Salvador Perez Faces Down Tommy John Surgery

On the heels of a 104-loss 2018 season, the Royals’ 2019 campaign was already heading nowhere in particular; projected for a mere 69 wins by our Depth Chart projections, only the Tigers (68 wins), Orioles (63), and Marlins (62) are expected to be worse. But on Friday, things went from bad to worse with the announcement that catcher Salvador Perez has damage to the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing (right) arm. The 28-year-old backstop could miss the season due to Tommy John surgery, a procedure that’s relatively rare among catchers, without any resounding success stories on the level of other position players. Gulp.

A six-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner who was the MVP of the 2015 World Series, Perez is a big (6-foot-4, 240 pound) free-swinging slugger with a powerful arm and a strong reputation for handling pitching staffs. He’s not without shortcomings — he hasn’t posted an on-base percentage of .300 or better since 2013, and has been about 10 runs below average as a pitch framer in each of the past three seasons according to Baseball Prospectus — but he’s immensely popular, a fan favorite who’s been elected to start the All-Star Game in each of the past five seasons. Last year, after missing the first 20 games of the season due to an MCL sprain in his left knee (a freak injury suffered while carrying a suitcase upstairs), he hit .235/.274/.439 with 27 homers, an 89 wRC+, and 1.7 WAR in 544 PA; by BP’s framing-inclusive stats, he was worth 1.3 WARP. For his career, he owns a 92 wRC+ and a total of 17.7 WAR.

Manager Ned Yost said that Perez began experiencing elbow soreness in January, at which time an MRI revealed that he had suffered a flexor strain, which resulted in the team shutting down his throwing program for four weeks. He was cleared to start throwing once he reached the Royals’ camp in Tempe, Arizona in mid-February, but soreness after live batting practice led to another MRI that revealed ligament damage. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that surgery has been recommended for Perez, who will get a second opinion from Dr. Neal ElAtrache on Tuesday before a final decision is made. If he’s out, the team will likely turn to Cam Gallagher, a 26-year-old former second-round pick who has just 35 games of major league experience and figured to back up Perez.

As is the case with all position players, Tommy John surgery for catchers is much more rare than it is for pitchers, though because of the volume and intensity of throwing involved with the job, it’s more common for them than it is for any non-pitching position besides outfielders. Still, the limited number of such surgeries is striking. According to the Tommy John Surgery List kept by Jon Roegele, which now includes 1,669 surgeries, just 44 have been done on professional catchers, six of which occurred while they were still amateurs. As best I can tell, a total of 20 catchers who have had the surgery have played in the majors, eight of whom are still active:

Catchers Who Have Undergone Tommy John Surgery
Player Team Lvl Date Age Pre G wRC+ WAR Post G wRC+ WAR
Jamie Nelson MIL AAA 1/1/85 25 40 65 -0.1
Steve Christmas CHC MLB 1/1/86 28 24 19 -0.1
Todd Hundley NYM MLB 9/26/97 28 776 103 12.3 449 92 2.1
Tom Lampkin SEA MLB 6/30/00 36 594 86 5 183 81 1.7
J.R. House PIT AA 9/1/02 22 32 46 -0.4
Craig Tatum CIN A 1/1/05 22 100 50 -0.1
Ben Davis CHW AAA 6/28/05 28 486 78 3.7
Taylor Teagarden TEX A- 11/29/05 21 180 64 0.4
Vance Wilson DET MLB 6/13/07 34 403 78 2.3
Vance Wilson DET MLB 6/25/08 35 403 78 2.3
Curt Casali* DET Coll 1/1/09 20 213 92 2.0
Chris Coste PHI MLB 5/25/10 37 299 93 2.7
John Baker MIA MLB 9/3/10 29 196 101 2.6 163 52 -0.9
A.J. Jimenez* TOR AA 5/1/12 22 7 -78 -0.2
Spencer Kieboom* WAS Rk 1/1/13 22 53 79 0.6
Kyle Higashioka* NYY AA 5/1/13 23 38 26 -0.5
Andrew Knapp* PHI A- 10/4/13 21 140 81 0.8
Matt Wieters* BAL MLB 6/17/14 28 683 98 15.0 398 83 3.4
Christian Vazquez* BOS MLB 4/2/15 24 55 70 0.7 236 66 0.6
Travis d’Arnaud* NYM MLB 4/17/18 29 397 96 4.3
SOURCE: Tommy John Surgery List
* = Active. Dates listed as 1/1/XX are used when only the year of surgery is known.
Pre G denotes the number of games played prior to surgery; Post G indicates the number of games played after surgery.

So far, the returns haven’t been great, to say the least. We don’t have any information on the relative severity of these players’ injuries (Perez included) and, the further back we go, less information about players’ defense. But while it’s not hard to find examples of TJS recipients at other positions besides pitcher who have recovered to enjoy productive multi-year stretches or careers afterwards — Jose Canseco, Matt Carpenter, Shin-Soo Choo, Mike Greenwell, Kelly Johnson, Paul Molitor, Luke Scott, and Randy Velarde come to mind, and hopefully we’ll count Didi Gregorius and Corey Seager among them some day (Gleyber Torres too, though his surgery was on his non-throwing arm) — the best that can be said about the catchers is that some of them were able to slog onward with their careers.

Perhaps Knapp or Casali will eventually prove me wrong, but none of the eight catchers who underwent TJS in college or the minors have gone on to have substantial major league careers; Casali is the only one of that group who even reached 1.0 WAR post-surgery. It’s not like those guys were supposed to be stiffs, either. Teagarden was a third-round pick who made two Baseball America Top 100 Prospects Lists post-surgery, and the rest were all drafted in the first 10 rounds, too: Knapp (second, 2013), Tatum (third, 2004), House (fifth, 1999, and a two-time Top 100 prospect pre-surgery), Kieboom (fifth, 2012), Higashioka (seventh, 2008), Jimenez (ninth, 2008), and Casali (10th, 2011). Sure, many picks from the first 10 rounds don’t even reach the majors even without undergoing TJS, or fail to produce in their limited opportunities. Nonetheless, the extent to which the catchers in this subset failed to blossom in the aftermath of surgery is not encouraging.

Leaving those players aside, of the 10 who had major league experience prior to TJS, four (Christmas, Coste, Davis, and Wilson) never played in the majors again. That count doesn’t include d’Arnaud, who is in camp with the Mets and, his ongoing penchant for injury notwithstanding, seems likely to stumble into a game at some point. Of the other five, none has equaled his pre-surgical offensive potency or made a particularly large impact post-surgery. To be fair, the jury is still out on d’Arnaud and Vazquez, though the latter has never even come close to the solid offensive contributions he made at Single-A and Double-A levels.

The biggest name among this group besides Hundley — a two-time All-Star whose pre-surgical performance is clouded by his later appearance in the Mitchell Report, and whose post-surgery peformance featured back and hand woes — is Wieters, a player whose post-surgical plight had been on my mind even before the news about Perez was announced. When I began writing about the Nationals’ post-Bryce Harper era last week, Wieters — Washington’s regular catcher for the past two seasons, at least during the two-plus months of 2018 that he wasn’t sidelined by injuries — was still jobless. By the time that piece was published, the 32-year-old switch-hitting catcher had agreed to a minor-league deal with the Cardinals, still a rather humbling outcome for a player who made nearly $37 million over the past three seasons, and whose career was supposed to be so much more.

A former top-five pick (2007) and number one overall prospect (2009, according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus), Wieters made a pair of All-Star teams in 2011-12, winning a pair of Gold Gloves and helping the Orioles emerge from a decade and a half of playoff-free futility along the way. Circa 2013, he was a candidate for a major contract extension, though at the time, agent Scott Boras reportedly countered with a request for something in the range of Joe Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million extension with the Twins, despite the fact that Wieters hadn’t racked up anything close to the accolades that Mauer, an MVP and three-time batting champion, had at the time he signed. Needless to say, Wieters didn’t get that kind of money; the Orioles explored trading him in the winter of 2013-14, and then the following season, he tore his UCL after playing just 26 games. While there was initial optimism he would avoid TJS, he ultimately went under the knife in June 2014, at which time I noted the dearth of positive outcomes from among the group above.

Since then, Wieters’ career has been spotty at best. He returned to major league action on June 5, 2015, 12 days shy of a year after surgery, made a solid half-season showing (.267/.319/.422, 102 wRC+, 1.1 WAR in 282 PA), and then, after making a combined $16 million in 2014-15, became just the second player to accept a qualifying offer, after the Astros’ Colby Rasmus. Playing for a $15.8 million salary, he made the AL All-Star team — to this date, he’s the only post-TJS catcher to garner such status — and finished 2016 with a modest 90 wRC+ (.243/.302/.409) and 1.8 WAR.

He’s been considerably less productive since. In February 2017, he signed a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the Nationals, which included a same-sized player option for 2018 (not to mention $5 million worth of deferred money), then stumbled to a 62 wRC+ with -0.3 WAR in the first year and, after exercising that option, something closer to his post-surgical level last year (.238/.330/.374 ,89 wRC+, 0.9 WAR) while making just 271 PA; he missed nearly 10 weeks due to an oblique strain and a left hamstring strain, the latter of which required in-season surgery. Unable to secure a major league deal this winter, he settled for a minor league one, with a base salary of $1.5 million assuming he’s in the majors, another half-million dollars worth of performance incentives ($100,000 apiece for reaching 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80 games), and a March 22 opt-out.

Admittedly, once the above catchers are broken into subgroups, we have rather small sample sizes, and as far as the performance outcomes are concerned, we see correlation with surgery but not necessarily causation. Wieters hasn’t made any trips to the DL for elbow problems since returning from surgery, and has continued to throw out would-be base stealers at a more-or-less league-average clip. His decline as a defender — using BP’s FRAA, from 47.9 from 2009-14 to -10.2 from 2015-18 — really began in 2013 and has been driven by subpar pitch framing (-15.8 runs from 2015-18), which depends primarily on his non-throwing arm anyway. Vazquez is still a well above average defender in all facets of the game, averaging nearly 11 FRAA in the past three seasons despite receiving only 798 PA in that span. From among the other active catchers who aren’t on the fringes of jobs, Casali has been solid on both sides of the ball but has only once topped 156 PA in a season, while Knapp has been a rather woeful defender (-15.6 FRAA while making just 419 PA), struggling both with throwing (19% caught stealing) and framing (-9.6 runs).

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while I don’t think we can draw strong conclusions from the group of catchers who have preceded Perez in TJS, their history doesn’t offer him and the Royals a particularly great roadmap for success. He’s relatively young, and under contract for a total of $36 million through 2021, so it’s unlikely he’ll fade into oblivion like some of the aforementioned recipients, but if his post-surgical success approaches his pre-surgical performance, he’ll be breaking new ground.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

This is one of the saddest posts I’ve ever read on FG.

Godspeed Salvy, hope your surgery, healing, and comeback are all successful.