After hiatus, Salvador Perez just as crucial to Royals success
SURPRISE, Ariz. - It's tantamount to heresy to suggest in the big data baseball age, but there truly isn't an adequate statistic that can measure the full impact Salvador Perez's lost season had on the Kansas City Royals last year.
This past Friday marked the one-year anniversary of Perez's season-ending Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament. Surgeon Neal ElAttrache performed the operation in Los Angeles and Perez's season ended before it ever started.
One year later, "Salvy" has cleared all the necessary hurdles and reached the appropriate benchmarks to indicate he's ready for another season as the Royals' decorated, respected and energetic franchise catcher, one of the best two-way players at the game's most demanding position at age 29.
"That was a somber day just in terms of feeling the way we felt for him, I mean all the guy wants to do is play ball," Royals pitcher Danny Duffy said of receiving the news about Perez last year. "When that came out, we really felt it for him first. Then we realized that kind of loss in the lineup and on the field is huge.
"That's not to take anything from what our other catchers did, but that was a tough day for the entire team. We're glad he's back, and we're pumped that he's ready to go and he's back to doing what he does best."
A member of the organization since he signed as an international free agent at 16, Perez has grown to become synonymous with the Royals.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound catcher grew into a larger than life figure as spectators became more familiar with his infectious smile and personality as well as his unfiltered joy for the game. His influence has only grown as he played a central role in their World Series championship in 2015.
The Salvy Splash, a Gatorade bucket dumped during a postgame interview on a player who had a pivotal performance, became a trademark celebration even during lean times in recent years.
In the clubhouse, Perez has become almost a big brother to the Latin players as well as seemingly all the catchers. Where veteran outfielder Alex Gordon has played more of a lead-by-example role throughout his career, though he has been more vocal at times in recent years, Perez has always had an undeniable presence and a boisterous demeanor.
"I just have been in a similar situation where when you lose one of those guys that's a heartbeat of what you do, and it's a kick in the gut," Royals manager Mike Matheny said of losing a player like Perez. "It just takes the wind out of individuals, takes the wind out of a clubhouse culture. I wasn't around the clubhouse enough (last year), but I've seen it happen before and I know now. Even the other day when we had him as the DH, the life is different. One guy can do that. That's pretty special."
Matheny spent last season as a special adviser for the Royals, working mostly in the minors. A former Gold Glove catcher himself, Matheny hasn't been shy about expressing how envious he is that Perez plays the position with such joy.
So far in his first spring training as Perez's manager, Matheny said he's been "celebrating" along with Perez and reminding him on a regular basis the "huge impact" he has on his teammates.
"We have so many of the young players in (the clubhouse) early," Matheny said. "A big part of that is that Salvy is in there, and it's got this vibe, almost a club, in there."
Prior to the team arriving in Arizona, Matheny recommended a book to the players on leadership and the sacrifices and responsibility that comes along with it. He looks at what Perez does naturally on a daily basis, and the way it affects other players as "a gift."
"That's leadership," Matheny said. "We talk a lot about leadership. To me it's really about having followership more than anything else and he's got guys that are following him."
When asked about the one-year anniversary of his surgery, Perez said he actually didn't have to see his surgeon again. Instead ElAttrache and Royals head trainer Nick Kenney consulted over the phone.
"I think I'm 100%," Perez said. "Now, I feel like I can do everything, anything. I feel like a regular player. So yeah, it's a big deal for me."
Perez's progression has gone as largely as expected, and he has caught in Cactus League games this spring for the first time since 2018. He's doing everything you'd expect a starting catcher to do in preparation for a season, both defensively and offensively.
Where the medical staff put restrictions on him early either in terms of volume or barring him from certain activities until predetermined stages of his rehab, that's faded away into a normal spring training for Perez.
"Sometimes they tell me, 'Hey, you only throw 20 balls today. You only have 45 swings.' Or whatever. Limitations," Perez explained. "Now, I don't have anything. That's what I mean when I say regular player."
Perez was never really gone from the consciousness of the Royals players last season. He was present. He still had a locker in the clubhouse. He traveled at times. In fact, the first time he caught a bullpen and did catching drills in full gear came on the road in Boston.
But being able to give advice or tips to guys isn't the same as being part of the daily grind and contributing on the field.
He's still in the process of shaking off the year away from live action, particularly at the plate, where he didn't have an at-bat in a game for year. His timing has progressively improved during camp, and he's optimistic that will continue.
"It's getting better," Perez said. "It's just time. We need to get some time. That's why we're here in spring training, trying to get ready for the season."
Along with the intangibles Perez brings to the table, he also excelled at those contributions easily quantified by statistics and awards. He's been selected to six All-Star Games, won five Gold Gloves, earned two Silver Sluggers and the World Series MVP in 2015.
"I mean, who wouldn't want to have that back in the lineup?" Royals All-Star outfielder Whit Merrifield asked.
In 2018, Perez hit a team-high 27 home runs and had 80 RBIs while batting .235 with a .274 on-base percentage and a .439 slugging percentage. He also started 96 games behind the plate and became just the seventh major-leaguer who didn't commit an error in 96 or more starts since 1913.
"His presence, I mean he's one of the fun ones _ when I say root for, I don't want him to beat us _ but he's easy to root for," Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona said during the MLB Cactus League Media Day. "Whether he gets a hit or not, he comes bounding out of the dugout and he has a smile. He's a lot of what's good about baseball. From my standpoint because we play them so much, I'd rather them not be better but I'm glad he's back because he is good for the game."
One of the best catch-and-throw backstops in the majors, Perez also threw out 24 base-stealers in 51 chances, and recorded three pickoffs on his way to his fifth Gold Glove in six seasons. His caught stealing rate (47.1%) ranked first among all MLB catchers.
In 2018, Perez also joined an exclusive group of catchers with at least five Gold Gloves. He joined Ivan Rodriguez (13), Johnny Bench (10), Yadier Molina (9), Bob Boone (7), Jim Sundberg (6) and Bill Freehan (5).
"I still look at the Royals just in general as being a club that you never can expect to lay down," Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. "They don't lay down. They still have quite a bit of base there moving forward. Having Salvador Perez back certainly solidifies them once again behind the plate and offensively with all the experience and success he has had."
The lineup Perez got taken out of last season isn't the one he returns to this year. When Perez had surgery, there were legitimate questions about how the club would fill that void in the middle of the lineup. He batted cleanup 76 times in 2018.
Jorge Soler had been injury-riddled and potential-filled up until that point. Nobody predicted he'd lead the American League in home runs with 48.
Hunter Dozier hadn't even been on the opening day roster prior to last season. He enjoyed a breakout season with a slash line of .279/.348/.522 and career highs in home runs (26) and RBIs (84). He also scored 75 runs and hit 29 doubles and 10 triples.
"You've got to think about it from another angle too," Duffy said. "Jorge is going to have another great year, and we're adding Salvy back into the lineup. That's not just going to go away, Soley has got it. Soley has got it figured out. I'm pumped that we're going to have just another source of power and another source of consistency."
At time last season, the Royals got almost no production out of the 7, 8 and 9 spots in the batting order. They've added Maikel Franco at third base, and he has three 20-homer seasons on his resume. The combination of Ryan O'Hearn and Ryan McBroom has looked promising in spring training, which potentially adds another source of power to the lineup this year.
"It really just lengthens our lineup," Merrifield said. "A guy like Salvy coming in, a guy like McBroom taking strides _ I think he's going to be an unbelievable hitter in the big leagues. O'Hearn is ready to breakthrough. Nicky has some time under his belt now. Franco has a good track record. We hope to get him back on track.
"There's a lot of really good hitters in this lineup that I don't think people are giving us enough credit for. Add Salvy to the mix and I put our lineup up against just about anybody, especially playing in Kauffman."