way to measure it, and the rational side of my baseball mind thinks it can be overrated, but sometimes clubhouse chemistry can foster improvement. There’s no way to measure it, but if you trust a co-worker and like working with them, you’re more likely to perform better. It’s not an absolute rule, but it certainly can’t hurt things.

The Royals are hoping for the playoffs next year and James Shields is the big name right now after the trade, so obviously, he’s important. Eric Hosmer is supposed to be the superstar in the making, and yes, he’s vital as well. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler have been strong performers the last two seasons and have to keep that up.

But a full year of Salvador Perez? I really want to see that. That could be the key to the whole thing.

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