Salvador Perez is Crushing Baseballs Like Never Before

The Royals aren’t going anywhere this season, but that doesn’t mean they’ve thrown in the towel. In the second half of August alone, they’ve taken series from the Astros, Cubs (a sweep), and Mariners and won 10 of 14 games. One big reason for their surge has been Salvador Perez, who’s homered eight times in that span and gone deep in his last five straight games. After a stellar showing in the shortened 2020 season — his first back from Tommy John surgery — he has already set a career high with 38 homers and appears on his way to several other full-season highs in counting and rate stats.

Indeed, the 31-year-old backstop has been on quite a binge lately. After hitting 21 homers in the season’s first half, Perez participated in the Home Run Derby, losing out to eventual champion Pete Alonso in the first round. His 17 homers since the All-Star break are tied with Joey Votto for the major league lead, and he’s second overall to only Shohei Ohtani (41).

Within that stretch, Perez homered in three consecutive games from July 28 to 30, his longest streak since 2017, then separately matched and surpassed his career-best streak of homering in four straight games, which he did April 6–9, 2017. What’s more, on August 26 against the Mariners’ Joe Smith and a day later, against Logan Gilbert, he hit two grand slams, the first of which erased a 4–1 deficit and the second a 5–1 deficit. In doing so, he became the 25th player in major league history and the first since the Brewers’ Tyler Saladino in 2019 to hit slams on back-to-back days. Here’s a supercut of the homers from his five-game streak:

In the wake of the first home run in that clip, one of the announcers notes that Perez is on pace to become just the sixth catcher to hit 40 home runs in a season, but that’s not quite correct. A player has hit at least 40 homers while spending the majority of his time as catcher six times; he is on track to become the seventh. However, a player has hit at least 40 homers while in the lineup as a catcher — as opposed to getting a breather at another position, whether it’s first base or designated hitter or pinch-hitter — five times, and Perez isn’t anywhere close to becoming the sixth:

Most Home Runs in a Season by a Catcher
Rk Player Team Year HR as C* Other HR Total
1 Javy Lopez Braves 2003 42 1 43
2 Todd Hundley Mets 1996 41 0 41
3T Roy Campanella Dodgers 1953 40 1 41
Mike Piazza Dodgers 1997 40 0 40
Mike Piazza Mets 1999 40 0 40
6 Johnny Bench Reds 1970 38 7 45
7 Mike Piazza Dodgers 1996 36 0 36
8T Gabby Hartnett Cubs 1930 36 1 37
Mike Piazza Dodgers 1993 35 0 35
Ivan Rodriguez Rangers 1999 35 0 35
Mike Piazza Mets 2000 35 3 38
12T Johnny Bench Reds 1972 34 6 40
Terry Steinbach Athletics 1996 34 1 35
Javy Lopez Braves 1998 34 0 34
54T Salvador Perez Royals 2021 26 12 38
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
*Includes only home runs while in the lineup as a catcher, as opposed to other positions, including pinch-hitter and designated hitter.

Bench, man. In that 1970 season, when he was 22, he homered 38 times in 137 games as a catcher, five times in 14 games as a left fielder, and once apiece as a first baseman and right fielder, that while playing each of those positions seven times. In 1972, he homered 34 times in 127 games as a catcher, four in 17 games as a right fielder, and two in four games as a third baseman. He won the NL MVP award in both seasons.

Perez is no Johnny Bench (“[D]on’t never embarrass nobody by comparing them to Johnny Bench,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson said during the 1976 World Series), but with the help of manager Mike Matheny, he’s started 128 of the Royals’ 130 games this year, 99 behind the dish and another 29 at DH. So far, he’s none the worse for wear, hitting .277/.315/.544 for a 128 wRC+. Only last season, when he hit .333/.353/.633 (162 wRC+) in 37 games and 156 PA, has he ever posted a higher slugging percentage or wRC+, and not since 2013 has he posted a higher batting average or on-base percentage over the course of a full season.

On top of that, Perez has already set a career high in RBIs (94, good for third in the AL) and total bases (271, fourth in the AL), and is 12 off his career high in hits (150). He’s in the 92nd percentile or higher in barrel rate, average exit velocity, expected slugging percentage, and hard-hit rate. And he’s hit those 38 homers despite toiling in a very pitcher-friendly park; Kauffman Stadium has a home run factor of 93 for righties. Via Statcast, he could have as many as 49 homers if he were playing in Seattle, Philadelphia, or the South Side of Chicago.

You could be forgiven for thinking that when Perez underwent Tommy John surgery in March 2019 that Dr. Neal ElAttrache not only repaired the ulnar collateral ligament of his right arm but also put some ligaments from Piazza in there, because he’s become a much more productive hitter since then:

Salvador Perez, Before and After Tommy John Surgery
Years PA HR HR% BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2011-18 3737 141 3.8% 3.5% 16.0% .266 .297 .442 97
2020-21 686 49 7.1% 3.4% 25.2% .290 .324 .565 136
Perez underwent Tommy John surgery on March 6, 2019.

While it’s easy to dismiss last year’s numbers given the small samples and scheduling constraints, we’ve now got 166 games worth of data, post-surgery, that say Perez is a very different hitter. Yes, he still never walks, but he’s hitting for much more power at the expense of striking out more often, which given the gains in play — from roughly league-average production to All-Star level — is a worthwhile tradeoff. Underlying that improvement is that he’s making much more consistent hard contact:

Salvador Perez, Before and After Surgery (Statcast Version)
Years GB/FB GB% EV LA Barrel% Hard Hit% AVG xAVG SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2015-18 0.83 36.3% 89.0 17.1 6.9% 38.7% .252 .256 .448 .448 .310 .315
2020-21 0.99 39.0% 92.3 14.8 15.2% 53.0% .290 .284 .565 .564 .370 .375
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

His average exit velo is up 3.3 mph, his barrel rate has more than doubled, and his hard-hit rate is up 37%. Incredible, right?

Near the end of last season, Ben Clemens went deep on Perez’s remarkable performance, noting his improved productivity in the shadow zone, the borderline of the strike zone. He was 66 runs below average in the shadow zone from 2014 to ’17, then improved to -3 runs in ’18 and shot up to a career-best (and MLB-best) +8 last year. He’s regressed to -2 runs in the shadow zone this year, but he’s a career-best +17 runs in the heart zone.

One thing that Clemens found was that Perez is making much louder contact in two-strike counts:

Salvador Perez on Contact with 2 Strikes
Years BBE EV SLGcon xSLGcon wOBAcon xwOBAcon
2015 144 84.3 .483 .406 .327 .302
2016 116 86.7 .452 .393 .311 .279
2017 129 87.1 .504 .577 .332 .365
2018 137 90.2 .569 .587 .377 .394
2020 37 92.4 .919 .752 .571 .482
2021 124 89.8 .659 .646 .437 .434
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The data above suggests a less sudden, more gradual change than the more traditional stats, whereby Perez hit for a 102 wRC+ in 2017 and 88 in ’18 before nearly doubling that last year. This year, his two-strike xwOBAcon places him in the 89th percentile among players with at least 100 such counts; he was in the 93rd percentile (using a 30-PA minimum in the shortened season) last year, the 76th in 2018, and the 64th in ’17, compared to the 10th percentile in ’16 and the 29th percentile in ’15.

When Perez was headed toward surgery, I noted that catchers who have undergone the procedure have rarely had substantial careers on the other side, with Matt Wieters‘ 3.4 WAR topping the field and only two other catchers producing at least 2.0 WAR after going under the knife. With the caveat that the data at the time did not include our pitch framing metric, which has generally boosted the value of these backstops on either side, the updated data shows that four catchers have now matched or surpassed Wieters’ post-surgery total, with Perez well on his way to taking over second:

Catchers Who Have Undergone Tommy John Surgery
Player Team Lvl Date Age Pre G wRC+ WAR Post G wRC+ WAR
Christian Vazquez* BOS MLB 4/2/15 24 55 70 2.0 533 83 8.9
Curt Casali* DET Coll 1/1/09 20 388 95 4.7
Salvador Perez* KCR MLB 3/6/19 29 942 97 9.9 166 136 4.6
Matt Wieters* BAL MLB 6/17/14 28 683 98 17.0 398 83 3.4
Travis d’Arnaud* NYM MLB 4/17/18 29 397 96 8.7 179 106 3.4
Todd Hundley NYM MLB 9/26/97 28 776 103 12.3 449 92 1.9
Tom Lampkin SEA MLB 6/30/00 36 594 86 5 183 81 1.7
Kyle Higashioka* NYY AA 5/1/13 23 126 67 1.7
Taylor Teagarden TEX A- 11/29/05 21 180 64 1.4
Craig Tatum CIN A 1/1/05 22 100 50 1.0
Spencer Kieboom WAS Rk 1/1/13 22 53 79 0.3
A.J. Jimenez TOR AA 5/1/12 22 7 -80 -0.2
Andrew Knapp* PHI A- 10/4/13 21 301 74 -0.3
J.R. House PIT AA 9/1/02 22 32 46 -0.4
John Baker MIA MLB 9/3/10 29 196 101 2.4 163 52 -1.3
Jamie Nelson MIL AAA 1/1/85 25 40 65 -0.1
Steve Christmas CHC MLB 1/1/86 28 24 19 -0.1
Ben Davis CHW AAA 6/28/05 28 486 78 3.7
Vance Wilson DET MLB 6/13/07 34 403 78 2.3
Vance Wilson DET MLB 6/25/08 35 403 78 2.3
Chris Coste PHI MLB 5/25/10 37 299 93 4.7
Bruce Maxwell SGF AA 7/1/21 30 127 412 0.2
* = Active (played in 2020 and has not formally retired). Lvl is last level played before surgery. 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.

I’m not sure whether it’s better players, better surgical procedures, better luck, more complete data, or some combination of those factors involved here, but the outcomes for these catchers have improved markedly in two and a half years. As a group, their average post-surgical WAR has more than doubled from 0.7 per 162 games to 1.5 since I last checked in; if we limit the selection to active catchers, it’s gone from 1.0 per 162 games to 2.0. That’s an encouraging sign.

Particularly during a week when Yadier Molina and Bill Freehan were in the news, Perez’s hot streak and outstanding season — as well as a resumé that includes seven All-Star appearances, five Gold Gloves, and a World Series MVP award — have spurred proclamations or at least questions regarding his viability as a Hall of Fame candidate. Somebody asked me a question along those lines in my most recent chat.

I am, to say the least, skeptical. Our pal Sal has 28.7 career WAR (Baseball-Reference version), which ranks 42nd all-time among catchers; 22.9 peak WAR, which ranks 43rd; and 25.8 JAWS, which ranks 44th. By this measure, he’s in the midst of a career-best season with 4.4 WAR, so all of those numbers stand a reasonable chance of increasing over the final month of the season; if he adds a full win, he’ll rise to 26.8 JAWS, tied with Elston Howard for 38th.

As I have noted several times in the context of the careers of Molina and other catchers of recent vintage such as Buster Posey, Russell Martin, and Brian McCann, the problem with using bWAR to evaluate their careers is that an abundance of pitch-framing data changes the picture of their values considerably, and we do those candidates a great disservice by ignoring it.

FanGraphs Framing-Inclusive JAWS for Catchers
Player Career WAR FG Fram BP Fram WAR Adj fWAR fPeak fJAWS
Mike Piazza 1992-2007 63.7 n/a 87.2 8.4 72.1 52.5 62.3
Ivan Rodriguez 1991-2011 69.2 2.9 -14.1 -1.5 67.7 40 53.9
Buster Posey 2009-2019 56.7 128.8 0 0 56.7 46.8 51.8
Joe Mauer 2004-2018 52.5 27.6 38.3 3.8 56.3 42.4 49.3
Russell Martin 2006-2019 55.2 165.8 33.7 3.3 58.5 39.8 49.1
Yadier Molina 2004-2020 55.3 146 30 2.9 58.2 39.5 48.9
Brian McCann 2005-2019 54.5 165.6 -11.3 -1.1 53.4 39.9 46.7
Jorge Posada 1995-2011 40.4 -43.9 -69.5 -6.7 33.7 29.5 31.6
Salvador Perez 2011-2021 14.5 -90.4 0 0 14.5 13.2 13.9
FG Fram = FanGraphs framing runs for 2008-21, now included in WAR. BP Fram = framing runs from 1988-2007 via Baseball Prospectus. WAR Adj = BP framing runs converted to FanGraphs WAR.

The inclusion of framing data in WAR absolutely nukes Perez’s value, as he has the fifth-lowest mark of any catcher in the pitch-tracking era. Despite last year’s average showing (0.3 runs), he’s not getting any better; his -16.1 runs this year is the majors’ lowest total by 3.7 runs. Where he has 4.4 bWAR this season, he has just 2.6 fWAR.

I’ve left out several catchers below McCann in the above rankings, but it will suffice to say that Perez is just 23rd in fWAR among catchers in the pitch-tracking era, with players as varied as Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal, J.T. Realmuto, Francisco Cervelli, and Alex Avila ahead of him. I don’t see how one can consider Perez to have a burgeoning Hall of Fame case in that light, particularly if you consider Molina — who by bWAR is just 22nd among catchers in JAWS (41.8/28.7/35.3) but who looks like a much stronger candidate once we reframe the discussion — to be on a path to Cooperstown.

The book isn’t closed on Perez, who’s just 31 (albeit with 1,010 games caught, two left knee surgeries, and a UCL reconstruction on his odometer). Between the potential adoption of an automated strike zone and him transitioning to more time as a designated hitter — because at this level, the bat clearly plays — his long-term forecast has improved. Here’s his latest ZiPS forecast, via Dan Szymborski:

ZiPS Projection – Salvador Perez
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .263 .298 .498 510 63 134 24 0 32 95 17 1 112 1 3.0
2023 .260 .293 .486 473 56 123 23 0 28 85 15 1 107 0 2.4
2024 .256 .288 .462 446 50 114 20 0 24 75 14 1 100 -1 1.7
2025 .249 .282 .429 417 44 104 18 0 19 65 12 1 90 -2 1.0
2026 .245 .275 .411 387 38 95 16 0 16 55 10 1 84 -4 0.4

That period covers the the four-year, $82 million extension he signed in March, plus the option year at the end. Where he was previously projected to produce 6.4 WAR over those five seasons, he’s now up to 8.5, with OPS+ gains of 5–6 points annually.

That’s still not a Hall of Famer, though. I suppose you can daydream about Perez becoming a full-time DH and playing out his 30s as if he’s Nelson Cruz (29.0 WAR and 313 homers from ages 32–40) or Edwin Encarnacíon (14.1 WAR and 195 homers from ages 32–37), but both of those players had better plate discipline and fewer battle scars on their bodies as they entered that stage. No sane person would suggest their paths as a likely scenario for Perez, and it’s worth noting that he didn’t even reach a 1% chance of getting to 500 homers — attainable if he matches Cruz (he has 190 at this writing) and probably his ticket in, regardless of advanced stats — in Dan’s recent rundown of the next players to reach the milestone.

That shouldn’t detract anyone from enjoying Perez’s current breakout. What he’s doing right now in putting up career-best power numbers in the wake of a potentially career-altering surgery is remarkable. Here’s hoping he continues to mash.





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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I believe that the “person injures arm, heals strangely, suddenly has superpowers” is roughly the premise of the movie Rookie of the Year.

You can also check his batting glove if you want. In Twin Peaks (the Return), a character gets a glove that he cannot remove but turns one arm so strong that he can punch through walls*. Maybe Perez got himself one of those.

*this is probably the least bizarre plotline in the entire season and yet is the one that I find most inexplicable.

tz
Member

Jim Morris, whose story was told in “The Rookie”, had TJ surgery in his 2nd or 3rd year in the minors, but was released a couple years after his return.

It stands to reason that maybe Morris’s “superpowers” were present innately, but had been hampered by chronic MCL injuries leading to borderline pro-level stuff. So, once his left elbow had healed, the high-90’s velocity that he otherwise would have had with a healthy elbow could potentially emerge (which it did, a decade later).

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Funny, that’s actually a different movie. In Rookie of the Year, a kid breaks his arm and when it heals, it heals strangely / wrong and he can now throw 100 mph. So then this kid who is like…10? He goes and throws gas for the Cubs and leads them to the playoffs.

They don’t cover this in the film but I bet a pitcher that short could make a living at the top of the zone.

tz
Member

Lol, coffee from this morning STILL hasn’t kicked in.

I had been thinking about Morris’s TJ recovery and how it had seemed miraculous that he gained so much even vs his early pro days. I also had completely forgotten about “Rookie of the Year” and the more obviously supernatural story line.

Six Ten
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Six Ten

The secret was the hot ice.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

I, for one, enjoy FanPeaks