Salvador Perez Approaching Home Run History

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Since returning from Tommy John surgery, which claimed his entire 2019 season, Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez has hit at a level rarely seen throughout his magnificent career in Kansas City. Now, the all-star is on the verge of surpassing one of the greatest catchers in baseball history as he looks to set American League history.

On Thursday night, Perez delivered the key blow in a 6-4 win that came after the Royals trailed 4-0 through five innings. With the bases loaded in the sixth inning, Salvy obliterated a 2-0 fastball from Joe Smith for a go-ahead grand slam, the fourth of his career, and one that also won one lucky fan $25,000.

The home run was his 35th of the season, continuing a home run barrage that ties with Gary Gaetti for fourth on the Royals single-season home run list. As if that was not enough, he went out and became the first Royal to hit grand slams in back-to-back games.

Believe it or not, he had a crack at a third grand slam on Saturday afternoon but instead flew out. However, in his next plate appearance, Perez drilled a two-run shot that caromed off the top of the left field fence and over the wall for his third homer in as many days and his seventh during the Royals current ten-game road trip.

His 37 homers now sit behind only Mike Moustakas (38) and Jorge Soler (48) for most in a single season in Royals history. Additionally, his home run total now is all alone in second in the American League, behind only Most Valuable Player Award-frontrunner Shohei Ohtani, who has bashed 41 longballs thus far.

What He’s Chasing

On Thursday, Perez became just the fourth catcher in American League history to reach 35 homers, joining Terry Steinbach, in 1996, and Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, in 1999, both of whom also hit 35 homers. With his two subsequent blasts, he enters Sunday’s game tied for the American League record for a catcher, which had been held by another Hall of Famer, Carlton Fisk, who blasted 37 homers in 1985.

Now, if you are into semantics, the mark Salvy is on the verge of eclipsing is the mark for most home runs by an American League catcher, not as a catcher. What does this mean? Well, 11 of Perez’s 37 homers came as a designated hitter, meaning he was only behind the plate for 26 of his homers thus far, a mark that is not nearly as impressive.

As for the others, Steinbach drilled 34 of his 35 as a catcher (and the other while pinch-hitting), Fisk hit 33 of his 37 while catching (the other four as a DH), and Pudge hit all 35 of his while also behind the plate. So, there is that designation, but nonetheless, this does not make what Perez is doing any less remarkable.

Over in the National League, there have been seven seasons of 40 plus home runs from a catcher, coming from five separate players (Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza each did it twice). The only time it has happened in this century was Javy Lopez coming out of nowhere to hit 43 homers in 2003. Bench has the record for a catcher, bashing 45 in 1970, while Lopez has the most as a catcher, with 42 of his 43 in 2003 coming while starting behind the dish.

While he has collected a healthy dose of his homers as a DH, Perez is still taking plenty of turns behind the plate. He has been behind the plate for 102 games thus far (101 starts), which ranks second in the major leagues, while leading all MLB catchers in assists (52), double plays (10), and is third in caught-stealing percentage (40.6%). That goes to show that Salvy is still just as productive behind the plate while being more productive than ever at the plate.

How He’s Doing It

It has never been a secret that Salvador Perez has some power, as evidenced by the fact that he topped 20 homers in each of his final four seasons before missing the 2019 season. In 2017-18, he blasted 27 homers in each season, which before this season were the two highest marks by a Royals catcher. Nonetheless, that does not explain why his power has ramped up.

Here is what we know: Royals fans know that Perez has always been averse to taking walks. Not surprisingly, his 3.6 percent walk rate is second-worst in baseball among all qualified hitters (behind Isiah Kiner-Falefa), which is no different from his last full season in 2018 (when his 3.1% walk rate was also second-worst). Even then, though he was already hitting the ball hard consistently, with his average exit velocity and hard-hit rates both ranked in the top-20 in baseball.

In 2021, though, those numbers have ratcheted up even further. Hit average exit velo has raised from 91.4 MPH to 92.7, a figure that ranks 13th in baseball. Even more impressive, his hard-hit rate (balls with an exit velo over 95 MPH), rose from an already-excellent 47.5 percent to an elite 55.3 percent, which ranks sixth in all of baseball.

The five men in front of him are a who’s-who’s in modern-day power hitting: Giancarlo Stanton, Fernando Tatis, Aaron Judge, Shohei Ohtani, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.. Simply put, Perez has graduated from excellent to elite in terms of squaring up the baseball.

What’s behind this change? Well, judging from the numbers, it’s an interesting tale. To start, his overall average launch angle is actually lower than pre-2019 (from 18% to 14.9%), meaning that some balls that were lazy fly balls are instead turning into line drives and potentially home runs. Additionally, his strikeout rate has risen precipitously from 19.9% to 26.1%.

With the strikeout rate rising, aggressiveness and general lesser contact are the main culprit. He’s making less contact in the strike zone than at any point since Statcast data began in 2015. While his chase rate is still one of the highest in baseball, his ability to hit pitches out of the strike zone appears to have waned, as his contact rate on chased pitches is 50.8% this season, compared to 61.7% in 2018 (and rates as high 69.7% in years before).

Another number suggests he may even be getting more aggressive: he’s chasing more first pitches than ever, pulling the trigger on 43.3% of them, up from his previous career high of 40.8% in 2018. He’s doing plenty of damage with them as well, batting .366 with nine first-pitch homers and an OPS of 1.186 on 73 plate appearances that lasted just one pitch.

However, as his overall percentile rankings suggest, despite making less and less contact, he’s become more and more dangerous. For example, in 2015 Perez struck out just 82 times in 142 games, giving him a strikeout rate in 79% percentile, while his whiff rate was also quite good: the 72nd percentile. However, his exit velocity and hard-hit rates were in the 29th and 39th percentiles, respectively—not good.

Those numbers have steadily declined, to the point where he’s now in just the 22nd percentile in strikeout rate and his whiff rate is abysmal, sitting clear down in the 7th percentile. However, his barrel rate (92nd percentile), total number of barrels (99th) hard-hit rate (98th) exit velo (93rd), and expected slugging (95th) all rank near the top of baseball.

Why is that? Well, simply prioritizing hard contact over just making any contact probably has something to do with this. That approach especially seems to be working on secondary pitches. In 2018, Perez batted just .155 with six homers off breaking balls (generally sliders and curveballs). This year, though, while seeing virtually the same amount of breaking balls (35.3% compared to 34.7% in 2018), Perez is batting .301 with 11 homers. Interestingly, his whiff rate has risen from 32.8% to 41.6% on those deliveries, suggesting that his approach has changed to maximizing any contact he does make on those offerings.

Now, is this approach sustainable? Perhaps it is. Baseball has changed in the last two decades, and while the 2014-15 Royals (Salvy included) were lauded for their ability to put the ball in play, the 2021 version of the sport—for better or for worse—is a place where guys who strike out a lot but also hit a lot of homers are a tolerated, and even celebrated, presence in virtually every team’s lineup.

Perhaps best illustrating that is the fact that Perez is currently worth 4.2 bWAR this year, which currently ranks 11th in the American League. Perhaps ironically is the fact that he’s right next to the offensive output of Shohei Ohtani (also 4.2 WAR), who is the only player in Major League Baseball with more homers than Perez.

No matter how you choose to look at it though, it’s clear to see that Salvador Perez is no longer just a bad-ball hitter with some pop; he has legitimately transformed his game to become one of the top sluggers in the American League. Any day (or moment) now, he’ll become the American League recordholder for most homers in a season by a catcher. He’ll likely become the first AL catcher to even bash 40 homers in a season.

It won’t be a fluke, either.

Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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