SURPRISE, Ariz. — We talk about value all the time in baseball. MVP awards. Free-agent prices. Service time accrual. Wins Above Replacement. Value is a component of them all.
Major-league managers tend to look at players differently than the rest of us. They know intuitively which players on the lineup card — and in the other dugout — are absolutely essential to the business of winning baseball games. On that score, Royals catcher Salvador Perez is one of the most valuable players in baseball.
Perez ranked 65th among major-league position players in WAR last year, according to FanGraphs.com. If you had asked 30 managers to compile that list, Perez would’ve ranked much higher.
Why? Well, last year Perez started 158 games at catcher, including the postseason. That is a major-league record, according to STATS LLC. He started the Royals’ final 49 games in a row. He caught every inning of a postseason run that extended to Game 7 of the World Series. He won the American League Wild Card Game with a walk-off single. All that, on a team-friendly five-year, $7 million contract.
That is value.
As the Royals begin a new year as the defending AL champions, manager Ned Yost has talked about resting Perez more often. Perez understands why. He remembers how his legs started feeling “heavy” in the middle of September. He was so drained that he needed IV fluids before a few late-season games.
So, is Perez ready to put a number on how many days off he’ll need this year?
“I don’t know because I like to catch,” he says at his locker in the Royals’ spring clubhouse. “I like to play. When the game starts, you don’t feel pain. You don’t feel tired. You’re ready for every situation. You’re concentrating on the game. (Ned) told me he’ll give me some time off. We talked about that. But I still want to catch 150, 148 games.”
For the record, only one big leaguer caught more than 140 games in 2014. His name is Salvador Perez. As if to further underscore his commitment to staying on the field, Perez boarded a flight several days after the World Series to catch more games during an MLB All-Star tour of Japan. (Royals teammate Alcides Escobar did the same, after becoming the first player in seven years to start all 162 games at shortstop.)
At times, Perez’s off-field levity can seem as important as his on-field consistency. He keeps his teammates loose while regarding the nightly nine innings with earnestness bordering on reverence. He earns the right to play on these beautifully manicured fields — far removed from the political and economic strife in his native Venezuela — through his performance each day. He has not lost sight of that despite the pregame pranks. Prolific Instagramming has not blurred Perez’s focus on that reality.
Perez has similar perspective on the moment from his 2014 season that many baseball fans will remember most: the (overly) aggressive swing at a high fastball from Madison Bumgarner that settled in Pablo Sandoval’s glove for the final out of the World Series.
Bumgarner threw six pitches during the at-bat. Each was a fastball. Perez swung four times.
“I know, for that, I got too excited,” Perez says now. “That’s what I think. I see Alex Gordon at third base and want to bring him in. I want to tie the game. I think my body got a little . . . not a little . . . too much excited. I forget the situation of the game, I wasn’t thinking about what Bumgarner was doing to me. I think he wanted to walk me because (Mike) Moustakas was coming behind me, a lefty.
“I think he wanted to throw me fastballs high, let me go to first base, and then face Moustakas. I learned from that. If that happens to me again, I’m going to be more patient. I’m going to do my job, try to hit the ball hard. But if they give me a walk, I’ll go to first base.”
To that end, Perez says he’s going to be more selective in spring training. For the first couple weeks of Cactus League games, he’d like to hit in two-strike counts as much as possible. “I want to see more pitches this year, see more off-speed pitches in spring training,” he says. “That’s what spring training is — to get ready for the season.”
A noble objective, to be sure, but it’s worth remembering that his walk-off single in the Wild Card Game came when he leaned over the plate to yank an outside curveball down the left-field line — a maneuver no hitting coach would teach at this time of year. Perez should be careful not to change too much. Any man who catches 158 games in a single season, with palpable passion for baseball in every step of his daily routine, is perfectly valuable just the way he is.