Judging the Royals

Salvador Perez might be baseball’s most talented catcher, but he still needs to pay attention to details

Royals catcher Salvador Perez
Royals catcher Salvador Perez AP

Everybody loves Royals catcher Salvador Perez and no wonder: he’s friendly, has a great smile and is blessed with one of the best arms in baseball.

The average big-league catcher can receive a pitch and throw it to second base in 2.0 seconds; Salvy can do it in 1.8. His throws are not only quick, they’re also accurate and straight; Salvy’s presence behind the plate can shut down the opposition’s running game.

Most fans and reporters assume a catcher who throws out runners is a good catcher, but there’s a heck of a lot more to being a catcher than throwing out runners and that’s where Salvador Perez can sometimes fall short. The ninth inning of Monday’s game provided an example.

How insurance runs change the game

The Royals went into the bottom of the ninth with a 3-1 lead over the Detroit Tigers. A two-run lead is much better than a one-run lead because that insurance run means the man at the plate can’t hurt you. The batter can hit the ball out of the stadium and he still only gets to run around the bases one time.

With a two-run lead pitchers don’t have to nibble, corner infielders don’t have to guard the lines to prevent an extra-base hit and outfielders don’t have to back up to keep the ball in front of them.

Insurance runs simplify the game for the team with the lead. But let one runner get on base and everything changes. Now the pitcher has to be more accurate with his pitches and the defense has to position themselves to prevent a double.

The Tigers’ leadoff hitter in the bottom of the ninth was J.D. Martinez and keeping him off base was job one. So when Kelvin Herrera got Martinez in a two-strike count, the Royals were in great shape.

Right pitch, wrong stance

Catchers use two different stances when receiving a pitch. The first stance is used without a runner on base and catchers try to get in a comfortable position to catch the ball.

The second stance is used when the catcher has runners on; the catcher’s rear end needs to be up and his thighs need to be parallel to the ground. This stance is incredibly uncomfortable (try it, you’ll see), but the catcher needs to be able to come up throwing or move to block a pitch in the dirt.

Now let’s go back to that 2-2 pitch thrown to J.D. Martinez.

Salvy called for a curve and two-strike curves are frequently bounced in the dirt; the pitcher wants the hitter to chase an unhittable pitch. But even though Perez knew a curve was coming and that curve might be bounced, he stayed in his comfortable, no-runners-on stance. He had one leg splayed out to the side, so when Herrera bounced the curve Salvy was in no position to block it. The ball went to the backstop and in Detroit that backstop appears to further away than world peace.

Martinez swung and missed for strike three, but made it to first base while Salvy retrieved the ball. Kelvin Herrera got tagged with a wild pitch and had to deal with a runner on base and the tying run at the plate because Salvador Perez got sloppy.

After that Herrera got a strikeout and a double play ball, so the Royals still beat the Tigers 3-1.

If the Royals won, what’s the big deal?

If you’re thinking: “No harm, no foul” first, that’s the wrong sport and second, teams that want to win consistently can’t afford to think that way.

Bad teams keep making the same mistakes over and over; good teams note mistakes and get them corrected. Little things lead to big things and if J.D. Martinez got on base because Salvador Perez was in the wrong stance and then a subsequent batter hit a two-run, game-tying home run, being in the wrong stance would have seemed like a very big thing.

If getting lazy about what stance he was using was the only time Salvador Perez did not pay attention to detail it would hardly be worth writing about. But it’s not the first time Salvy got sloppy on pitch blocking, and at times his pitch-calling leaves something to be desired. The Royals have lost games when Salvy called too many first-pitch fastballs in a row or decided to throw a slider to an older hitter who could no longer get around on a good fastball.

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all”

Look up that quote and it’s attributed to both George Patton and Vince Lombardi. If there’s an afterlife, wherever they are (and I won’t speculate) those two can fight it out. I’d put my money on George if he got to use those pearl-handled pistols, but if it was bare knuckles Vince would kill him.

But even though I don’t know who said it, there’s still a point: Salvador Perez catches an awful lot of games and if he’s tired he’s a little less likely to get into a difficult stance, throw himself in front of pitch in the dirt or run down the line to back up a routine play at first base.

So if Salvy gets sloppy out of fatigue, some of the blame can go to Ned Yost.

But when the pitchers pitch well, Salvy deserves some credit

Having written all this about one pitch Salvy failed to block it’s only fair to point out that the Royals did win on Monday night and Royals pitchers gave up only one run; Salvador Perez deserves some credit for that.

Perez has also won Gold Gloves, been an All-Star and the MVP of the 2015 World Series, so why gripe?

Because Salvador Perez has so much talent he could be even better than he is and paying more attention to detail can make that happen. Most nights the Royals aren’t good enough to get away with making mistakes and they shouldn’t risk losing a game because their catcher was in the wrong stance.

Now if you think I sound grumpy, just imagine how bad it would be of the Royals lost.