Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Since the position battles in spring training don’t appear to be all that exciting, I’m going through the Royals’ lineup to get an idea of how opposing pitchers will look to attack each player this season. I use data from Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant, and Fangraphs to figure out what pitches each hitter loves to see, and what pitches give them nightmares. So far, I’ve gone over the profiles for Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon. Today I’ll turn my attention to arguably the team’s most important player, Salvador Perez.
Perez, like the previous Royals I’ve profiled, does most of his damage against fastballs. In his career, he’s hit .317 with a .493 slugging percentage against hard stuff, and he posted similar numbers last season (.326 AVG, .475 SLG). And while he’s not a complete disaster against other pitches (.420 SLG, .140 ISO vs. changeups; .405 SLG, .143 ISO vs. sliders in 2013), it is clear that he prefers to see fastballs more often than not. Additionally, Perez has excellent contact skills, but well below average plate discipline. Last year, he swung at pitches out of the strike zone roughly 8 percentage points more frequently than the major league average, while also making contact on those pitches 16 percentage points more frequently than the average.
It’s curious to me, then, that pitchers threw Perez first pitch fastballs 318 times last year. Among players who saw at least 1000 pitches in 2013, only 14 players saw more first pitch fastballs as a percentage of total pitches seen. In other words, 18% of the pitches Perez saw last season were first pitch fastballs. The interesting aspect of the list in the above link is the types of hitters surrounding Perez. Nearly all of them are speedy slap hitters with no real power to speak of. Perez is far from a true power hitter, but his career .150 ISO is the highest mark of any player in that list, and only Mike Aviles (.128) and Martin Prado (.139) are all that close. The only similarities Perez shares with those other players are his low strikeout and walk rates. Perhaps pitchers think that because they aren’t likely to get those hitters to swing and miss, they might as well go right after them early. Whatever the reason, Perez saw first pitch fastballs from righties 73% of the time in 2013, and from lefties 68% of the time. This season, I expect left-handed pitchers to be more cautious with Perez, partly because of how he crushed them last year (136 wRC+), and partly because Mike Moustakas will be hitting behind him. I’m not a big believer in the lineup protection theory, but this seems like an instance where it could apply.
Due to Perez’s terrific plate coverage and hand strength, pitchers threw balls in the zone at a below average rate. Most of the time, they kept the ball low and away, which seems like it should work, at least in theory. With Perez at the plate, however, theories don’t always work. Allow me to illustrate. Here is his zone profile for all pitches seen in 2013:
As you can see, pitchers definitely made an effort to keep the ball down, and off the outer edge of the plate. Now, here’s the zone profile for Perez, showing his line drive rates for each part of the strike zone:
That’s pretty, isn’t it? We know Perez has solid line drive rates, but this graphic shows that it doesn’t really matter where pitchers put the ball, because if Perez hits it, he’s going to hit it hard. Granted, if they put it in that lower corner off the plate, Perez probably won’t be doing much with it. But if that ball gets elevated just a little bit, he can do this:
The video is obviously great, but in case you missed it, this is where the ball was just before Perez made contact:
That baseball is in the other batter’s box. It ended up in the right field seats. That’s kind of impressive.
This season, Perez is probably going to see many more breaking balls from right-handed pitchers, and he’ll need to adjust to improve his production in that department. Against lefties, he had quite a bit of success against pretty much everything they threw him last year, so I’ll be curious to see how they attack the young Venezuelan, in addition to keeping the ball away from him as much as possible. I also think pitchers will generally throw Perez even fewer balls in the strike zone, hoping to take advantage of his free-swinging ways and to generate weaker contact. Then again, weak contact isn’t something we see with Perez all that often, but the odds of it happening are certainly higher when opposing pitchers are putting the ball on the edges of the zone. The key for Perez this season will be to try and be a bit more selective at the plate. Even though he’s never going to be a walking machine, if he can force pitchers into counts where they must throw strikes, he will be able to do a lot of damage. And when Perez is doing a lot of damage, this Royals lineup becomes even more dangerous.