In one way, it’s depressing that Salvador Perez has become a much better hitter this season. It’s depressing, because he’s done it in the most conventional and unoriginal way possible. Baseball is a pretty rich tapestry of unique approaches and adjustments and mechanics, really, and for people like us (who spend so much time with the sport, who look at it and see some oblique reflections of our own lives, our own approaches and adjustments and mechanics), there’s great joy in every discovery of another new way in which someone out there is succeeding. It’s probably particularly satisfying for those of us still lost in our mid-20s, to see people develop new skills, carve their own niche, blaze a new trail, and on, and on. If one reason we watch this game is to find hope that our seemingly narrow or rocky path to whatever we call happiness is ultimately a viable one, there are plenty of stories that affirm that.
Salvador Perez’s story isn’t one of them, though. The Royals’ gigantic catcher burst onto the scene in 2011, a mostly unheralded prospect in the most famous farm system ever, and spent his first two-plus seasons in the big leagues showing off a plus hit tool and enough power to more than make it play at catcher—not to mention a great arm and solid defensive reputation. Precisely as his team has ascended, though, Perez has declined. His aggressiveness at the plate morphed slowly from an asset into a liability, as huge innings totals behind the plate took a toll on his body, slowed him down, thickened him, stiffened his swing, took the sting out of his contact. He managed to crack enough extra-base hits to maintain some offensive value over the last two years, but just barely. Coupled with miserable framing numbers, his regression at the plate made him hardly more than a replacement-level player and a reputation for leadership.
In the ideal world, our hero goes into a winter cocoon, and emerges on the day he collects his World Series ring as a unicorn/butterfly. Perez, the ultra-athletic catcher who could defy convention in every way, who didn’t need to be patient and wasn’t governed by expectations of the mobility or the utility of a backstop built like a tight end, was a fascinating player. It would have been chicken soup for the millennial’s soul if he had simply slimmed down, or learned to play some right field, or asked for more days off, and so slowly remade himself as a more veteran, versatile version of that same guy, making contact all the time but restoring the authority thereof, buckling down and becoming a framer who steals high strikes, even if the low ones will never come naturally.
None of that happened. Perez is much better this season: his True Average is up from .251 (each of the last two seasons) to .281. He’s already swatted 20 extra-base hits; his career high for a full season is 47. He’s drawn nine unintentional walks, which only sounds like a small number until you remember that he drew the same number over the entire 2015 season. Here’s how it’s happened: He’s swinging less often, and especially, swinging at pitches he has a better chance to pull in the air:
Note the increased swing rates on pitches inside, and the way he’s been conscious of laying off more pitches away—pitches on which he was often rolling over and grounding out. The results speak for the effectiveness of the approach change. He’s hitting just 27.1 percent of his batted balls on the ground, down from a previous career rate of 42 percent. When he does hit the ball in the air (we’re talking strictly about true flyballs, here), he’s pulling it 40 percent of the time, a career high. To run at it from the opposite direction, of all his pulled balls (and he’s pulling the ball at the highest rate of his career), only 33.3 percent are grounders. That’s not only the lowest mark of his career, but the lowest by any qualified hitter in the majors this year. Perez is missing on a higher percentage of swings and striking out significantly more often than he has in the past, but the tradeoffs—more walks and more power, plus more solid contact leading to a higher BABIP—have been well worth it so far.
Perez will be on the shelf for a week or two, after a collision on a pop-up left him with a thigh bruise. When he gets back, maybe he’ll fall right back into old Perez habits, chasing pitches away and not doing much with them. Here’s hoping he doesn’t. He’s succeeding this way, and truth be told, it’s still really interesting. The old Perez was an odd bird, a kid with a lot of talent and charisma but also a useless liberal arts degree and crippling student loan debt. The best ending to that story is the kid writing the great American novel. What Perez is doing—turning from a contact-centered offensive approach and surprising athleticism into a clone of Jose Bautista or Brian Dozier—is like if that kid just retrained as a software engineer and ended up buying a nice house. It might not be as inspiring, but it’s effective.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now