If the content of this column is to be proven valid, it will take years, and require that Salvador Perez be less than halfway through his time as a major-league baseball player.
It will require him to remain healthy, remain leaner, and remain at catcher for as long as possible. It will require him to stay focused and motivated, to continue a journey from awful plate discipline to at least mediocre plate discipline.
It will require him to prove that the first half of his fifth full season as the Royals’ catcher is not just the best of his life so far, but something closer to his new normal as he enters what should be the height of his career.
In other words: It is far too early to talk with any certainty about whether Perez will someday be inducted to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
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But it’s not too early to wonder.
“Of course he can,” said George Brett, the only Hall of Famer to play most of his career with the Royals. “He’s got a chance, yeah. If he’s 10 years in a row the starting catcher for the American League in the All-Star game? Holy (expletive).”
This is a real thing with Perez now as he’s set for his fifth All-Star game on Tuesday, just two months after his 27th birthday. He is a perennial All-Star, a key part of a World Series champion, author of one of the most iconic moments in Royals history, and just now entering what should be the prime of his career.
Already, he has been chosen to more All-Star teams than Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, and Carlton Fisk at the same age. Yogi Berra made the fifth of his 15 All-Star teams — most ever by a catcher — when he was 27.
At the moment, just 18 catchers are in the Hall of Fame. Third base is the only field position represented less. Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Joe Mauer (whether he’ll be thought of as a catcher by then or not) will also be given varying levels of consideration.
Nine men have made at least nine All-Star teams as catchers, and all but two of them are in the Hall of Fame. Perez could reach that mark shortly after turning 31.
Perez has made the All-Star team and won the Gold Glove every year he’s played a full season, a sign that he is seen as the best at his position in the league. Now, for many reasons, All-Star appearances are a flawed way to judge Hall of Famers.
Because Perez will have to hit.
Compared to the 13 Hall of Fame catchers who played in the big leagues after the dead-ball era, Perez would rank eighth in games and plate appearances, sixth in home runs, and next to last in on-base-plus-slugging through age 27. So even with his defensive reputation, he needs more production.
Which may be beginning right now. Perez is hitting .288 with a .318 on-base and .528 slugging percentage, 17 home runs, and 55 RBIs. He is on pace for career highs in most important statistical categories.
Scouts are noticing a smarter, more balanced approach. One said he sees Perez using early plate appearances to set up later swings, and more hard contact consistently. He is still primarily a pull hitter, with a well-earned reputation for chasing pitches outside the strike zone, but what one scout termed “a more educated approach” is helping him produce the way you’d expect a talented hitter entering the prime of his career.
The most unpredictable part of projecting Perez’s future is his health. If he develops chronic knee problems, or moves away from catcher in the next few years, this is all wasted energy.
He is big for a catcher, and seems to have stubbornly bad luck in taking hits and deflections while behind the plate. He lost a significant amount of weight before this season, in part with longevity in mind.
So it can’t be a total coincidence that he’s producing better than ever while in improved physical shape. If you give him the benefit of the doubt in continued general health and weight management, it’s easy to imagine him with numbers that would demand consideration for the Hall of Fame.
He’s currently on pace for about 160 hits, 35 doubles, and 33 home runs this season. Let’s give him an average of 155 hits, 33 doubles, and 28 homers through age 31, and then a gradual drop-off before playing his last full season at age 35.
That would be an early retirement, and assume he would not hang around as a DH to build up some counting statistics.
But in this hypothetical, Perez would end up with more than 2,000 hits, 400 doubles, and 300 home runs.
Carlton Fisk and Ivan Rodriguez are the only catchers to achieve all three of those marks, and both played well past their 35th birthdays. Ted Simmons and Lance Parrish are the only catchers to achieve any of those marks and not be inducted to the Hall of Fame.
If you’re more into advanced metrics, stretching Perez’s current pace in a similar way — peak production through 31, then a gradual drop-off before retiring at 35 — would put Perez about eight Wins Above Replacement under the average career total of Hall of Fame catchers, according to the numbers on Baseball Reference.
All of this is admittedly and obviously speculative. So much could go wrong, to make any discussion of Perez as a potential Hall of Famer look a little like discussion of Mike Sweeney as one of the game’s premier right-handed hitters in 2002.
His position, size, and style all make him an injury risk. A young star, someone like Gary Sanchez, could replace Perez as the American League’s premier catcher. An approach that’s still too pull-centric and vulnerable to breaking pitches out of the zone could cut off his production.
Who knows? Perez wouldn’t be the first or last player on the fringe of a Hall of Fame track to fall behind pace somewhere along the way.
But he is the first player since Brett to have what looks like a realistic chance at induction this far into a career that will almost certainly be spent mostly with the Royals.