Indestructible Sal: Perez earning a reputation for toughness
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s a good thing the Royals’ Salvador Perez wears all that bulky catching gear.
When it fails to protect him from the bumps and bruises caused by all those bad pitches, foul balls and wayward swings, it at least covers up the rest of the black and blue marks.
"He takes such a beating," said his close friend Lorenzo Cain, the Royals outfielder, slowing shaking his head at the thought. "Man, I know I couldn’t do it."
When the Royals open the World Series against the New York Mets on Tuesday night, Perez will crouch behind the plate for the 312th time over the past two years. That will match the big-league regular and postseason record for a two-year span set by Randy Hundley of the Chicago Cubs from 1967-68.
And while Hundley no doubt took his share of beatings, it almost certainly pales in comparison to the countless jammed fingers, battered shins and dizzying headaches that Perez has absorbed.
"He’s a bulldog out there," Royals outfielder Alex Gordon said. "There’s really no ball that could hurt him. Bumps and bruises all over him, and he keeps going out there."
Last year epitomized Indestructible Sal.
Start with the 22 spring training games he played behind the plate. Then the 150 he played in the regular season and 15 more in the postseason — of those, Perez started 158 at catcher, a big-league record. Then, about a week after Perez made the final out in Game 7 of the World Series, he joined a contingent of All-Stars who played an exhibition series in Japan.
No wonder he skipped winter ball in his native Venezuela for the first time in years.
Royals manager Ned Yost, himself a former catcher, said in spring training he was going to give Perez more time off this year. Yost noticed the pounding the three-time All-Star had taken in 2014, and thought his postseason struggles at the plate were a reflection of it.
Apparently, more time off meant Perez played only 142 games this season after playing 16 in spring training.
"You’ve got to just kind of know it’s part of the position," Yost said, "but Sal is suited perfectly for it. He’s a big guy, extremely tough and he can take a beating."
In fact, he seems to embrace the beating. That’s why one of trainer Nick Kenney’s toughest tasks is trying to convince Perez to leave a game after a particularly bad blow.
"In the playoffs, the emotion, you have to have something broken to get me out of the game," Perez said. "We know the position. We know we’re going to get hit. If you wait a second, the pain is going to be gone. I don’t like to come out. It has to be really, really bad."
Royals assistant coach Pedro Grifol said the beating Perez takes is the result of a "perfect storm" of factors. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Perez is exceptionally large for a catcher, which means more surface area to absorb those foul tips and pitches in the dirt. Then there’s the fact that Kansas City has an abundance of power arms, so opposing hitters rarely make solid contact.
"There’s nothing you can do about it," Grifol said. "Ned talks about it all the time, ‘Can you guys start working on catching foul tips?’ It’s kind of become a running joke."
Perez has experimented with mouth guards after the Royals grew concerned about the potential for concussions. The fact that he wears an old-school mask rather than more modern, hockey-style shields isn’t a fashion statement, either: The older masks are a bit heavier, and the cages have a bit more bend than the titanium that is used in newer masks.
"We’ve taken a lot of different measures to see what we can do to help him," Grifol said, "but at the end of the day, there’s not much you can do with such a hard-throwing staff."
Except maybe offer a little bit of sympathy. Perez gets plenty of it from his teammates, not to mention opposing hitters in the box — even the umpires crouching down behind him.
"They’re always like, ‘Wow, man! That one had to hurt," Perez said, flashing his infectious grin. "It’s part of my job, being behind home plate. I don’t know. I just like to play. I know I’m going to get hit at least one time every game. I just get ready for the first time.
"I can worry about the pain when the season is over."