March 15, 2014

Royals working to upgrade Salvador Perez’s catching mask

At the bottom of a heap, Stan Jurga Jr. of All Star Sporting Goods found a group of decade-old catcher’s masks. They were Kelly green, solid steel and about a quarter-pound heavier than hollow steel masks — potentially ideal, in other words, for the Royals’ ongoing quest to protect Salvador Perez.

Inside a cinder block warehouse in Shirley, Mass., Stan Jurga Jr. rummaged through piles of out-of-style baseball equipment last week.

At the bottom of one heap, he found a group of decade-old catcher’s masks. They were Kelly green, solid steel and about a quarter-pound heavier than hollow steel masks — potentially ideal, in other words, for the Royals’ ongoing quest to protect Salvador Perez.

Jurga works for All Star Sporting Goods, the company that sponsors Perez’s gear. Earlier this month, the Royals called Jurga, asking for a heavier mask for Perez, which they think could diffuse the impact of foul balls and reduce the risk of concussions. Jurga intended to shoot the old masks with an air cannon that fires baseballs up to 130 mph, and measure the results compared with Perez’s current hollow steel mask.

“If the heavier masks test better, we’re going to make that for Salvy,” Jurga said Thursday. “Even if that’s something we don’t currently stock. We’ll start making it again.”

The Royals experienced a brief scare on Monday when Perez left a game because a foul tip bruised his left palm. A far more frightening scenario unfolded last August, when Perez absorbed a shot off his mask and missed seven days because of a concussion. He suffered dizziness after a similar incident in September. The organization wants to avoid a repeat.

Perez is vital to the Royals’ success in 2014 and beyond. He reached his first All-Star Game in 2013 and received his first Gold Glove. The organization controls him through 2019, and owes him only $7 million guaranteed. His blend of offensive and defensive skills is a rarity — and something worth preserving.

Jurga hoped to send a prototype mask to Perez to try by this week. On Friday the team received a separate mask fitted with extra padding in his helmet and temples, a product suggested by trainer Nick Kenney. Before spring training ends, if the upgrades appear useful and Perez feels comfortable, the team hopes to weld the two products together.

The precaution does not end there. He will wear a mouthguard for the second year in a row. Bench coach Don Wakamatsu counsels Perez daily on inching closer to the plate, so foul tips will strike his chest, not his head.

“If the force is direct enough that it (moves) the head and makes it shift, you can’t control that,” Kenney said. “So all we’re trying to do is we’re trying to dissipate forces for him as much as we possibly can. That’s what our goal is.”

The Royals rejoiced with the elimination of home-plate collisions for the 2014 season. But the threat of injury still looms. Perez’s 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame makes him an accessible target for the pitching staff. It provides an ample target for in-game flak.

“It’s a hard thing, because he’s a big guy,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “When you’re a big catcher, there’s more that you have to protect.”

In his first year on manager Ned Yost’s staff, Wakamatsu carries various responsibilities. He crafts the daily schedule. He runs each morning’s 8 a.m. staff meeting. But as a former catcher, he considers watching over Perez a primary concern. “That’s probably the No. 1 thing that we think about, is keeping him healthy,” Wakamatsu said.

Wakamatsu spent 2013 as a member of the Yankees’ scouting staff. He followed the Royals last May, when Perez missed extended time on bereavement leave. Perez played only 18 games that month. The team went 8-20 overall. When Wakamatsu interviewed for this job in the winter, he spoke with Moore and Yost about improving Perez’s mask.

Perez would not be the only catcher to switch to older equipment. Tigers catcher Alex Avila and Boston backstop David Ross both adopted solid-steel masks in 2013 after grappling with concussion issues in the past. Ross ditched his hockey-style mask; Avila discarded his lightweight titanium version.

The theory is based on physics. When a foul ball strikes a mask, the energy must be transferred somewhere. With lighter, harder masks, team officials explained, more force is transmitted to the player’s head. The older steel bars better disperse the impact.

“We want something that’s going to be able to give, to bend,” Kenney said.

The equipment alterations are considered a protective remedy. Another option is preventive. After Perez suffered a concussion last season, Yost spoke with him about moving closer to the plate. Wakamatsu reiterated that tip this spring.

The distance can be measured in mere inches. But Wakamatsu considers it vital to shrinking the window for risk. Kenney compared the shift to a hockey goalie moving to the top of the crease and cutting off an opponent’s angle.

“We want to be as far up as we can without interference,” Wakamatsu said. “And you play around with that.”

Perez’s only concern is putting himself in harm’s way of a hitter’s backswing. He said he had no issues inching forward, which was a sign of progress for the club. After the concussion, team officials persuaded Perez to wear a hockey-style mask. He tried it for a time before ditching it. “I didn’t feel comfortable,” Perez said.

During the offseason, Kenney pondered his options. He considered Perez’s comfort imperative. If Perez felt awkward behind the plate, his injury risk would only increase. Kenney wondered if there was a way to keep Perez content but increase his protection.

This month, he met with representatives from a company called Unequal Technologies, which specializes in sports equipment like this. He asked for reinforcements in his mask and skullcap. The extra-padded mask landed in Surprise over the weekend. The heavier mask Jurga found in Massachusetts also could soon be on its way.

In conversations during this process, team officials like Kenney and Wakamatsu insisted these enhancements are not a panacea. They can only prevent so much. But for a player so imperative to this franchise’s future, they will do what they can.

“You try to look at every avenue with a guy like Salvy,” Wakamatsu said.

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