Can Salvador Perez be the Royals’ DH in the long-term?

Without a doubt, Salvador Perez has been the offensive MVP of this Royals team thus far. Yes, Nicky Lopez is hitting for a higher average. Yes, Carlos Santana draws more walks. But at the end of the day, in terms of impact, no Royals hitter has done more for the lineup and keeping the Royals in games than Salvy.

Through 106 games and 434 plate appearances (going into Thursday’s game against the White Sox), Salvy has posted a 119 wRC+ and .346 wOBA, which includes a team-high 27 home runs, according to Fangraphs. His most recent bomb came last night against White Sox ace Lucas Giolito, which proved to be an absolute moonshot, as evidenced below:

Salvy’s 119 wRC+ leads all Royals hitters with 100 or more plate appearances this year, according to Fangraphs. In terms of power metrics, Salvy’s hard hit rate not only leads all Royals hitters, but also ranks in the 98th percentile of all of baseball, according to Baseball Savant. In addition, his barrel rate ranks in the 89th percentile, his expected slugging ranks in the 94th percentile, and his average exit velocity on batted balls ranks in the 95th percentile.

Without a doubt, when it comes to power production, Salvy is one of the best hitting catchers in the American League, and maybe one of the better hitters in general this season.

That being said, what has given Salvy such a boost over his career is his ability to surpass the offensive expectations of a catcher at the Major League level. Without a doubt, Salvy truly offers an offensive profile that is pretty atypical to what is expected from the modern day catcher in Major League Baseball (i.e. he’s in the lineup everyday). However, while Salvy is incredibly valuable as a catcher, there has been some thought among Royals fans circles that if Salvy moves off the catching position, he would lose a lot of value, especially considering how “swing-happy” his plate approach is.

Salvy is going to be a part of this Royals team long-term. He just recently signed a contract extension that will keep him in Kansas City until at least 2025 (he has a club option in 2026). That being said, his future behind the plate will be an interesting development, especially the midst of the breakthrough season MJ Melendez is experiencing in Double-A Northwest Arkansas:

Thus, if Salvy needs to step away from catching behind the plate, can he effectively be the Royals’ designated hitter of the future, or at least over the duration of his contract?

Well, the possibility of that being a reality has become more interesting as of late, especially in the midst of Salvy’s stellar season at the dish.

Salvy’s profile on the hitting end has always been a peculiar one. Since fully taking over as the Royals’ catcher in 2013 (he only played in 76 games in 2012), he has only posted a wRC+ over 100 twice from 2013-2018. This is despite hitting 127 home runs total over that timespan, which included four straight seasons of 20 or more home runs from 2014-2018.

A big issue traditionally for Salvy has been his over-eager approach, which has resulted in a lot strikeouts, and not a lot of walks. After posting BB/K ratios of 0.33 and 0.26 in 2013 and 2014, Salvy has failed to post a BB/K ratio over 0.20 since, and in 2020 and 2021, his BB/K ratio has been under 0.10. To compare, the Major League average BB/K ratio has ranged from 0.37-0.39 over that time span, so when it comes to plate discipline, Salvy has really lagged behind the rest of the league.

Over the past two years, Salvy has walked less than ever, as his 1.9 percent walk rate last year was a career low, and his 2.3 percent walk rate this year is the second-lowest rate of his career as well. His chase rate this year has been 46.5 percent, which is a career high, which his a big contributor to his 26.7 percent strikeout rate, another career high. To make matters worse, his chase contact rate is not only a career low at 51.6 percent, but his swing rate is 60.1 percent this year, which is the first time in Salvy’s career (in the Statcast era at least) where it’s ever been in the 60 percent range.

There is not a lot in Salvy’s metrics that hint that what he is doing is sustainable in the long term, offensively. That is further illustrated when looking at his plate discipline metrics, via Fangraphs. Take a look at his swinging strike rate, and how it has increased incrementally over his career:

Notice how every year since 2013 that swinging strike rate has increased. Typically, when one sees that kind of trend for a hitter, it is usually a sign of their regression.

And yet, Salvy is actually improving offensively, especially over the past two years.

But how?

Well, because Salvy is getting stronger and better at barreling the ball.

After posting barrel rates below seven percent in 2015 and 2016, Salvy has seen his barrel rate go from 9.4 percent in 2017 to a career high 14.6 percent in 2021. He also has see an incredible jump in average exit velocity on batted balls over the past three seasons. He failed to hit the 90 MPH range in EV from 2015-2017. Since 2018? That EV hasn’t been below 91 MPH, and he is averaging 93 MPH on batted balls this year, which is a stellar mark.

In addition, he max exit velocity sits at 114.4 MPH, which is nearly a 4 MPH improvement from 2020.

Thus, Salvy’s power is maturing, and that typically is a hitting tool that gets better with age. And thus, with Salvy’s power metrics only getting better, that could be a sign that him being the Royals’ designated hitter of the future could actually be a reality.

Of course, the big issue will be if Salvy’s free-swinging approach will spur a regression. Obviously, posting such lackluster BB/K ratios and high chase rates are not ideal characteristics of a team’s best hitter, especially if they should make hitting their full-time profession at the Major League level. However, while Salvy may never really improve his “plate discipline” per se as he gets older, he is showing some interesting trends when it comes to making productive contact, especially over the past couple of years.

Let’s take a look at his wOBA zone chart from 2015-2018:

And now, let’s take a look at that same wOBA zone chart from the past two seasons.

Notice in those wOBA zone charts how Salvy has been turning on the inside pitches over the past couple of seasons, especially in comparison to 2015-2017. It seems like the opening of Salvy’s stance from 2018 to 2021 has been a big help in terms of him not only recognizing those inside pitches, but also turning on them as well.

Here’s an example of Salvy with a more “closed” stance where he struggles to recognize Carlos Rodon’s slider, which results in an easy strikeout for Rodon:

Now, let’s flash forward to 2021, where Salvy sees a slider from lefty and former Royal Jake Diekman. Not only does Salvy recognize the pitch better, but he’s also able to do more damage on the pitch consequently as well:

As Royals fans can see, Salvy is pouncing on pitches better than ever, and his ability to turn on those pitches on the inside of the strike zone makes him a dangerous hitter who could get even better with age. Maybe he won’t be Santana when it comes to drawing walks, but if he continues to hit with such prodigious power on pitches inside of the strike zone, he may not need to do that as the Royals’ designated hitter in the future.

Now, when does Salvy make this transition to DH?

Well, that will be an interesting development for Royals fans to watch as soon as next year.

It is likely that Melendez will make his Triple-A debut sometime in 2021, and if that’s the case, it is possible that Melendez, along with Sebastian Rivero, who’s on the 40-man roster already, will compete for the backup catching position with Cam Gallagher. As great as Gallagher is with framing, his offense has left a lot to be desired, and at 28-years-old, I am not sure how much long term value he will have for this Royals roster in the next couple of years. Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising if Dayton Moore gets aggressive and perhaps DFA’s Gallagher to make room for Rivero at the Major League level, which would give Melendez a better shot to perhaps make his MLB debut in 2022 or 2023 at the latest.

While Salvy certainly has the Gold Gloves to back up his catching pedigree (five specifically), his defense has taken a major step back this year. He has been 8.3 runs below average, according to Fangraphs’ Def rating, and his framing rates in the bottom ninth percentile of the league, as it has been 14 runs below average when it comes to generating extra strikes, according to Savant. Thus, it may be time to for the Royals to really think about moving Salvy off the position full-time, especially considering his age, declining skills, and the physical demands of catching in the modern day game.

However, while in 2018 it seemed like Salvy needed to be catcher in order to have offensive “value”, he has turned things around at the plate the past two years to prove that his offensive profile may fit at the DH position long-term, should the Royals make that move. Yes, he does strike out a lot and doesn’t walk a lot either to make up for those swings and misses. However, his power seems to be legitimate, and at his age, that power tool will either continue or get better, which is a good sign for Royals fans hoping that Salvy will live up to the monetary amount of his massive contract extension.

Salvy won’t generate a lot of walks over his career as a Royal. He probably will swing at too many bad pitches out of the strike zone, which may drive more analytically-inclined Royals fans crazy.

That being said, Salvy’s power makes him a unique case, and it is possible that the Royals could get a consistent 30 home run hitter who can produce a 100-115 wRC+ with regularity in the next 4-5 years, which would be more than serviceable enough at the DH position. His batted ball metrics hint at sustainability, and the new revamped stance he has adopted the past couple of years could further help his success at the plate beyond this season.

With Melendez looking better than ever in Northwest Arkansas, the Royals would benefit from a younger, fresher, and higher-upside catcher behind the plate in the next couple of years, especially on the defensive end.

And being the Royals designated hitter full-time could give Salvy a chance to focus on his hitting full-time, which could have a positive effect on his BB/K metrics.

Now, will that transition happen in 2022 or 2023?

I guess Royals fans will have to see this Spring and how Melendez fares against Cactus League pitching.

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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