Drew Butera backs up Salvador Perez, the Royals’ veritable iron-man All-Star catcher. But Butera thinks like an everyday player.
“Mentally, I come to the park every day thinking that I’m going to play … in case he’s banged up a little bit, I’m always ready to play,” Butera said.
Royals manager Ned Yost, who was a backup catcher in the big leagues, raves about how Butera fills that role.
“We all feel, now more than ever, more comfortable with giving Salvy days off because we know that we’re covered defensively back there with him,” Yost said of Butera. “I mean he’s just a tremendous backup. If you were going to write a book and say, ‘OK, this is the attributes that you need for a perfect backup catcher’ — he hits every one of them.”
Butera said Yost hasn’t told him one thing in particular about the role of the backup. But Yost has given him something valuable for the job: confidence.
“There have been times where we’ve lost 2-1, and I’m like, ‘Man, we should have done this,’” Butera said. “I’ll get on the plane, he’ll grab me: ‘Hey, great job today. That was a hard game. You blocked a bunch of balls.’
“There are times that I’ll be, not down, but like ‘Man, we should’ve won that game.’ He’ll kind of pull me aside and give me that extra confidence.”
Butera added of Yost: “He understands my position. He understands what this role is, so it’s been really cool to work with him.”
Butera stood at his locker one recent morning and talked about all the ways he stays sharp for his infrequent starts. He works with catching coach Pedro Grifol on defensive drills such as blocking, throwing and receiving. Butera praises Grifol in the same breath he does Yost: “It’s been a lot of fun working with both of them.”
Butera said he catches every between-starts throwing session by starting pitchers. “This way I’m familiar with all the pitchers — say I don’t catch (Jason) Vargas for two weeks and then (Perez) gets banged up,” he said. “I got to go in there. I’m familiar with what Vargas is doing. I’m familiar with how his pitches are moving.”
Butera also goes to the bullpen during the game to warm up relievers.
“Depending on how the game is going, I’ll stay on the bench for probably about five innings, and then I’ll head down there,” he said. “But for me, that’s the way I feel I’ll stay fresh and be able to go in if something happens to (Perez) when they pinch run for him in the eighth inning.
“I’m loose. I’m ready to go. It doesn’t take long for me to get ready.”
Butera, 33, is a seven-year big-league veteran. He’s never been a full-time regular. As long as Perez stays healthy, Butera is not likely to approach his career-high of 75 starts (with Minnesota in 2011).
In 2014, the season before Butera arrived, Perez was so busy that, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Perez set a big-league record: 161 starts at catcher over the regular season and postseason.
In 2015, Butera joined the Royals from the Angels early in the season. He started 23 games for the Royals that season and 34 last season. Now he’s beginning a two-year contract as Perez’s colleague.
“Drew is one of the best backups I’ve ever had,” Perez said. “He helped me. He’s got a good personality and (is a) nice teammate ... so it’s good when you have people like that and he understands his job. He knows he’s going to play when I get a day off. ... He’s one of the best backups I’ve had.”
If Butera is going to start a game, he usually finds out from Yost at least one day in advance.
“They’ve been really good with me, letting me know when I’m going to play, to prepare for that,” Butera said.
Butera may be well-versed in his routine that keeps him ready defensively, but last season he contributed offensively, too. He had a career-high four homers to go with his 16 RBIs. He hit .285 — the first time in his seven-year career he hit above .200.
“He took a big jump in his offense last year — really started to understand what it took to be a productive hitter,” Yost said.
There’s one more reason Butera is an ideal backup catcher. He’s not seeking Perez’s starting job.
“We have a common goal,” Butera said. “It’s not like I’m trying to take his job. It’s not like he doesn’t want me to play. We have a common goal, and that’s to win.
“Honestly, we both want to play, but we both believe if he plays 162 games and we win every game, fine. If I play 162 games and we win every game, fine. Our goal is to win a World Series, and we share that common interest.”
Shelby Hyde is reporter for Cronkite News at Arizona State University.