With no Major League season in sight anytime soon, it has gotten me to think about various Royals questions roster-wise, especially if no season occurs this year. While that would be massively disappointing to Royals as well as general baseball fans everywhere, the idea of a missed season would also affect many Royals players throughout the organization (i.e. both Major and Minor League players). While there are some obvious candidates when it comes to “most affected,” such as Ian Kennedy and Alex Gordon, who will be free agents after this year (I think Kennedy is more affected, for I think the Royals will bring back Gordo another year if they don’t play in 2020), there are some ones who are going under the radar.
Salvador Perez is the prime example of that latter case.
Now, Salvy is an interesting player because he will not be a free agent until after the 2021 season. So in reality, the Royals have two more seasons with the 29-year-old catcher before Dayton Moore and the organization have to make a decision on Salvy, who is currently the second-highest paid player on the team in 2020 (behind only Kennedy). But, with this season in question, and Salvy potentially missing two full years of baseball, Moore and the Royals may have to start planning what to do when it comes to the backstop position after 2021.
Which makes Royals fans wonder: do the Royals view Salvy as their Yadier Molina, who is considered the heart and soul of the St. Louis Cardinals and has been with the Cardinals for nearly 16 seasons? Or will the Royals move on from Salvy in 2021, and perhaps look to a younger option and try to build the roster in his absence, since a lot of money will be available to the Royals after Salvy’s contract comes off the books?
Let’s take a look at what Salvy offers the Royals and whether or not Moore will include the Royals star in the club’s plans long term.
The Royals weren’t expected to do much in 2019. After all, they went 59-103, only a one-game improvement from their 58-104 mark the year before in 2018. However, the loss of Salvy late in 2019 Spring Training seemed to have a strong impact on the club from the start. The Royals, though talented, didn’t seem to have the strong clubhouse leadership in 2019 that they had in the past, and undoubtedly, that was probably due to Salvy’s extended absence. While Gordo is a great leader by example, and some other players, like Hunter Dozier and Whit Merrifield stepped up, they couldn’t replicate the clubhouse presence that Salvy brought in seasons prior.
However, in addition to leadership, Royals fans have to wonder if Salvy’s absence had an effect on a starting pitching staff that struggled immensely in 2019. Last year, the Royals pitching staff ranked 27th in WAR and FIP, according to Fangraphs. While the Royals staff talent-wise wasn’t much to shout about it, the rotating carousel behind the plate probably didn’t help things, as the Royals had Martin Maldonado, Cam Gallagher, Meibrys Viloria, and Nick Dini all put time in as Royals catcher. Thus, it’s unlikely that the Royals staff gained much momentum or a rhythm over the course of the year, especially with so many catchers suiting up in Kansas City a season ago.
Case in point: the Royals actually ranked 20th in starting pitching WAR and 22nd in FIP in 2018, according to Fangraphs. Those are much better metrics than last year’s totals, even though the 2018 team was worse overall. And the common denominator? Consistency behind the plate, as Salvy caught 831 of 1431 total innings caught from Royals catchers a year ago, a 58 percent mark. Last year? Those marks were far more spread out, as Maldonado caught 604 innings (42 percent), with Gallagher catching 325 innings (22 percent), and Viloria catching 345 innings (24 percent). Without a “set” catcher, let alone an All-Star one like Salvy, it is not surprising that the Royals starting pitching didn’t produce consistently on the mound a season ago.
And while Salvy’s pitch-calling and chemistry with starting pitchers was widely missed last year, the lack of Salvy’s bat in the lineup didn’t help things either. In 2018, the Royals ranked 22nd in baseball in terms of wRC+ with a mark of 76, and they also ranked 2nd in catcher home runs with 30, which was mostly helped by Salvy’s 27 that season. In 2019, the Royals regressed significantly, ranking 25th in wRC+ with a mark of 65, nearly 11 points worse. Furthermore, the Royals lacked any kind of power from their catcher position, as they ranked 27th in homers (12 total) and 26th in ISO.
Safe to say, the Royals missed Salvy in more ways than one in 2019. And thus, there was reason to hope that the Royals could overachieve in 2020 with Salvy’s return behind the plate and in the lineup. After all, the Royals experienced breakout seasons from hitters like Jorge Soler and Dozier. The return of Salvy to go along with Soler and Dozier and a consistent Whit Merrifield and Gordo? Well, it was possible to think that the Royals could have had the most underrated lineup in the AL Central in 2020.
Of course, they still can…the season isn’t officially cancelled just yet, even if it doesn’t look good.
With this information being known, it seems obvious that Moore should sign Salvy to an extension after 2021. He’ll be 31, still relatively young, and after recovering all of 2019, he may have an extra year or two in the tank thanks to that year off. After all, catcher is one of the most brutal positions physically on a baseball player, so in actuality, a season off may have benefited Salvy in terms of extending his career, especially behind the plate, which is where he seems to want to be long term (though there has been some talk about him moving to first or DH). So a fresher Salvy in 2020 and 2021 could only mean good things for Salvy: more innings behind the plate, more production at the dish, and better leadership in the clubhouse and with the starting rotation.
Unfortunately it’s just not that easy.
First off, the biggest reservation about Salvy may be his lackluster plate discipline, as Salvy is known for swinging at any and everything around the strike zone. While Salvy did hit 27 home runs in 2019, he also had a swinging strike percentage of 12.8, the highest of his career, according to Fangraphs. In fact, Salvy has become less and less disciplined as a hitter over his career, not necessarily a good sign: typically, hitters trend in the opposite direction. In 2013, Salvy had a swinging strike percentage of 6.2 percent, and nearly six years later, that percentage doubled. That is further compounded by him getting worse at swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, as he went from swinging at 36.4 percent of pitches outside the zone in 2013 to 48.4 percent in 2018.
Considering Salvy hasn’t face any pitching in a year, it seems likely that Salvy’s whiff percentage will go up in 2020 (or 2021 if we miss the year). The question of course is how much will it go up, and how will it affect his other metrics (specifically his power ones)?
The next big issue with Salvy is his defense, which is a bit of a mixed bag. Salvy has a gun, as he gunned down 25 runners in 2018, which was the fourth-highest mark in the league. However, when it comes to advanced metrics, Salvy’s resume is a lot more questionable, as he ranked 3rd worst in frame runs out of MLB catchers with 750 or more innings in 2018. His framing isn’t a one-year thing either, as even before 2018, Salvy has often rated as one of the worst framers in the league.
Yes, Salvy brings a lot of power to the plate as a Royals catcher. Furthermore, he may have an arm and a good relationship with his pitchers. That being said, it will be hard for him to continue behind the plate long term in Kansas City if his framing continues to be so bad in the future. The Royals can’t give away strikes and put base runners on because of poor framing, especially with a starting staff that isn’t expected to be much better in 2020 than they were last season.
Catcher is one of the more interesting positions in baseball when it comes to how teams invest in their starting catcher. If a team has a really good one, like a Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, or Yadier Molina, they tend to invest large and long-term into that particular catcher. However, if they feel like that catcher is “on the fence” or is not quite a star player, they’re willing to part ways fast, and go with more defensive-oriented catchers who can save runs with their framing and defense rather than their bat. Hell, just look at how long a career Jeff Mathis has had in baseball even though he’s a mediocre hitter at best.
The big question Moore and the Royals will have to ask themselves is this: does Salvy mean as much to this Royals team as Yadier Molina does to the Cardinals? While that is a specific reference, the correlations are there: Yadier is the face of the franchise in St. Louis, and Salvy is the same in Kansas City. Much like Yadier was the last remnant of the Cardinals World Series title in 2011, Salvy most likely will be in the same boat by 2021. And while Yadier leads the clubhouse and is the heart and soul of the Cardinals, one can say the same about Salvy with the Royals.
Of course, Salvy isn’t at that Molina point just yet. Molina is currently 37 years-old, so he has some age and seasons on the younger Royals catcher, who isn’t even 30 just yet. But, the big question is this: will Moore view Salvy like the Cardinals view Molina come contract time in the Winter of 2021? It is likely that Salvy will look for a 4-5 year deal after his contract expires, which makes sense because at 31-years-old, Salvy will have some leverage when it comes to his age. But considering his recent injury history, size, and flaws in his game (especially when it comes to plate discipline and framing), it’s still unclear if Moore will be eager to commit such a long-term deal to Salvy, especially if the Royals aren’t necessarily showing signs of contention by that time.
It’s still a while, but the time will come sooner than Royals fans will think, especially if this season is cancelled. If the Royals don’t play in 2020, that only gives Salvy one year to prove he is worth a long-term extension, and Moore one year to figure out what that contract number is and if Salvy is worth keeping in Kansas City long term. There is no question the kind of fan support and enthusiasm Salvy brings to the ballpark, and how much he is beloved in KC, especially after helping bring the Royals a World Series title in 2015.
That being said, baseball is a business, and in business, hard, unpopular decisions have to be made. It will be interesting to see if Moore will make an unpopular decision with Salvy, especially if he regresses significantly this year (if they play) or next.
I guess it all depends if Moore views Salvy as the Royals’ Molina. If he doesn’t, it’s likely that Salvy will be playing for another club in 2022.
If Moore does believe in that comparison though, it is likely that not only will Salvy get an extension, but also spend his entire career as a Royal. And as a result, Salvy will bring the same infectious energy and leadership to the Royals clubhouse and Kauffman Stadium for years to come, much to the delight of Royals nation.
Furthermore, it also will be likely that Royals fans will see Salvy’s jersey retired along with George Brett and Frank White in the Royals Hall of Fame if Salvy spends his entire career in Kansas City.
I guess Royals fans will know for sure by 2022.