Without a doubt, there is no one more important to this 2021 Royals squad than Salvador Perez.
On an offensive basis, he has pretty much carried this Royals lineup, as he is posting a 126 wRC+ in 526 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, he leads the team with 37 home runs*, with another one coming in Saturday’s win against the Mariners:
(*I was writing this during the game, and he hit his 38th as I was writing. I mention this in the section below)
With a little over a month left in play, it’s plausible that Salvy could perhaps tie or surpass Jorge Soler’s franchise record of 48 home runs in a single season (at the very least, Salvy should be the second Royal in history to touch the 40-home run mark in a single season). While Salvy does still sport a free-swinging approach (he is posting a 0.15 BB/K ratio), the 31-year-old Venezuelan catcher is proving that on a hitting end, he has been well-worth the massive extension the Royals inked him to this off-season.
That being said, while Salvy is beloved in Kansas City for his play and personality, he seems to be a more polarizing player in general baseball circles, especially outside of Kansas City. After a more well-known baseball writer posted a Tweet that characterized Salvy as having “Mike Piazza’s bat with Yadier Molina’s glove”, a fire storm of Salvy “hate” seemed to erupt on Twitter, which I pointed out yesterday after the Royals’ 4-2 win in Seattle.
The Tweet has gotten a lot of sharing and reactions, which I understand. Royals fans (and KC sports fans in general) are loyal, and any time a beloved figure is threatened, they come out in full force (don’t search any Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes threads).
At the same time, while I don’t necessarily agree wholly with the Salvy criticism, it has made me wonder as a Royals fan: Are we perhaps overrating Salvy a bit? Or are the more “analytically-based” baseball fans just being too hard on Salvy because he’s not really good in one specific area (i.e. framing)?
I think it’s a combination of both, but I wanted to see specifically where Salvy detractors were coming from, and look at areas where Royals fans may be looking at Salvy with “rose-colored” glasses. Therefore, I take a look at both the good and bad of Salvy, and not just this season, but throughout his career as well.
Where Salvy “excels” as a player
It goes without saying that offensively, Salvy is a Top-3 catcher in terms of offensive production. I am not going to use fWAR solely, because Fangraphs’ WAR does account defense into the mix. However, based on Fangraphs’ Off rating, Salvy has been 15 runs above average offensively for a catcher, which places him third overall in the league, and first overall of American League catchers. Yes, in terms of wRC+, Salvy does lag behind the White Sox’s Yasmani Grandal (145 wRC+) and the Rays’ Mike Zunino (133 wRC+), but I think Salvy’s Off should be weighted more heavily than wRC+ for one primary reason: the sheer amount of plate appearances that Salvy has compared to his competition.
In this game, durability is so key, especially for a position as physically exhausting as catcher.
In 2021, Salvy has played in 128 of the Royals’ 129 games going into Sunday, and he has also accumulated 526 plate appearances. To compare, Grandal has only accumulated 256 plate appearances and Zunino has accumulated on 294 plate appearances. Thus, while the wRC+ numbers are better, Salvy should be given some slack in this category, simply because he has nearly double the amount of plate appearances of Grandal and Zunino. Yes, Salvy has played a lot at DH, but that just goes to show his offensive value to the Royals. The White Sox and Rays can afford to not play their catchers every day, while the Royals cannot, and thankfully, even as a DH, Salvy profiles well, due to his home run power.
In addition, Grandal and Zunino do walk more than Salvy, but when it comes to striking out, they aren’t necessarily “better” by any means. Grandal does post an insane walk rate at 23.8 percent, but he also strikes out 25.4 percent. Zunino strikes out a whopping 37.1 percent, which leads all catchers with at least 230 plate appearances. As for Salvy, he is striking out 26 percent of the time, which isn’t that much worse than Grandal, and is a whole lot better than Zunino.
Also, while Grandal is a walk machine, I do wonder how helpful being such a “walk” guy is for a catcher. Having a 23.8 percent walk rate would be incredible for a leadoff hitter or someone with more speed. That being said, Grandal is a station-to-station runner, and he’s actually been pretty poor on the basepaths, even by catcher’s standards, on a BsR (baserunning runs) basis. Going into Sunday’s game, he is 0.9 runs worse than Salvy in this category.
Could Salvy walk more? Sure, but Salvy trades batted balls for walks, and thankfully for Royals fans a lot of those batted balls have become hits, which has helped this Royals offense immensely, especially considering the inconsistency in the Royals lineup this year.
Lastly, on an offensive end, what Salvy is doing on a batted ball end is incredible for any hitter in baseball, let alone a catcher. Here is a look at his Baseball Savant percentile rankings entering Sunday’s finale against the Mariners:
Therefore, when it comes to offense, yes, Salvy could walk more, but his ability to barrel balls and hit for power makes up for it, especially as a catcher, where that skill set is more of a premium.
Now, let’s take a look at defense, which is where Salvy gets most of his grief from detractors.
I decided to take a look at his advanced fielding metrics via Fangraphs, since it seemed like many people were using the argument against Salvy via Fangraphs data. Here is how Salvy looks based on that data, omitting framing, which I will go into a bit later:
Now, when it comes to defense, I think Salvy fall somewhere in the middle from the narratives that are being thrown out there on the Web. Without a doubt, his arm is elite, and even Fangraphs shows him being incredible when it comes to saving runs on stolen bases (33 runs above average over his career). He even rates pretty well overall in terms of defensive runs saved, which stems from a whole bunch of factors (framing, arm, blocking for example). So while Salvy is NOT a good framer, he has demonstrated an ability to make up for it in other areas of catching defense, which has made him a positive, though not spectacular, defensive catcher.
For some context, let’s take a look at where Grandal falls in those similar advanced metrics:
As you can see, Grandal is a superior framer in comparison to Salvy, and that definitely has helped him in DRS. But in other categories, such as rCERA and limiting runs on stolen bases? Well, Grandal really pales in comparison to Salvy.
Thus, I think Salvy’s legacy on defense gets dumped on because he’s not a good framer. Yes, framing is an important part of catcher’s defense. That being said, it’s not the sole aspect of catching defense, and I think just focusing on framing really eliminates other areas of Salvy’s catching that gets overlooked by many of his detractors.
Where Salvy “struggles” as a player
Without a doubt, the lack of walks is a big issue, and his lack of plate discipline can drive analytically-focused baseball fans crazy (including myself at times). When it comes to O-Swing percentage (percentage of pitches swung outside the strike zone), Salvy sports a 49.1 percent mark in that category, which leads all catchers with at least 230 plate appearances. That, combined with a walk rate under three percent, only puts fuel on the fire of those who think Salvy is “vastly overrated” as a hitter.
While Salvy’s contact rate (68.7 percent) and swinging strike rate (18.5 percent) are pretty lackluster, he does make up for it in hard hit rate. Using both this year and last year as sample data, his 43.8 percent hard hit rate leads all catchers, according to Fangraphs. Thus, when Salvy makes contact, even if it is infrequent compared to other catchers, he does make the contact count for the most part. Now, is that the most sustainable approach? Probably not, but at the very least, Salvy, with his ability to hit batted balls hard, should be able to keep his power numbers high, even if the average and OBP dip in off-seasons going forward.
On a defensive end, the big issue for Salvy is framing, and honestly, Salvy detractors are justified in this area. Here is a look at Salvy’s framing metrics via Baseball Savant over the course of his career:
Salvy did start to show some progress last year, as his strike rate was at 48.9 percent, which was a career high. Unfortunately, he has regressed in terms of framing this year, and that has been particularly evident when it comes to runs on extra strikes, as his minus-15 mark is his worst total in this category since 2016.
Thus, the argument that Salvy “doesn’t” frame well is a valid argument, and unfortunately, based on this year, it doesn’t appear like that’s getting better anytime soon.
Overall thoughts about Salvy’s 2021 and legacy
I was writing this post during Sunday’s game, and of course, like clockwork, Salvy hit his 38th home run, which set the record for American League catchers in a single season:
In many ways, I can get why Royals fans may believe that Salvy is a MVP-candidate of sorts. This Royals team, offense especially, has been frustrating. New acquisitions Andrew Benintendi and Carlos Santana have had their bright spots at times, but they haven’t really consistently put it together, especially during the dog days of Summer. Hunter Dozier has really under-performed since signing his extension, and Jorge Soler didn’t really turn on the offense until his last week as a Royal. Since being traded, he’s absolutely mashing in Atlanta, while being on a playoff contender to boot (so much for the “he can’t perform on a playoff team” talk).
Thus, it’s easy to think “man, this team could be worse than the Orioles” if it was not for Salvy, which thus heats up the “MVP Talk”. Of course, that can blow up into an “over-hype” or misunderstanding of his status and legacy in general baseball circles, which Max Rieper of Royals Review mentioned on Twitter today in a response to my original Tweet:
I think Max really sums it up her well: instead of appreciating who Salvy is (which I talked about above), it has become a polarizing debate which really doesn’t accurately portray who Salvy is as a player at the end of the day.
Is he Piazza? Of course not, and I think he and Piazza are two different players in two wildly different eras. And yet, this “Oh nearly every catcher in baseball is better than Salvy because of framing” argument is incredibly asinine and is just people trying to be contrarian simply because they like going against the grain, even if their argument is weak. I get that he may not be a Hall of Famer. But to say he’s at the level of Heim? That’s just wannabe Jonah Hill from Moneyball stuff that’s pure number mashing and little else.
So, going forward, what should Royals fans be thinking about Salvy this year, his legacy, and what his future will be like in Kansas City? Well, I do think he should be celebrated for what he has done on an offensive end this year, especially with the ball changes, and in this post-steroid era. Salvy most likely will be the second Royals player to ever hit 40 home runs in a season, which is no small feat, considering the dimensions of Kauffman Stadium. He continues to show that he has one of the best catching arms in the game today. Lastly, he is keeping the Royals from being a complete mess, which is a comforting sign for Royals fans that hope is on the way in 2022, especially considering how this season turned into such a disappointment after a 7-20 June.
But, Salvy is not flawless by any means. His framing will always be a blemish on his defensive legacy, especially considering he has accumulated five Gold Gloves over his career. Much like Alex Gordon got grief toward the end of his career that his advanced defensive metrics didn’t back up his reputation, the same argument will probably be made toward Salvy, especially with his framing metrics rating so poorly (even more so than Gordo’s defensive metrics). I do think Salvy’s Gold Gloves need to be taken with a grain of salt, but I also think his blocking, game-calling, and ability to keep runners in check on the basepaths shouldn’t be overlooked, even if they don’t completely shadow his lackluster framing history.
As Royals fans, we should be grateful for Salvy, and know that at the very least, he will be able to transition to DH in a year or two, with that mostly depending on how ready MJ Melendez is in 2022. I do not think we’ll see Salvy for very long behind the plate, not because he’s as poor as the naysayers are clamoring, but rather because they have two very good catching prospects (Melendez and Sebastian Rivero) who could be even better than what Salvy was defensively, especially considering the framing demands of the modern-day Major League catcher.
Will Salvy be a Hall of Famer when it’s all said and done? Who knows.
But his record deserves respect outside of Kansas City, even if there are some caveats here and there.
Because let’s be honest…who knows if we will see another catcher like Salvy again…
And not just in Kansas City, but anywhere in general.
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