Sam Mellinger

Salvador Perez is the engine that revs the Royals

Royals catcher Salvador Perez
Royals catcher Salvador Perez The Kansas City Star

They fell in love with the smile.

There were other things, of course. Baseball things. The teenager had quick hands. A powerful arm. He swung at a lot of pitches, but he did seem to hit the ball hard. But it’s the smile that drew people in. He was just 16 years old, playing on run-down fields in Venezuela. The games seemed a little brighter when he was playing.

You could see it in the way his teammates treated him, the way they seemed to follow him around and draw off his energy. There was a lot to like about Salvador Perez. The Royals fell in love with that smile.

“Everybody overlooked him at first,” says Rene Francisco, the Royals’ director of international scouting. “Including us. We took a chance.”

“We got lucky,” says Dayton Moore, the general manager. “We can say what we want, but we got lucky there.”

Perez is now an indelible part of the Royals’ revival. He will forever be the one who won the American League Wild Card Game by squeezing the game-winner down the left field line, sending his teammates and the 40,502 people watching into absolute delirium.

He is the favorite player of many in the organization, players and otherwise, and it’s so fitting that he’s the one who ultimately extended the best Royals season in a generation to the American League Division Series against the Angels that begins here Thursday night.

Perez’s story is the Royals’ story, in so many ways and on so many different levels. The Royals had virtually no international scouting presence before 2006, when Moore was hired on a promise from owner David Glass of a fundamental shift in how the franchise would be run. They had just three scouts based outside the United States, and over the previous decade ranked dead last in spending on international talent.

After Moore was hired, the Royals added about a dozen scouts. They now rank among baseball’s biggest international spenders, and on their first trip to Venezuela eight years ago they found the man who would turn into the franchise’s cornerstone catcher.

Scouting 16-year-olds for the big leagues takes some imagination, of course. Especially catchers. That’s a position of leadership, often the bridge from the pitching staff to the position players. It’s important to have a man up to that task, and when he signed with the Royals, Perez spoke little to no English.

His ascent through the minor leagues and then the majors mirrors the Royals’ rise from punchline to playoffs, and that is not a coincidence. Perez was what is called a taxi squad player in the developmental Arizona Fall League as a teenager, which means he could only play on Wednesdays and Saturdays. He was a low-level minor leaguer at the time, but after just a week or two, the organization’s best pitching prospects were begging to pitch on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

When the Royals were building what was eventually called one of the best farm systems in recent baseball history, so much of the focus was on Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and a stable of power pitching arms. But if you asked someone inside the organization who they would bet their life on becoming a good big leaguer, you would almost certainly have heard Perez’s name. He was so quick throwing down to second base that scouts and coaches were sometimes embarrassed to share the times until realizing everyone else’s stopwatches had the same readings.

Around baseball, the beginning of the Royals’ rise is often marked by Aug. 10, 2011, when Perez debuted at Tampa Bay and picked off two runners and had an RBI. He was so excited for that moment that he basically went into paralysis upon hearing he would be in the big leagues, sitting in front of his locker and going speechless — a rarity for him — for two hours. He hit .331 in 39 big league games that first year, and the next season set the franchise record for pickoffs by a catcher.

Both Perez and the Royals have had an unsteady rise, of course. Perez missed half of 2012 with a knee injury, and the Royals went from trendy playoff pick to losing 90 games. This was the beginning of what is now a three-years-and-counting run of the team basically speed-dating its hitting coaches.

But, then, this team has always tended to go in large part as Perez goes. It’s no coincidence that when he played his first full season in 2013, he made the All-Star team, won a Gold Glove, and the Royals won 86 games — their most since 1989.

Perez’s offensive numbers slipped a little in 2014, particularly late in the season. Fatigue is almost certainly to blame. Perez started 10 more games and caught 66 more innings than any catcher in baseball. In fact, no man in the last six years has caught more innings in a season than Perez did this year. Even so, Perez was absolutely critical to the Royals pushing to the playoffs. He made the All-Star team again, and is gaining a reputation as the American League’s best catcher.

That reputation is now flashed by the greatest moment of the greatest Royals season in a generation, and it’s somehow fitting how it happened. Jason Hammel threw a 2-2 slider low and well outside the strike zone. It is the same pitch coaches have been pleading with Perez to lay off, because it’s the same pitch that every opposing team’s scouting report says he’ll swing at and miss. Perez has struck out on that pitch time and time again these last few months. Actually, struck out on that pitch earlier in the game — twice.

This time, however, Perez leaned across the plate, lunged his bat toward the path of the pitch and, somehow, pulled it down the left field line for a moment that will be replayed in Kansas City forever with that smile the franchise fell in love with eight years ago. The man signed on the new front office’s first trip through Venezuela, the cornerstone catcher around whom so much of this is being built, gave the franchise its first playoff win in 29 years by swinging at a pitch the coaches have been begging him not to swing at.

Moore says the Royals got lucky with how far and how quickly Perez developed. You know, sometimes lucky is better than good, especially in the right moment.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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