Without a doubt, one early blow to the Royals’ 2019 playoff chances happened in Spring Training, when six-time All-Star catcher Salvador Perez underwent Tommy John surgery in early March. The surgery was a major blow for a club looking to rebuild for a second straight season, and it’s obvious that the Royals, currently 22-48 at the 70 game mark, miss his presence in the lineup and field.
However, where do the 2019 Royals miss Salvy the most? While he is a good player and has been a mainstay in the Royals lineup for years, what are the areas where his lack of presence is most felt? And what areas of baseball where his presences is barely missed? I decided to take a look at Baseball Savant to examine different kinds of fielding data to evaluate the Royals’ two primary catchers this year (Martin Maldonado and Cam Gallagher) and Salvy a year ago, and I used Savant and Fangraphs to compare the hitting of the three between 2018 and 2019 (it did include Drew Butera from 2018, and we will discuss his impact as well).
I decide to look at three different categories to evaluate all three catchers: hitting, fielding, and intangibles. Hitting and fielding are pretty self-explanatory, but intangibles includes other factors that may be difficult to measure: what is his impact in the clubhouse? How do they work with pitchers? What kinds of leadership do they bring in the dugout?
So let’s take a look at each of the three categories and then wrap it up at the end with some overall thoughts about the Royals’ catching situation after the 2019 season.
Without a doubt, where the Royals miss Salvy the most is on the offensive end. Salvy has his flaws as a hitter: he doesn’t walk a lot, he swings at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone, and his swinging strike percentage grew in 2018 even though he saw less pitches in the strike zone than ever before (only 37.5 percent of pitches he saw at the plate were in the strike zone). In many ways, Salvy is an undisciplined hitter who doesn’t wow sabermetrics purists out there.
Despite the free-swinging approach, Salvy still sports legitimate power at the plate. In fact, it’s not far fetched to say that Salvy is not just one of the strongest power-hitting catchers in MLB today, but maybe one of the strongest power hitters overall, regardless of position. If you check out in 2018 his profile on Baseball Savant, Salvy ranked in the 89th percentile in terms of exit velocity, 82nd percentile in terms of xSLG percentage, and 92nd percentile in terms of hard hit percentage. When Salvy got a hold of a ball at the plate last season, he could hit out of the park with the best hitters in baseball.
Furthermore, if you look at the four Royals catchers (Salvy, Maldonado, Gallagher, and Butera) and their power metrics between 2018 and so far in 2019, the 29-year-old Venezuelan looks even more impressive, as demonstrated in the table below.
As you can see, when it comes to power metrics (Slugging, OPS and ISO), Salvy has been considerably more impressive than other Royals catchers over the two-year span. Not only does he lead other Royals catchers in this span in those three categories by considerable margins, but he is also better than the averages of those three other catchers combined (notice his ISO is 129 points higher than the average ISO of Maldonado, Butera and Gallagher combined).
In addition to power, Salvy also trumps other Royals over the two-year span in terms of run-production. Much like power, Salvy is a massive upgrade in terms of generating runs on the offensive end over the three catchers on an individual and combined basis.
The numbers are actually incredibly eye-popping, even more so than the power analysis. When compared to the three-catcher average, Salvy was 6.1 runs better in terms of runs above average, 67 points better in wOBA, 46 runs better in wRC+, and 49.7 runs better in wRC. As we all know from sabermetric world, runs correlate strongly to wins, and with this being the case, if Salvy at the very least maintained his performance from 2018 to 2019, the Royals would be a much stronger club in 2019 with more than 22 wins at this point of the season.
Despite the flaws in terms of batting eye and plate discipline, it’s safe to say that Salvy would be a major upgrade over Maldonado or Gallagher this year and the Royals would be performing better…or at least on the offensive end. It’s hard to debate that either of the options Royals fans have seen this year would be better hitting options than the former All-Star.
However, defense is a more complex issue.
When it comes to judging catcher defense, how well a catcher throws it down on stolen base attempts and how well he frames pitches are two of the most important traits to evaluate when it comes to catcher defense. In the category of arm strength and release, Salvy rates pretty strongly; in terms of pitch framing, unfortunately, he rates quite poorly.
In 2018, Salvy displayed one of the stronger arms behind the plate in baseball. His pop time ranked in the 71st percentile, and his exchange time of 0.68 ranked 8th fastest out of qualifying catchers in 2018. Hence, it’s no surprise that he threw out 25 runners in 52 attempts (48 percent) last season.
When it comes to catcher framing though…Salvy is not just worse than Maldonado and Gallagher, but he may be one of the worst catchers in the league in this category. Let’s take a look at his framing charts from a year ago.
As you can see, last season alone, Salvy cost the Royals 11 runs that could have been earned from framing extra strikes. And the percentages look pretty bad as well, as his strike rate at 43.7 ranked in the bottom percentile of MLB catchers last season. In fact, his framing ranked in the 15th percentile out of MLB catchers a year ago, which shows how poor he is in this area of defense.
The thing is, neither Maldonado or Gallagher are much better than average in this category. This season, Maldonado’s framing ranks in the 45th percentile, and he has saved zero runs on extra strikes this year to go along with a strike rate of 48.5 percent. Gallagher is slightly better as he ranks in the 56th percentile, as he has saved one run on extra strikes this year and has a strike rate of 49.2 percent. Yes, they are considerably better than Salvy, but are pretty much average when it comes to MLB catchers overall. Thus, the framing number comparison shows how bad Salvy is when it comes to framing and if there was an area of play where Salvy could have hurt the Royals this season, it definitely would have been in this category.
The big issue with any catcher is how they call a game and how they work and mentor other pitchers. With the exception of Danny Duffy, this pitching staff, especially the starting staff doesn’t have much of a track record of long success, and it’s in this area where Salvy would have had a lot of impact. If there is one thing Salvy gets good reports on, it’s his relationship with pitchers, and working with them in tough situations. After all, he’s an All-Star catcher and World Series champion, so if he has something to say, younger pitchers are going to listen. Unfortunately, I don’t think either Maldonado or Gallagher has that kind of reputation, and I think the early struggles of the Royals’ starting staff was due to the pitchers trying to adjust to Maldonado and Gallagher after not getting much time with them in Spring Training.
And lastly, we know about leadership in the clubhouse is another strength of Salvy. He brings a lot of joy and levity to the team, but he also knows when to push and hold guys accountable when the chips are down. That’s something that’s been missing from this team this season, as it seems they are a bit rudderless, as Gordo and Whit seems to be leaders who lead more by example than voice. I’m not saying Salvy’s clubhouse leadership would flip the Royals’ W-L total. However, I do think he could have helped the Royals in tougher points this season and maybe could have steered the Royals’s focus in the locker room to help steal a few games here and there over this first 70-game span.
Final thoughts on the Royals missing Salvy in 2019
Without a doubt, losing Salvy has been a tough pill to swallow, not just for the Royals team, but the Royals fanbase as well. Salvy has always been one of the most endearing players on this club, and the absence of his energy and presence is definitely noted from this squad. That is not to say Maldonado and Gallagher are doing a bad job, but they are what they are: career backups. They didn’t expect to be regular starters on a club pre-Salvy injury, and yet here they are trying to keep the Royals from being the worst team in baseball.
It will be interesting to see how Salvy transitions beyond 2019. His arm strength will be key to pay attention to, as his pop time and ability to gun down runners has always been one of the strongest parts of his defensive game. However, if he is unable to recover post-surgery in this category, his future behind the plate may be in jeopardy, as it would be tough to justify regular appearances behind the plate for a catcher with a mediocre arm and below average ability to frame pitches for extra strikes.
The Royals don’t have a lot of future options in the minors currently. MJ Melendez may be the best Royals catching prospect, but he’s off to an inconsistent start in Wilmington, and may be a few seasons away from debuting with the Royals at best. So for now, Salvy will be the catcher in 2020…but how Salvy recovers post-surgery next Spring will determine whether Dayton Moore will stick with Salvy until Melendez comes up, or if he starts looking for long-term replacement options sooner rather than later.