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Watching Kansas City's Salvador Perez, A Big Catcher Trying to Become A Big Hitter

Salvador Perez is big in a uniquely profound way. On a Royals team that wins through applied persistence, he doesn't just fit in—he exemplifies what works.
Photo by Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez is the type of big that can be described only by way of comparison. Standing, he has the dimensions and heft of a bank vault's door. Squatting, he resembles a concrete slab of interstate median. His face is of outsized proportion and expression; he chews gum like a wheat thresher and laughs like he has a megaphone tucked in his cheek. Altogether, he looks like he could knock out a load-bearing wall just by leaning on it and then, when the ceiling plunks down on his head, happily assume its duties.


Perez may be as essential as any member of the Royals to their ongoing success. The 2015 version of the team won the World Series on the strength of bunched hitting and a doomsday bullpen, strategies carefully cultivated and perfectly applied, but nonetheless prone to backsliding. Late-summer additions Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist signed elsewhere after the championship parade, and franchise cornerstone Alex Gordon has started edging past his prime. Kansas City's best hopes for the follow-up year rest on its young core—the oppo-hitting Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas along with Perez—improving enough to compensate for whatever problems arise. Of that group, Perez seems the most due for an upgrade; his bat does not quite match his superlative defense, at least not yet.

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That standing makes him relevant, but it does not account for his appeal. Even in this not-yet-fully-realized portion of his career, Perez plays on a scale hardly anyone else can access. His approach fits his frame. He is a mammoth who moves mammoth-ly, doing nothing at any degree less than full bore. Part of the torturous fun of baseball is watching its best players navigate the game by way of daily personal pact-making, revising approaches, reinforcing self-discipline, muttering to themselves to keep their hands back. The struggle is constant and visible, with some exceptions. Perez is one. He looks at all that fussing, shrugs a tectonic shrug, and just rumbles on through.


When you're described, flatteringly, as resembling a load-bearing wall. Photo by Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

There may be no better method of classifying catchers than by the way they block a pitch. Most do it with a look of obligation, which fits. A rare few—the magician Yadier Molina comes to mind—do it with an economy of motion that gives it an artful tint; they decode the spin, predict the path, and, with a pivot of knee and flick of glove, interrupt it. That is not how Salvador Perez does it.

Perez gets in front of a loose slider like he's been waiting for that moment all game long. A plodding runner when he's upright, Perez is fluid behind the plate, and he thrills in putting a big human boundary between an errant pitch and all the bad places it could go. He takes the pitch to his belly, looks back anyone on the basepaths, and flashes a smile as he underhands the scuffed ball toward the dugout.

The fun, for Perez, seems to come from the clarity of the demand. Here's trouble; stop it. The more all-or-nothing the proposition, the more he excels. A runner starts for second, and Perez turns the pitch around in an instant, tacking a hard tailing throw to the corner of the bag. An opposing pitcher hangs a breaking ball, and he tries to land it on the moon. A game starts, and he plays in it. Perez was behind the plate in 139 games last season, five more than any other catcher. He caught in an astonishing 146 the year before that.

The approach has its drawbacks. For all the accolades his defense rightly receives, Perez has sometimes struggled at setting helpful targets and framing pitches, tasks that call for some subtlety and which are weighed highly in assessing a catcher's value. Per certain reports, Johnny Cueto's wavering between lights-out and godawful during his time with the Royals had a little bit to do with his battery-mate's inconsistencies. As a hitter, Perez brings roughly zip in the categories of patience and plate discipline. He has walked only twice in 2016, and his on-base percentage sits in the .260s; this might be overlooked as early-season scuffling had his results from the past two seasons not also ended up below .300.


No small swings. Photo by Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Still, what Perez does provide has slotted in nicely with the rest of the Kansas City offense in recent years. He has a normal stance, his feet offset and his bat held still a few inches from his shoulder, that his size renders severe. He swings with total gusto—a heavy stride and a low sweep through the strike zone that ends with the bat circling around and ramming into his back—that accounts for both his high out-making and his occasional ability to positively paste pitches. When he misses, his arms yanking and his waist wrenching around, O seems a greater threat to hurt himself than when he takes a foul tip off the shoulder. When he squares a pitch up, though, he sets it zooming.

Deep in the Royals' order, behind all those up-the-middle technicians, he weighs on a tired pitcher's attention. It was Perez who, in extra innings in the 2014 Wild Card game, corrected a long, hitless night by smacking a single down the line to give Kansas City its first postseason win in almost three decades. During last year's championship run, he sat in the seven hole and piled up 15 hits and four homers across three series. For all his flaws, he excels as a taxing lineup's late stress, causing some extra trouble before the main problem comes around again.

It would be nice if Perez were to improve as a hitter. The Royals surely think about what it would look like if his bat lost its tendency to stray but kept its pop, if his daily presence provided not just breaking-ball-snuffing and runner-corralling of the highest order but also the sort of offensive threat that makes opposing managers re-map their bullpens. This could happen. He's still plenty young and eager to get better; his glovework behind the plate already seems much tidier in 2016.

But there's some charm in his present imperfection. During a recent series in Houston against the Astros, Perez went oh for his first nine, taking a hitless streak late into the third game. When he came up in the eighth inning of that game, with the score tied and a runner on, his eyes widened at a not-low-enough slider. He shifted his considerable weight and brought his bat through, and the ball arced easily over the leftfield wall. It looked like it felt really good.