Royals catcher Salvador Perez was out of the lineup Sunday as the club concluded its series against the Texas Rangers. In some ways, this was standard procedure. The Royals were set to play a day game after a night game. The temperatures at Kauffman Stadium were expected to be in the mid 90s. Manager Ned Yost viewed it as a logical time for a day off.
But take a step back and an interesting trend emerges. Perez, 27, remains on pace to log his lightest workload behind the plate in five years. The Royals hope the additional days off yield benefits in August and September.
Perez has started at catcher in 69 of the Royals’ first 90 games. He is on pace for 126 starts behind the plate, which would be his fewest since 2013. He is also on pace to play just 1,083 innings at catcher, his fewest since 2012.
That season, of course, Perez was limited to just 74 starts behind the plate after sustaining a knee injury during spring training. In the years that followed, his playing time became the subject of yearly debates. From 2013 to 2015, Perez averaged 135 starts at catcher during the regular season, the most in baseball. The club’s postseason runs in 2014 and 2015 added to the burden.
But in two seasons since Perez signed a five-year, $52.5 million extension, Yost has sought to lessen the load.
“You’re getting into June and July now, you’re looking to keep Salvador as fresh as you can for the run,” Yost said. “Because we know that this second half is going to be a long, grueling, grinding run.”
For now, Yost says he has not seen tangible signs that the lighter work load is paying off. He believes they could surface in August and September. Perez is hitting .281 with a .310 on-base percentage and 18 homers after he grounded into a force-out while pinch hitting in the ninth inning of a 4-3 win Sunday. He started another All-Star Game and is on pace to post an OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) above .800 across a full season for the first time in his career. The question: Can he avoid the late-season offensive fades that have defined his recent seasons?
In 2016, Perez clubbed 14 homers and posted a .818 OPS during the first half. In 61 games after the All-Star break, he batted just .201 with eight homers and a .605 OPS. A similar, though less pronounced, trend emerged in 2015. Perez hit 15 homers and posted a .726 OPS in the first half. He cranked just six homers and logged a .680 OPS after the break.
“It takes a wear and tear,” Yost said of the catcher position. “Especially somebody that’s as big and physical as he is. There’s benefits to just trying to keep him fresh.”
The Royals recognized the issue. In the months after the 2016 season, Perez dropped 25 pounds in an effort to remain fresh over 162 games and extend his career behind the plate. He will likely smash his career highs in homers (22) and RBIs (79).
“Hopefully,” Perez said, “I can stay like this the rest of my career.”
As the Royals ponder Perez’s workload, Yost says he weighs other factors as well. The coaching staff feels more comfortable with reserve Drew Butera in the lineup, especially after he displayed some growth on offense last season. They have also utilized the designated hitter position, giving Perez a career-high 10 starts at DH during the season’s first half.
“Have I seen the benefits of it yet?” Yost asked. “Nah, not really. But you’ll see it in September. When it really gets to the end of August and September, you’ll see it.”