Salvador Perez is Staying in Kansas City a While Longer

With Opening Day roughly a week away, teams are running out of time to sign players to contract extensions without dragging negotiations out into the season. This week will likely have a bevy of them, and the Royals got the party started early yesterday when they signed Salvador Perez to a four-year, $82 million extension, as The Athletic’s Alec Lewis reported.

The deal, which also contains a team option for a relatively affordable fifth year at $11.5 million after accounting for a buyout, doesn’t start until 2022. When it does kick in, Perez will become the second-highest-paid catcher in baseball, behind only J.T. Realmuto (Buster Posey has a team option for 2022, but it will likely not be exercised), with Yasmani Grandal as the only other catcher within hailing distance of his new deal.

In the current context of player spending, this qualifies as a surprise. Perez will turn 31 in May. He missed all of 2019 to have Tommy John surgery and a chunk of the previous season with an MCL sprain. When not injured, he rarely missed a game, exposing his body to the rigors of catching at a rate only matched by fellow Missourian Yadier Molina.

Catchers age in dog years. Perez is fighting gravity by continuing to be a valuable player every time he puts on the tools of ignorance. Most of the teams in baseball wouldn’t have signed this deal. What’s going on?

To understand this contract, you have to understand the specifics of both Perez’s career and his relationship with the Royals. After a 39-game debut in 2011, he signed a contract extension that was, without hyperbole, one of the team-friendliest extensions of the 21st century. Five years for $7 million sounds ludicrous enough, but it also contained team options for three further years at roughly $14.5 million. In all, Kansas City could pay him $21.5 million over eight years, two of which would have been free agency years.

It’s hard to overstate just how far under-market this contract was. The team knew it right away, and Perez started hearing about it all the time. But after the Royals won the World Series in 2015, they did something remarkable, tearing up the remaining four years (and $16 million) of the first extension and signing Perez to a new six-year, $52 million extension.

If you want to look at it from the perspective of new money, Kansas City essentially paid him $36 million for two new guaranteed years while guaranteeing all of his club options. It wasn’t the gesture of largesse that it initially sounded like — wiping out a bad contract and replacing it with a good one — but it was nevertheless one of goodwill. The Royals could have waited and likely still signed Perez to the same deal, but they extended him certainty, and cash, upfront.

It’s tempting to frame this most recent extension as a further gesture of goodwill. Perez is a team fixture, a lifelong Royal whose presence in Kaufman Stadium reminds fans of the glorious 2015 season. He’s a surefire franchise Hall of Famer who happens to still be an above-average player today. But it’s worth examining Perez as a player to put this deal into a leaguewide context rather than merely filing it away as another act of a long-running serial between catcher and club.

Last year, Perez was the best catcher in baseball. You won’t find him atop our leaderboard, but that’s only because he didn’t play enough games to qualify; he missed the better part of a month with blurred vision. He hit a ludicrous .333/.353/.633, good for a 162 wRC+, that worked out to 1.9 WAR — better than Realmuto (who also missed time with injury) despite ten fewer games played.

At the time, I ascribed Perez’s ascendance to a combination of luck and health. No one (presumably, at least) thinks he is going to bat .333 again or put up the fourth-best slugging percentage in baseball. But after a five-year stretch where he hit .254/.285/.438, 2020 showed that he still has plenty left in the tank. It’s hardly a surprise that he’s projected to comfortably exceed those 2014–18 averages this season, even at 31.

In that five-year stretch, Perez played 140 games a year, comfortably above what we project him for this year. He was worth only 4.9 WAR over that stretch, roughly one win above replacement per year. The offensive improvement that Depth Charts expects — .261/.294/.486 and a 98 wRC+ — is meaningful. But it doesn’t explain our entire projection of 2.5 WAR, making him the fourth-best catcher in the game. Our defensive estimation of him has increased just as much as what we think of his offense.

I don’t want this article to descend into a referendum on pitch framing, so I’ll just say this: Per the Steamer framing numbers we use, Perez was a butcher behind the plate until 2020. Over 7,427 innings there from 2011 to ’18, he was 74.6 runs below average when it came to affecting ball and strike calls. He made up for a huge amount of it by doing everything else right — runners fear his arm, and he’s a great blocker — but that’s a huge mountain to overcome.

Framing estimates vary by system, but all the public ones agree that Perez fares poorly. Per Baseball Savant, he’s actually the worst receiver of the Statcast era. He was marginally above average there in 2020, but it’s certainly been a hole in his game so far. But framing is notoriously difficult to predict from year to year, and its interaction with individual pitching staffs is far from settled science, so it’s fair to look at Perez’s shortcomings there with suspicion and still believe his offensive gains and otherwise-excellent defense.

I’m rambling, but my point is this: If you call the framing a wash (not exactly what we’re doing in our projections, but not completely wrong either), Perez projects to be a useful but not overwhelmingly valuable catcher for years to come. Here’s ZiPS for the possible length of his new contract:

ZiPS Projection – Salvador Perez
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .265 .293 .483 408 46 108 23 0 22 69 11 90 1 107 4 2.3
2023 .262 .291 .462 390 42 102 21 0 19 63 11 83 1 101 3 1.9
2024 .257 .285 .438 370 38 95 19 0 16 56 10 76 1 93 1 1.3
2025 .251 .277 .412 347 33 87 17 0 13 49 8 67 1 85 0 0.7
2026 .245 .272 .389 298 26 73 13 0 10 38 7 54 1 78 -1 0.2

I’ll be honest with you: The numbers don’t quite justify his extension. If you agree with the projection robots, the Royals are overpaying a little bit. In fact, it echoes Molina’s previous contract, a four-year extension from 2017 to ’20. That, too, felt like a slight overpay at the time, and it worked out similarly to how we project Perez’s contract.

It’s no coincidence that these two iconic single-team catchers get compared frequently. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. They’re different players: Molina has never displayed Perez’s power, and Perez falls short at receiving. Molina also received that contract after catching roughly 600 more games than Perez has to date; he was 34, and he’s also missed less time in his career.

It isn’t wrong, though, to think of both deals as partially lifetime achievement awards. The Royals get more value out of Perez than strictly what he adds on the field, imperfect as our measurement of that might be. The fans love him. The team loves him. Ownership loves him. It would be asinine to pretend that none of that has any monetary value whatsoever.

Time will tell whether my ex ante verdict is correct. Maybe Perez seized on something in his brief 2020 and will keep mashing, rendering all this value talk obsolete. He was, after all, the best catcher in the game last year. Even if he doesn’t, though, it’s unlikely that the Royals will truly regret this contract. It might be the largest contract in franchise history, but it’s not backbreaking in per-year terms, even for a small market team, and it’s going to a team legend.





Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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amartin
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amartin

These are my favourite contracts for players to get. It almost HAS to have something to do with being paid under value for a while, and the team is making it up. Or at least you hope that’s the case.

It’s like Dirk and the Mavericks in basketball, though that was a blatant overpay for taking pay cuts in years prior (and anyone who follows that team knows that is exactly something Mark Cuban will do with a franchise icon).

tz
Member

I think it’s the franchise icon part as much as anything. You’ve got a guy here who has commanded respect both on and off the field from his early 20’s, a guy who’s associated with his franchise’s return to a WS championship….basically, he’s the Royal’s very own Jeter.

So if the Royals are creeping back into the “go for it” mode, this is a quality “overpay”. Even if Perez’s earlier contracts weren’t as much of a bargain.

Phil
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Member
Phil

Being cynical here, but isn’t there some utility here for the Royals?

If you’re a young player with the Royals, and they offer you an extension, you might be more likely to accept it (or the Royals even have to offer slightly fewer dollars than other teams would have) because you’ve seen that if you play well, they will then give you a better deal.

carter
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carter

Phil, I wonder if there is something there. That is something that basically never gets analyzed, but I do wonder if teams ever extend veterans for that reason. If they give a contract that is “meh” at best, but it gives them good will with their young controllable players, maybe it then makes sense? Who knows. Jose Abreu was a much better player but his extension people were much more skeptical about at the time, basically saying it was horrible. I don’t have to say that he won the MVP, but even at the time he signed it some people mentioned it might of been sort of a goodwill contract because guys like Luis Robert and Moncada went as far as to say he was their “hero” and Robert going as far as to say it was one of the reasons he chose the Whitesox. Maybe it isn’t as strict a dollar per WAR calculation that people think it is.

carter
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Member
carter

Stand by my point…but I missed a lot of punctuation. 😂

Six Ten
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Six Ten

The Royals have made a big push over the last couple years on trying to be a club that is seen treating its people well. They’ll never win the big free agent signings, but they didn’t have any COVID furloughs or layoffs, they have brought prospects up on schedules that lose service time if they think it’s time, and they have both signed over-generous extensions and avoided trading guys who are fan favorites.

Whether that’s a genuine organizational value or a PR/employee relations ploy (or both, why must all PR be cynical?) it’s definitely a thing.

Phil
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Member
Phil

I think cynical was too strong – I think there are some pragmatic reasons to do this, aside from treating a fan favourite well.

And if you’re s smallish market team, there are definitely worse ways to go about your business than treating your playing and non-playing staff well.

Six Ten
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Six Ten

Ah sorry, I didn’t mean to mirror your use of the word “cynical” as any kind of pushback on your point. I think you really hit on something.

fordhamflash
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fordhamflash

Just playing devils advocate here, but has he really been underpaid? He signed a $52m deal in 2017 and has produced 3.7 WAR in that timeframe since. Obviously injuries and the pandemic are relevant here, but it’s not like this is a guy racking up 6 win seasons while getting $8m a year

rhdx
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rhdx

Good point, but if you consider that insurance picked up the tab for the lost year to injury, then it looks a lot better.

Ozzie Albies
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Ozzie Albies

😐 Sigh….