On Tuesday, the Atlanta Braves continued their “extension” spending spree that has lasted pretty much since they won a World Series title in 2021. After acquiring catcher Sean Murphy from the Oakland Athletics via a trade on December 12th, the Braves doubled down on the acquisition by announcing an extension for Murphy that keeps him in Atlanta until at least the 2028 season (with a club option for 2029).
The Murphy deal is not the lone “lucrative” deal handed out to a catcher this offseason.
Earlier in December, the St. Louis Cardinals signed former Chicago Cubs franchise player Willson Contreras to a five-year, $87.5 million deal, which includes a club option for the 2028 season.
And if that wasn’t enough, on December 12th the Minnesota Twins signed former Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez to a three-year, $30 million deal.
With the news of Murphy, Contreras, and Vazquez, there are currently seven catchers in Major League Baseball, as of December 28th, who will be making an AAV (average annual value) of $10 million or over. That can be seen in the image below, via Spotrac MLB Salary rankings data:
Philadelphia’s JT Realmuto leads the pack with an average annual salary of $23.1 million. Following up close behind though is Kansas City’s own Salvador Perez, who is making $20.5 million this year, and will be entering year two of a four-year extension he signed prior to the 2021 season.
There is no question that Salvy is the heart and soul of the Royals, and has been the club’s most productive hitter over the past three seasons.
While his four-year, $82 million extension is currently the most expensive contract in Royals team history, according to MLB Trade Rumors, Royals fans are certainly not complaining about giving out so much dough to a player who will be entering his age-33 season. After all, it would be weird to see Salvy NOT in a Royals uniform, and thankfully, John Sherman and Dayton Moore at the time understood his value to the franchise and compensated him accordingly.
Nonetheless, Salvy will be entering a weird transition in his career that clouds his future a bit in Kansas City, even if it still remains mostly bright.
The general manager who brought Salvy into the organization (Moore) is now with the Texas Rangers as a special assistant to GM Chris Young. Furthermore, the Royals don’t just have a new manager in Matt Quatraro but are without Mike Tosar and Pedro Grifol, who have been instrumental in Salvy’s development as a hitter over the course of his career.
In fact, Salvy lamented to the media that he wished Grifol had gotten his shot as an MLB manager not on the South Side in Chicago, but in Kansas City, which spurred some interesting chatter among Royals fans.
And thus, one has to beg a couple of questions:
In the wake of all these big catcher signings, how does the Royals’ deal with Salvy look now? And could Salvy be a possible candidate to be moved, especially with Murphy, the most prized catching target this offseason, off the market?
Let’s take a look at how Salvy stacks in comparison to those other six MLB catchers that make an AAV of $10 million or more, and see what the future could hold for Salvy in Kansas City over the next couple of seasons.
Salvy Continues to Be One of the Most Productive Offensive Catchers in Baseball
Salvy is the second-highest-paid catcher in baseball on an AAV end and based on his track record, it makes sense.
Not only is Salvy a World Series champion and two-time pennant winner, but he is also a seven-time All-Star, a five-time Gold Glove winner, and a four-time Silver Slugger. Furthermore, he also set the home run record for catchers with 48 in 2021, and that mark also tied Jorge Soler for most home runs in a single season by a Royals hitter as well.
After a record-setting season in 2021, things cooled a bit for Salvy on the offensive end last season.
A thumb injury (and surgery) limited Salvy to only 114 games and 473 plate appearances, his fewest number in a full season since his sophomore year in 2012 (that is not counting the COVID-shortened 2020 season or 2019, which he missed the entirety of due to recovery from Tommy John surgery). While he did hit 23 home runs and drove in 76 RBI, Salvy only posted a wOBA of .324 and wRC+ of 109. Granted, both numbers are solid for a catcher, but a bit disappointing for an MVP candidate in 2021 who posted a wOBA of .359 and wRC+ of 126 that season.
In addition, while Salvy’s homer and counting stats are nice, his strikeout numbers have spiked since the 2018 season, which is when his power surge began. While he was never a “contact machine” prior to 2018, Salvy never touched the 40 percent mark in K rate.
Based on breakdown K rate data via Baseball savant, that has been a common trend over the past three years.
And it’s not just the high strikeout rates that are an issue for Salvy. While his K rate has gradually increased as he has gotten older, his BB rates have pretty much stayed stagnant. This in turn has produced lackluster K/BB ratios year after year, which can be seen in the table below, via Fangraphs.
Despite the strikeout issues and lack of walks, Salvy’s power though is unprecedented, especially for a catcher.
Let’s take a look at Salvy’s rolling average exit velocity chart since 2015, via Baseball Savant, and notice the trend in Salvy’s exit velocity starting in 2020:
As one can see, Salvy has frequently been well above the MLB average in average exit velocity produced on batted balls since 2020. That is a big reason why his power has remained constant in the Royals lineup, even with his batting averages swaying a bit and the K/BB ratios remaining low.
When Salvy makes contact at the plate, things happen, and often in a productive way. Over the past three seasons, Royals fans can see where Salvy ranked in regard to barrel rate, based on the image below via Savant:
When it comes to comparing Salvy to the other six highest-paid catchers in baseball, over the past two seasons, no other catcher from that group has been able to match Salvy’s contact quality.
Based on Statcast data, Salvy leads in most of those categories, and by considerable margins as well, which can be seen below:
Is Salvy going to challenge for the batting average title or be able to get on base when the ball isn’t dropping or going over the fence? Probably not, and that could be cause for concern, especially as he gets older and his health begins to deteriorate a bit.
But as of now, going into 2023, Salvy is the best power-hitting catcher in baseball, and it isn’t particularly close either, especially among the “highest-paid” catchers group.
The Defense Though Remains A Major Issue
While Salvy has a reputation for being a sterling defensive catcher (which explains the four Gold Gloves), the data, unfortunately, doesn’t back that up, especially on a framing end.
Since Statcast began tracking catcher framing data in 2015, no catcher in baseball over that time frame has been worse than Salvy when it comes to getting extra strikes and preventing extra framing runs.
Not only does Salvy lead the list, but he is 31 runs worse than the next worse catcher, Robinson Chirinos, who is 51 runs below average himself.
It is more than likely that Salvy will be beyond the triple digits mark in framing runs below average for a career by the time his contract expires initially after the 2025 season. And that is not a good legacy to have, even with robot-umpiring most likely to come in some shape or form within the next 5-10 years.
When comparing Salvy to the other top catchers, his framing over the past two seasons obviously pales in comparison to the other six catchers. However, his other defensive metrics don’t bode much better either, especially on an advanced metrics end.
Salvy does look better on an rSB (stolen base runs saved) end, as he ranks second of that group with five runs saves over the past two seasons. Furthermore, on an rGFP (runs saved via good fielding plays) end, he ranks third, ahead of Murphy, Grandal, and McCann. That being said, his framing (FRM) and rSZ (strike zone runs saved) are so bad that they weigh down his overall defensive value by a hefty margin.
Of the seven catchers in this sample, Salvy is the only one with a negative Def, and he is 20 runs behind the second-to-last catcher of this group as well.
That is not what one wants to see from a catcher who is owed at least $62 million over the next three seasons, according to Roster Resource payroll data.
So What Should the Royals Do with Salvy?
Despite the rough defense, Salvy has been worth his extension thus far. though it’s been closer than Royals fans may like to believe He’s been worth 3.8 fWAR via Fangraphs over the past two seasons, which roughly accumulates to $30.2 million over that time span when it comes to WAR as a dollar value.
Salvy made $14.2 million in 2021 and $20 million in 2022, so the Royals slightly overpaid by $4 million, based on those hard numbers. That said, Salvy did miss 48 games in 2022, so the fact that Salvy is that close, despite the injuries and poor defensive metrics is a slight win for the Royals when it comes to Salvy’s value.
Nonetheless, while one could argue that Salvy’s extension has been money well-spent over the past two seasons, it will be more challenging for Salvy to continue to live up to that contract value when one part of his game weighs him down so heavily (i.e. the defensive framing).
And that could put Salvy’s future behind the plate in doubt, starting as soon as 2023.
Now, Salvy isn’t suddenly going to stop getting innings behind the plate in this upcoming season. The Royals lack other viable defensive options at the catcher position in their system, unfortunately.
MJ Melendez has been hyped to be the Royals’ catcher of the future, but he was arguably worse on the defensive end than Salvy in 2022. Not only did Melendez struggle with framing, but he also struggled when it came to blocking balls, an issue that Salvy has NOT dealt with at any point in his MLB career.
Freddy Fermin was just added to the 40-man this offseason and the reports of his defense are pretty solid. On the flip side though, the Royals were saying the same thing a couple of seasons ago about Sebastian Rivero when he was initially added to the 40-man roster, and his framing rates were just as bad as Salvy and MJ’s last season, via Baseball Savant.
The Royals will have to depend on Salvy to get a majority of the innings behind the plate in 2023. And that will limit his ceiling in terms of overall value, which will constantly put him behind the better defensive catchers of that group, especially Murphy and Realmuto this season and beyond.
This may make Royals fans wonder:
Should the Royals look to find some outside help at the catching position so Salvy can transition to more time in the DH role? And if that is not a possibility, should the Royals perhaps explore trading Salvy while his value is high to an organization that is not rebuilding like the Royals?
I think the Royals are far away from both options, though they seem more realistic now than they did prior to the 2022 season. If anyone mentioned those possibilities a year ago in Kansas City, they would’ve been laughed off immediately.
Nonetheless, this could be a crucial year not just for Salvy, but the Royals in general. This is especially true when it comes to deciding who will be part of this roster long-term, and who may be jettisoned away to clear room for possible talent from within the farm system or even outside the organization.
If catching Carter Jensen or Luca Tresh progress in the Minors in 2023, they could possibly make the Royals think about either lessening Salvy’s role behind the plate in 2024 or 2025.
And that in turn could make Salvy a possible trade candidate next offseason or the one after next, as there are teams out there that would welcome his offensive production as a catcher, and wouldn’t mind him for just one more season, two at the tops (should they exercise that club option).
Expect Salvy to continue to be one of the top catchers in the game in 2023, especially on the offensive end. He’s just as valuable as any of those other six next year based on his bat alone.
But after 2023…
Well, Royals fans can’t be so sure, especially without knowing how 2023 will play out for him, as well as Tresh and Jensen in the Royals farm system.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports