Many questions surround the Kansas City Royals heading into the 2020 season. One of the most important is how, and how much, to use their All-Star catcher.
Salvador Perez, the Kansas City Royals’ invaluable catcher, lost his 2018 season to a damaged ulnar collateral ligament, the career-threatening malady that preys primarily on pitchers and the arms with which they earn their living. The injury forced the Royals to rely on catchers serviceable in their own right but simply not Perez’s equal.
Perez, his recovery from Tommy John surgery apparently on schedule, is set to return to the Royals for Spring Training and presumably will be behind the plate Opening Day. Beyond that, however, Perez poses one of the biggest questions facing the club as they seek to avoid a third straight 100-plus loss season.
The Perez Question really has two parts: how should the Royals use him, and how much should they use him?
The first part of this important query — how to use Perez — is slightly more critical than the second (how much to use him) because deciding where to place the club’s indispensable collector of Gold Gloves, Silver Slugger Awards, and All-Star berths has much to do with how often new KC skipper Mike Matheny is comfortable penciling the name “Perez” onto his lineup card.
Fortunately, determining Perez’s defensive position is an exercise largely independent of his bat. Perez is an offensive threat which, together with the fact the UCL injury shouldn’t affect his swing, gives Matheny less to worry about. But Perez as full-time DH isn’t practical defensively, Jorge Soler isn’t an everyday outfield solution and is much more suitable as the primary DH.
Too, extensive DH time for Perez would complicate KC’s lineup. The club has to find room for Soler’s powerful bat if he isn’t playing DH. If he’s in the outfield (presumably right field), another outfielder is displaced. Whit Merrifield is the likely starter in right but taking him out of the lineup for prolonged periods obviously isn’t advisable, so he’d probably play second base and displace Nicky Lopez. It’s one thing to give any of these players a day off, but quite another to take them out of the lineup for longer periods. Accordingly, Perez will see some DH duty, but won’t be the DH.
Instead, Perez will be, and should be, the presumptive catcher. The two organization backstops who helped fill in for Perez last season, Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria, are good defensive catchers, but neither approaches Perez’s offensive skills; although considered by some to be Perez’s heir apparent, Vilora needs more offensive work and refinement. And Martin Maldonado, who initially replaced Perez, was traded. Simply put, Perez hasn’t lost his job and the Royals don’t have anyone ready to take it.
That Perez will resume his regular role doesn’t mean he’ll catch every day, nor does it mean he should take only a day off per week, an accommodation typically made to big league catchers to ease and reduce the wear and tear occasioned by the physical demands of their position. If management is wise (and smart), Perez will get more than a weekly day off.
Such was the approach advocated by Buck Showalter, the veteran big league manager who, faced with determining playing assignments and time of Matt Wieters when the All-Star catcher returned to Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles after Tommy John surgery, believed more than a weekly day off was wise. Although Wieters got off to a hot start at the plate, which might have prompted others to play him every day, Showalter recommended less time, saying “It’s not tough, because the alternative is he doesn’t play at all. I’ll take every other day as opposed to not at all.”
It’s hard to believe Matheny’s approach will differ. Perez hasn’t thrown from his knees down to second base, or rifled his trademark throw behind runners at first and third, since 2018 and the state of his recovery will likely remain unknown outside the organization until he begins catching in Spring Training. The Royals won’t jeopardize Perez’s above-average ability to throw out runners: he’s gunned down 35% of those who’ve tested him in eight seasons, an impressive 7% better than the league average over that time.
The experiences of other skilled catchers who returned to the position after Tommy John surgery support Perez returning to his accustomed role. Wieters still throws out far more runners than not, averaging almost 6% above the norm in his five seasons since his surgery; Boston’s Christian Vazquez has a success rate over 10% above the league average in his four post-surgery campaigns. (Two other notable backstops, Andrew Knapp and Travis d’Arnaud, have typically been below-average at stopping stealers, a characteristic unchanged by their surgeries).
Expect Perez to be the regular catcher and to see more time at DH than the 7.25 games per season he’s averaged there. He’ll likely spend at least some time at first base, a position he’s rarely played but which represents his only other defensive alternative. Perez playing first more has been discussed before and seems logical; Minnesota’s Joe Mauer successfully transitioned to first when catching began to wear on him, and the Royals’ remain unsettled at the position. But an extended move isn’t likely this season unless Perez’s arm doesn’t recover sufficiently.
Given that Perez will catch, take an occasional turn at DH and play some first, how much should he play? Every day is out of the question (and would be even if Perez hadn’t been injured); early in the season, Showalter’s “every other day” approach makes sense. But how often Perez plays depends more on his recovery progress than theory–Matheny should ease him back in, listen closely to the training staff, and adjust Perez’s playing time as his performance and condition warrant.
If it were up to Salvador Perez, he’d catch every day. That drive is one reason Perez is the backbone and on-field leader of the Kansas City Royals. Unfortunately, the physical demands of catching and his recovery from Tommy John surgery make an everyday role impossible. Expect Mike Matheny to give Perez more days off and more time at DH and first base than his star has seen in the past. Buck Showalter is right: Reduced playing time is better than no playing time at all.