KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Maybe it’s the barbecue sauce. Maybe it’s Ned Yost’s lineup epiphany. Maybe it’s the presence of George Brett in uniform every day, giving the Kansas City Royals back their swagger, the guts that defined the franchise for a generation.
In truth, it’s probably all of those things. Also, this:
Since June 4, when catcher Salvador Perez returned from the bereavement list, the Royals are 11 up, five down, and full of Fanta again. Of those 16 contests, they’ve allowed two runs or fewer nine times.
June’s Royals are April’s Royals again, mojo rising, with Big Sal acting as the rock, the pillar, the solder that keeps the chassis in one piece during the inevitable, grinding laps of summer.
Not every day is sunshine and rainbows, as a bumpy end to an otherwise productive road trip to Tampa and Cleveland will attest. But funny how the clouds tend to part whenever Big Sal is around, silently directing traffic, carefully leading the ships back safely into the harbor.
For the better part of two years now, the name of the 23-year-old Venezuelan has been tossed about as a prospective All-Star — a perennial All-Star, even — given time.
Guess what, kids?
That time is now.
You name the metric, Big Sal can make a case. Need a stick? As of Wednesday night, the 6-foot-3 backstop ranked third among starting American League catchers in batting average (.303 heading into the final game of the Indians series) and fourth in Wins Above Replacement (1.3), according to FanGraphs.com.
Need an anchor to keep your staff on the straight and narrow? Perez leads the circuit among first-string backstops in terms of lowest collective ERA (3.23 over 1,954 plate appearances), fewest runs allowed per game (3.54) and, via FanGraphs, “Defensive Runs Saved,” or DRS, with 5. The boys in blue have been recast in the pitching/fielding/timely-hitting mold, with a rotation that keeps pulling the sled — Royals starters head into the weekend ranked second in the AL in collective ERA (3.64).
Need a presence behind the dish, a beast that won’t back down? Big Sal tops starting AL catchers in assists (33), tagged outs on non-force plays (nine) and in “Runner Kills” (16).
That last number, tracked by Baseball-Reference.com, is described as “baserunners thrown out by the catcher including caught stealing, pickoffs and other outs attempting to advance.” To paraphrase Jim Croce, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger — and you don’t try for the extra base against Big Sal.
Perez is the heart of the defense, the metronome of the staff. Anything he does with the stick is gravy. There’s been plenty of gravy, too: According to Baseball-Reference.com, the last Royals catcher to sit behind the plate for at least 1,000 hitters while also posting a collective ERA under 3.30 was Brent Mayne, back in 1992. More fun with numbers: Over the last 25 years, only two AL catchers have done the under-3.30 ERA trick for at least 1,000 batters while also hitting .290 or better themselves: Minnesota’s Brian Harper in 1988, and Boston’s Jason Varitek, back in 2001.
Granted, sabermetricians are rather down on catchers’ ERA as a substantive criterion, given the amount of sheer variables involved. Even if the correlation is little more than coincidence — Harper, after all, was better known for his bat than his glove — it ain’t the worst clique, either.
But the biggest jewel in Big Sal’s crown, the best single stat in his corner, is actually the scoreboard itself. The local nine are 31-26 when Perez plays; they’re 3-10 when he doesn’t. Since Opening Day 2011, the Royals are 83-89 with Perez and 94-128 without him.
Sal’s back. So are they. As that noted baseball philosopher B.B. King once sang, even a blind man can tell when he’s walking in the sun.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.