In the last five seasons, no catcher in Major League Baseball has started more games than the Royals’ Salvador Perez. No one has logged more innings or had more plate appearances or pulled on a catcher’s mask more times. His status as baseball’s most reliable workhorse is not in doubt.
Since 2013, Perez, 27, has caught 5,603 2/3 innings in the regular season. St. Louis’ Yadier Molina is second at 5,540 2/3 . And yet, as Perez arrived here at spring training earlier this month, he voiced a simple goal for the 2018 season: Be more durable.
“If I’m healthy, I can play,” Perez said.
The objective is natural. One year ago, Perez’s playing time decreased to 113 games behind the plate and 13 at designated hitter as he battled soreness near his rib cage and an intercostal strain in the right side of his chest. The ailment slowed him all summer, the pain and discomfort intensifying after awkward swings, and ultimately resulted in a trip to the disabled list. It was his first trip to the DL for injury in five years.
The condition frustrated Perez. He had spent the previous offseason shedding 25 pounds and working himself into better shape, hoping to extend his career and remain fresh in the second half. He remains under contract through 2021, a rare pillar on a club embarking on a new rebuilding phase.
For years, the Royals have sought relief in his workload as the grueling seasons behind the plate piled up. Yet they wanted to voluntarily reduce his playing time — not sit him because of injury.
“Rib injuries are tough, man,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
The club views Perez’s ailment as somewhat isolated. However, Yost said the staff would devise a plan to monitor Perez’s playing time and schedule in 2018. The specifics will come later. The club’s first full-squad workout is not until Monday. Yet Perez is already here, participating in workouts after pitchers and catchers reported this week.
“I think the key for me is work,” Perez said. “Work, work, work, take care of my body.
“That’s my goal every year. Try to go to the All-Star Game; try to win another Gold Glove.”
The latter did not happen last season, in part because of his time spent on the disabled list. Perez had won four straight Gold Glove Awards, solidifying himself as the premier defensive catcher in the American League. But last November, he lost out to the Los Angeles Angels’ Martin Maldonado. To some, it was an unexpected upset. Perez said he was not surprised.
“I don’t think I deserved to win the Gold Glove last year,” Perez said. “I was hurt. I didn’t do my job behind home plate right. That’s what I think. That’s my opinion.”
Perez’s own assessments align with advanced metrics from last season. He finished eighth among major-league catchers in defensive runs saved. He finished 11th in Defensive Runs Above Average, according to Fangraphs. He has never graded out well in the pitch framing metrics. He threw out just 20 base runners while allowing 54 stolen bases. In 2016, he threw out 37 while allowing 40.
The art of preventing stolen bases falls largely on the pitcher, which partially explains the spike from last season. Perez was still unhappy with the results.
“I didn’t throw too many people out at second base,” he said. “I was surprised if I won (the Gold Glove).”
In the offseason, Perez set out to regain his top form. He sought to keep his weight down. He arrived in Arizona in early February. He has spent much of the last two weeks showing up in the early morning, working on his agility and building strength by swinging a sledgehammer at a large rubber tire.
The latter makes for solid social media content. Perez believes it is also helpful.
He hit a career-high 27 homers while playing in just 129 games. His offensive value is still hindered by his pitch selection and patience at the plate — he walked 17 times and had a .297 on-base percentage — but his power production could continue to escalate with better health.
The Royals are expected to open the season with Perez and backup Drew Butera as the club’s two catchers. The club also has a vacancy at first base while it waits on free agent Eric Hosmer. But Yost said the team had no plans to give Perez more starts at first base as a means to lighten his load behind the plate. Perez could continue to DH at times. But many teams offer veteran catchers time at first base as a strategy to prolong their careers. The Giants have done this with Buster Posey. The Royals have had minimal discussions about the tactic.
“We’re not there yet,” Yost said.
For now, Perez is preparing for a full workload behind the plate. In the winter, he watched center fielder Lorenzo Cain sign with the Milwaukee Brewers and waited as Hosmer, his close friend, went through the free-agent process. Perez is still hopeful that Hosmer will return. He understands he has little control over the process.
On Wednesday morning, as he stood near his locker, Perez listened to a reporter ask a question. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain is gone now. Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas may be, too. So is Perez seeking to take on a bigger role in the clubhouse?
“I’m big,” Perez said, a sly smile appearing on his face. “I’m the big guy in here. Whatever happens with Hos and Moose, (it) happens you know. I don’t control any of that side. The thing I know in here, we’re going to work hard, we’re going to play hard. I always do. And that’s it.”