Salvador Perez is to the 2013 Royals as procreation is to mankind—necessary for survival. It gets mentioned here and there, but I don’t know that it’s been emphasized enough just how important Perez is to the Royals. He is among the three most important players on the team and arguably the most important.* When a team has a catcher who plays Hall-of-Fame caliber defense and puts up All-Star caliber offensive numbers, that guy is extremely important, essential actually.
*The other two are James Shields and Alex Gordon because I don’t think many think the Royals have a chance to win without either of these three. Someone in the comments will inevitably mention Billy Butler, and while he’s very important, he doesn’t play defense and is a liability on the bases—barely missed the top three.
For proof, let’s look at who replaced him during his time out of the lineup in 2012. While the Royals’ record wasn’t tremendously improved by his return, which was probably the result of his impact being offset by a slide from Mike Moustakas and the continued ineptness from the starting staff, his added value compared to those he replaced was ENORMOUS. In 74 games, Perez produced 2.6 WAR (from Fangraphs). Humberto Quintero racked up .3 in 43 games, Brayan Pena was -.3 in 68 games. In just a few more games than Pena, Perez was worth nearly 3 WAR more. That’s incredible. His 2.6 WAR was ninth best in MLB among catchers, and he only had 305 PA.
From a strictly offensive standpoint, Perez simply produces more runs than most catchers in the league (and he’ll turn 23 in May). Among qualifying catchers, Perez would have been eighth in wRC+ (weighted runs per PA plus) at 114, just behind A.J. Pierzynski—but he didn’t qualify. Many of the other catchers on that list are primarily offensive catchers, guys like Pierzynski, Joe Mauer, and Ryan Doumit, and he hung with them in his age 22 season.
Back to Perez’s stand-ins. Perez has a wRC of 41, which means by this measure he created 41 runs. In 340 combined PA, Quintero and Pena created only 25 runs, 10 for Quintero and 15 for Pena. Both of those were below league average per plate appearance. I’m not certain, but I don’t see Brett Hayes doing much better.
Of course, it’s the amazing defense that makes Perez an oddity. Unlike Pierzynski, the league doesn’t commit repeated grand larceny on Perez. Pierzynski had -5 DRS (defensive runs saved) in 2012; Perez had 9 in 74 games. Many compare Perez to Yadier Molina, and looking at the numbers from last season, that seems reasonable. Molina led the league with 16 DRS—a number Perez may have reached in a full season of work. Only Molina and Buster Posey have the same type of dynamic catching ability mixed with firepower on offense that Perez has. Both of those players have led their teams to World Series championships. Coincidence? I think not.
I like numbers and stats and things, but for this type of assessment, we need also to imagine. Let’s close our eyes and ask this question. Can you imagine the Cardinals winning their championships without Molina? Can you imagine the Royals winning with Hayes catching every day? If you answered yes to the first one, I can see your point. Those Cardinal teams had Albert Pujols and great pitching and a great manager. If you answered yes to the second one, you may be forgetting the Royals do not have Pujols or undeniably great pitching or a great manager. Perez actually means more to the Royals than Molina means to the Cardinals because the Royals have fewer proven players and fewer resources to obtain new players. The Royals need every run saved and created.
This is a sobering idea because Perez didn’t play the whole 2012 season. He’s a big catcher with a lot of potential for injury. If he gets hurt, I cannot imagine the Royals competing for a playoff spot. In that sense, their season rests, in part, on his body. All the projections and optimism and expectations mean very little if he gets hurt. The same might be true of Shields and Gordon; they seem like lynchpins. It’s an article for another time, but it seems like small-market teams have more lynchpins because of their inability to replace fallen players. I think we can safely say that the Royals would have no ability to replace Perez. He’s a weapon few have and one the Royals cannot live without.