On an afternoon in early August, Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol opened his email inbox and found the information he had been waiting for. The email was from assistant general manager Scott Sharp, and it contained a detailed study of nearly 20,000 pitches thrown by the club’s pitchers over the last two seasons. The data was broken down into various splits — high leverage, low leverage, every pitch count and situation you could imagine — but the most intriguing numbers concerned Royals catcher Salvador Perez.
As Grifol processed the data and ran through the numbers, a few things popped off the screen. A solution of sorts formed in his head. In six major league seasons, Perez had burnished his reputation as the best defensive catcher in the American League. But in this list of numbers, Grifol noticed something. There was a way, perhaps, to make the best even better.
The process, in fact, had started about a week earlier, during a conversation in Tampa Bay. Sharp and Grifol were discussing Perez’s season, and the focus had turned to an outlier. At the age of 26, Perez was in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. His arm remained a force behind the plate, intimidating opponents with its strength and accuracy. His ability to block balls was also trending upward. And according to numbers from Baseball Info Solutions, Perez was pacing to lead all big-league catchers in defensive runs saved, one of the most respected defensive metrics in the game.
And yet, there remained a persistent flaw in his game, at least one that kept showing up in the numbers. According to the data, Perez ranked as one of the worst catchers in baseball at “pitch framing” — the art of receiving a borderline pitch and making it look like a strike.
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The hidden value of pitch framing has come into the mainstream over the last five years, leaving nearly every big-league club aware of its value. Opinions are still mixed over the true value or importance of the skill. But the numbers on Perez — the publicly available data on pitch framing and the Royals’ own in-house model — were mostly consistent. So Sharp asked the Royals’ analytics department to run a study, breaking down Perez’s receiving to the most minute detail.
In some ways, Sharp said, the Royals were simply curious. If Perez’s low rating was a product of his body type — his hulking 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame — they could live with it.
But the results of the study offered something else — a teaching tool of sorts. According to the in-house study, Perez graded out as one of the best pitch framers in baseball in high-leverage situations, including close games and two-strike counts. And then there was last season: From the first week of August to the end of the season, according to the Royals, Perez ranked among the best pitch framers in baseball. Where he rated the worst, Grifol says, is in blowout games and low-leverage counts.
“When the game trended closer, he trended upward,” Grifol says.
The numbers offered hope, and Grifol delivered a two-part message to Perez. First, they would make a mechanical adjustment, focusing on catching pitches more out front. Grifol hoped the tweak would help Perez funnel more pitches toward the white part of the plate. But even more important, Grifol said, was the mental adjustment.
“It’s a teaching tool,” Grifol says. “When he focuses 100 percent on every single pitch, which is extremely tough to do, he’s one of the best in baseball.”
By the middle of August, as the Royals embarked on a late-season charge in the wild-card race, Perez had implemented the changes into his game. Two weeks later, Grifol says, the numbers started to improve.
The story offers a window into the world of catching, a complex consortium of game-calling and physical exhaustion, a position where added value can be found on every pitch. But here, perhaps, is also a window into Perez himself, the franchise pillar who is just entering his prime years. As he finishes another season and prepares to enter 2017, the first year of a five-year, $52.5 million extension, signed this past spring, his place in the game is already secure. He is a World Series MVP, an All-Star four times over, and he will likely claim his fourth straight Gold Glove Award in the offseason. But even now, after all this, Grifol and the Royals are confident in something else: Perez, they say, can become even better.
“If he can finish off the season like that,” Grifol says, pointing to the framing numbers, “it’ll be the best year he’s had, by far.”
When Royals manager Ned Yost talks about Perez’s defense, he usually begins with the same story. The year was 2010. Yost was a roving advisor, spending his days scouting Kansas City’s minor-league talent. As he settled into a new role, he heard of a young catcher in the Royals system, a kid that could register a “pop time” of less than 1.8 seconds. In baseball terms, this meant the catcher could receive a baseball behind the plate (“pop”) and deliver a throw to second (“pop”) in the time it took to change the channel on a remote. Yost did not believe it.
“I thought 1.7 was a myth,” he says.
In this case, the myth turned out to be Perez, who would debut in the major leagues the following season. Six years later, his pop times — routinely in the 1.7s and low 1.8s — remain the centerpiece of his value. According to Grifol, Perez unleashed a 1.74 earlier this year, a time that stretches the boundaries of the position. On another occasion, he recorded a 1.84 while throwing from his knees.
“He’s a better thrower right now than he was last year,” Grifol says. “You look at video, and you go back two years ago, he’d throw a 1.75. But it wasn’t every time. He’s doing it now, consistently. He’s really caught on to his mechanics.”
In addition to that, Perez has found ways to maintain his arm strength throughout the season, incorporating regular doses of long toss into his daily workouts. The routine —- and his physical gifts — have helped him throw out 47.5 percent of would-be base-stealers this season, a number that leads the major leagues and would break the Royals’ franchise record of 43.9 percent, held by Darrell Porter.
“A lot of guys have strong arms or quick releases,” Royals backup catcher Drew Butera says. “He just kind of has the total package, along with deadly accuracy.”
But if you want to view Perez’s defense in its totality, Perez has also grown in other ways, Grifol says. Early in his career, he often relied on coaches in the dugout to help control the running game, waiting for signals on pickoff moves and slide steps. But over the last three years, Perez has taken more ownership in that aspect of the position.
“He rarely looks over now for help,” Grifol says.
Perez’s arm has helped him secure three straight Gold Glove Awards, but Grifol and Yost have also seen improvement in his work behind the plate. Inside the Royals’ clubhouse, Grifol charts everything, making note of every pitch and every play. After a road series in Boston in late August, Perez had caught more than 7,700 pitches in 2016. According to the Royals’ numbers, Perez had blocked 536 balls and allowed just 28 wild pitches and three passed balls.
“It’s what makes him so good,” Butera says. “He never stops learning. He never stops pushing himself. In spring training, it’d be easy to say, ‘I’m a three-time Gold Glover or whatever.’ But he’s out there at 7:30 in the morning, doing early work.”
And then, of course, there are moments you can’t prepare for, plays when instincts and athleticism take over. On Aug. 27, inside Fenway Park in Boston, Royals left-hander Danny Duffy spiked a breaking ball with Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz on first base. The ball skipped away from Perez, and Ortiz took off for second. At this point in his career, Ortiz is one of the slowest men in baseball, a lumbering slugger with two bad legs. But with the ball bouncing nearly 25 feet away from home plate, most catchers wouldn’t even have attempted a throw. Then there is Perez, who chased the down ball, picked it up bare-handed, spun toward second base and unleashed a perfect strike to second base, nailing Ortiz with room to spare.
“He’s a little bit of a freak,” Grifol said. “It’s unbelievable. For that size, to have that type of athleticism, and that quickness? You don’t see that.”
The Royals are hopeful, of course, that Perez will remain an elite defensive catcher through the duration of his five-year extension. You can’t control all injuries, of course. And any time Perez takes a foul ball to the mask or gets hit by a pitch, like he did on Wednesday in Minnesota, Royals fans will surely cringe.
But Grifol and Perez are already planning for the days when his raw talent and ability is a little less freakish. At some point, Grifol says, Perez’s natural talent will start to erode. This is a fact of baseball and life.
From 2012 to 2016, Perez ranked first in the big leagues in FanGraphs’ “Defensive Runs Above Average”, another respected metric, edging out St. Louis’ Yadier Molina (66.7). Grifol wants to make sure Perez is also No. 1 in 2020 and beyond.
“The only way you can maintain that high level of performance is how smart you are,” Grifol says. “How much you’ve learned and what you know. And he knows that. That’s important.”
This is, in part, why little things like pitch framing are so important. In the last five years, the skill emerged as one of the trendy areas of value unearthed by sabermetric research. Everybody in baseball always intuitively understood the value of a strong receiver. But new statistics and models were able to put a specific value to the skill. According to statistics compiled by analyst Max Marchi at Baseball Prospectus, former Tampa Bay catcher Jose Molina saved his teams 111 runs through pitch framing from 2008 to 2013. This was an extreme example, of course. But the same stats have consistently rated Perez below average.
According to numbers compiled at StatCorner, Perez entered Saturday ranked second to last at minus 15.7 runs in 2016. This is partly a function of his playing time. But on a per game average, among catchers who have caught at least 5,000 pitches this year, Perez still ranked 18th out of 23 catchers.
The numbers are not perfect, of course. Especially when looking at just one year of data. Grifol mentions the human element involved — sometimes a catcher frames a pitch perfectly and the umpire just calls a ball.
“Is it the end-all, be-all for evaluating catchers? No,” Grifol says. Is it something that’s usable? Absolutely.”
In the end, perhaps Perez will never be a consistently elite framer. But Grifol is confident the numbers can improve, that Perez can add another skill to his bag of tools. In short spurts and high-leverage situations, Perez has proven himself to be an elite framer. Now, Grifol says, it’s about finding consistency.
The education of a catcher continues.
“He’s still getting better,” Grifol says. “You can see it every day.”