Three takeaways from Salvy’s return to the Royals in 2020

I am not sure if the Royals do a “Comeback Player of the Year” team award at the end of the season. But if they do, the early favorite for the award has to be catcher Salvador Perez, who has been one of the Royals’ best offensive players over the first 19 games of this shortened 2020 season. Currently, Salvy is posting a .327/.341/.557 slash with an OPS of .898 in 82 plate appearances this season. While Salvy has proven to be a power threat for the Royals from 2015-2018, as he hit 20-plus home runs each year during that time span, his plate discipline and ability to hit for average have been more questionable during that time span. In 2018 for example, he only hit .235 and he struck out 108 times and only earned 17 free passes in 544 plate appearances. And thus, with a year off from play, many Royals fans wondered how Salvy’s performance in these categories would fare, and how it would impact the Royals’ overall lineup.

Much to the relief of Royals fans, Salvy’s results so far are promising, as evidenced by his stellar slash line. And while Salvy has not been perfect by any means, there are some interesting metrics and trends that surface as the Royals have hit the 1/3rd mark of the 60-game season. Based on those metrics and trends, let’s take a look at three takeaways many Royals fans may have from Salvy’s strong performance so far this year.

Salvy is continuing to hit the ball harder with age (even if it comes at the expense of plate discipline)

Salvy just turned 30 years old this season, which is remarkable considering he’s been in the league for about nine seasons and is a six-time All-Star. However, one interesting development in Salvy’s career is how he’s developed when it comes to making hard contact as a hitter. From 2015-2018, according to Statcast Data, Salvy has increased his hard hit rate every season, as it has gone from 32.6 percent in 2015 to 37.8 percent in 2016 to 39 percent in 2017 to 47.5 percent in 2018. In fact, his hard hit rate in 2018 ranked him in the top eight percent of the league, which gave Royals fans hope in his future as a hitter even with the decline in plate discipline over that same time span (he didn’t post a BB/K ratio above 0.18 from 2015-2018, according to Fangraphs).

So far this season, Salvy has continued that trend of hitting the ball hard. His hard rate is up at 48.5 percent, and though his barrel rate is slightly lower in comparison to his last year of play (9.1 this year in comparison to 10.8 percent in 2018), he still ranks in the 64th percentile of the league, which is still a pretty comfortable ranking considering he missed a whole season of play. And considering he ranks in the top three percent of the league in expected slugging, expected WOBA, and expected WOBA on contact, it is safe to say that Salvy has been one of the most productive offensive catchers in the American League so far this year.

What’s also interesting about his performance so far is that Salvy continues to succeed at the plate despite his free-swinging approach. His walk rate sits at 2.4 percent, and his BB/K ratio is 0.14, which would be the lowest rates in his career in both categories. He also is posting a swing rate of 60.9 percent, which would also be a career high in that category. While he is making slightly better contact than two years ago (79 percent in comparison to 77.5 percent), it’s still not as high as it could be, as Salvy did post contact rates above 80 percent in 2015 and 2017.

Salvy is benefiting from an abnormally high BABIP, as it currently sits at .355. Salvy has a career BABIP of .285, so it’s possible that Salvy’s average and some other metrics could plummet at some point this year when that BABIP regresses eventually. That being said, Salvy is continuing to hit the ball with power, which should still keep him productive even despite that expected regression.

Salvy’s framing has improved (slightly)

Defensively, Salvy has a pretty strong history behind the plate when it comes to blocking balls and throwing runners out (which has contributed to his five Gold Gloves). However, his framing has always been one of the weakest aspects of his game. Since 2015, according to Stacast, Salvy has been 42 runs below average on extra strikes, and has constantly been in the lower percentiles of MLB catcher each year during that time span.

So far this season, Salvy has improved his framing metrics from 2018. He has only lost one run to extra strikes this year and his strike rate is 46.8 percent, which is not only a sign that he is getting better at stealing strikes this year, but it is also 3.1 percent improvement from 2018. Now, this doesn’t mean Salvy has suddenly become one of the best framing catchers in Major League Baseball. He still ranks in the 23rd percentile of Major League qualified catchers this year. That being said, even if he can be around league average or just slightly below (if he can creep up to that 30th or even 40th percentile by season’s end), then it is possible that he can not only improve his value defensively to the Royals, but he could also garner his sixth Gold Glove as well.

Is Salvy making his case that he’s a Hall of Famer?

Somebody posted this question to me on Twitter and it got me thinking about Salvy’s Hall of Fame candidacy (and I’m talking about the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, not the Royals Hall of Fame, which he is a lock for membership):

I took a look at Jay Jaffe’s JAWS Leaders for catchers on today to see where Salvy ranks in terms of catchers currently in the Hall of Fame. Currently, based on JAWS (Jaffe’s adjusted WAR that is more considerate to Hall of Fame candidacy per position), Salvy ranks 60th with a JAWS of 21.8 (he’s just slightly behind Carlos Ruiz). However, a huge boost to Salvy’s candidacy is that he is only nine seasons into his Major League career. If he can stay healthy and play another 9 years, it is possible that he could accumulate a JAWS of at least 18-20, which would put him in the 39-42 JAWS range by the end of his playing career, which would be around 38 or 39 years old.

Currently, the lowest ranking catcher member of the Hall of Fame, according to JAWS, is Rick Ferrell who has a JAWS of 26.1. However, considering guys like Javy Lopez (27.3) and Jason Kendall (36) are above him and probably are not making the HOF, Salvy will need to hit that 40 or higher mark, in my opinion, to make a serious case for HOF consideration. If he passes Buck Ewing, who is 14th with a JAWS of 39.4, I think Salvy should have a solid candidacy for membership in Cooperstown. He’ll have the metrics certainly if he has a JAWS of 40 or above, and he’ll also have a lot of sentimental factors that will endear him to voters: he’s never tested positive for PEDs; he has a World Series title; he had a big playoff moment (his game-winning hit against the A’s in the epic 2014 Wild Card game); and he would be the first Venezuelan catcher to make the HOF.

Of course, that all depends on Salvy staying healthy and continuing his production over the next decade. While he may not have much time behind the plate, I do think the lost year of 2019 should extend him behind the plate for a little bit longer, which means that he may be able to play catcher for four or five more years productively before he platoons as catcher/first base/designated hitter hybrid (much like a Victor Martinez or Joe Mauer at the end of their careers).

The only other current candidate Salvy will be battling with for a Hall of Fame spot is Buster Posey, who ranks 16th in JAWS with a total of 39.2 over his 11-year career. However, with prospect Joey Bart waiting in the wings in San Francisco, it’s unlikely how long Posey will stay behind the plate, let alone in baseball, especially after he decided to sit out this year due to COVID concerns. If Salvy can gain closer to the San Francisco Giant over the second half of his career, then it is possible that Salvy could boost his HOF candidacy more, especially since it seems like a lock that Posey will be inducted into the HOF as well when his career is over.

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