On the field and off, Perez a hit with Royals
Young catcher's ability to balance duties draws praise from teammates
KANSAS CITY -- Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but when Salvador Perez, the Royals' young and very talented catcher, returned to the lineup, the team began winning.
Since Perez returned on June 4, the Royals have an 11-5 record. They've surged upward in the standings and in stature, becoming the contending team that they were supposed to be.
"When I came back, we started to win games and everybody was feeling better," Perez said -- but with an implied shrug as if it just sort of happened that way.
After all, how much difference can one player make on a baseball team? Keep in mind that, after a promising 17-10 getaway, Perez also was around during the 4-15 funk that preceded his departure. He was out of the lineup on May 25, the day he received word of his maternal grandmother's death in Venezuela.
Profoundly affected by the passing of the grandmother who helped his mother raise him, Perez went on bereavement leave. He traveled to his home country and missed the next eight games, during which the Royals were 2-6.
"I missed being with my team, when that happened with my grandmother," he said. "I felt so bad, because I watched all the games."
Perez's return for the beginning of the last homestand seems to have given the Royals an injection of new life that transcends his beaming smile and effervescent personality.
"Just his presence alone, he brings an energy that everybody kind of feeds off of, through his body language, through his awareness," second baseman Chris Getz said. "And coming from your battery, you can't ask for anything more."
A commanding presence at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Perez is an extreme opposite of the old idea of a small, squat, pepperpot catcher -- Yogi Berra he ain't. Yet his big size belies his quick-responding hands, arms, legs and feet that fill a catcher's every need. His mind is quick, as well.
"He's very intelligent," pitcher Ervin Santana said. "It's the type of talent that's difficult to get, and he's got it. So he's taking advantage of that."
The brain game for catchers, of course, starts with calling the pitches during the game. He has to know every batter on every team quite well and absorb every nuance of his own pitchers' particular style and approach.
"Salvador is young , but I trust him," said Bruce Chen, dean of the pitching staff.
This year, three-fifths of the rotation was new with James Shields, Wade Davis and Santana coming from other teams; Jeremy Guthrie and Luis Mendoza were holdovers. And they were seasoned pitchers with lengthy backgrounds.
"When guys are like that, it's easier to catch, because you know what they like to throw, everything they like to do, and we're on the same page every time," Perez said. "With people like Shields, Wade Davis, Jeremy, Santana and Mendoza, for me it's easy to catch those guys."
And easy for them to pitch to Perez.
"One, people take for granted his blocking abilities. I don't think anyone here is afraid to throw anything in the dirt on any count with a runner on third base," Chen said. "And we have some of the nastiest guys with the nastiest stuff, like [Greg] Holland, Shields with that changeup, Santana's slider. These guys won't even think about it twice, about throwing it in the dirt."
Nope, because Perez is extremely adept at stopping errant pitches.
"The thing is, when we have him behind the plate, we're not going to think about -- is he going to block it or not?" Santana said. "We just have so much confidence that he'll block it; he does everything it takes to keep the ball in front of him so the runner doesn't advance.
"He's big, but he just gives a good target. I like it because he just puts the glove down and you just feel comfortable to pitch to him. And he's a big guy, and he moves quick for being that big."
Perez's strong arm is made even more effective by his quick release to second base. The average Major League time for a catcher's throw to second base, glove to glove, is 2.0 seconds, according to Royals manager Ned Yost. Perez is regularly clocked at well under that, sometimes as fast as 1.84. That fraction of a second often makes a difference.
As Yost quickly points out, bases are primarily stolen on the pitcher, particularly if he's slow to the plate. But the Royals' pitchers this year are pretty quick.
"Shields, Davis, Guthrie, Mendy -- all these guys have got great slide steps and are quick to the plate. That's why they're not stealing," Yost said. "Guys aren't stupid. They're not going to run into an out when you've got a combination of 1.1 or 1.2 [seconds] from the pitcher and Salvy is consistent at 1.9. They're opportunistic."
Royals opponents have swiped 37 bases, sixth fewest against an American League team, and have been caught 15 times, fifth best in the AL.
"Now, nobody runs. When have you seen him pick anybody off?" Chen said. "The word gets around. But now we're getting a lot of double plays, because nobody's advancing. People don't see that, but sometimes the things that you don't see are the best things. Nobody wants to test his arm anymore."
But Perez likes to keep runners guessing and can unleash a snap pickoff attempt at any moment. Runners are understandably gun-shy.
"It's clear that he likes to throw when there's a chance," Getz said. "He's certainly not scared, and as an infielder, you have to be ready. If we're able to execute it, it's a free out and it can be a huge game-changer."
As a hitter, Perez has delivered more than the Royals initially expected. Since being called up in August 2011, he has a .307 average with, not surprisingly, good power. That's why Yost inserted Perez in the No. 3 spot in the batting order shortly after his return.
"I always say that no matter what spot I hit in, I'm going to try to do the best I can and help my team," Perez said. "I don't care if I'm hitting in the third spot, the fourth, the eighth, the ninth. Whatever. Just keep me in the lineup, and I'll try to do the best I can do."
Since going into the third spot, Perez has hit .279 (17-for-61) with two homers and 12 RBIs in 15 games. Overall, he's at .298.
Pedro Grifol, brought in with George Brett to coach the hitters, is getting his first crack at working with Perez. He also saw him as an opposing player while managing in the Venezuelan League last winter.
"He's got great hand-to-eye coordination, which is a huge key to being a successful hitter, I think, over time, and it's showing up already. He's starting to really learn the league, learning how to hit up here in the big leagues," Grifol said.
Perez, a right-handed batter, is best when he reaches the outfield gaps and hits all over the field.
"When he pulls, he gets in trouble," Grifol said. "He's got to 'gap,' and he's got strength, he's got leverage all over the park. George tells him every day to stay gap-to-gap. That's when he's going to be successful. That comes with experience and he's just a baby right now, he's just starting now to create a library of experiences, which is going to help him down the road. You see it all the time. Yadier Molina started that way, and all of a sudden, he's one of the better hitters in the game."
In addition to Brett and Grifol, Perez is gaining hitting knowledge from former AL Most Valuable Player Award winner and current guru Miguel Tejada.
"He tells you to have a plan when you go to the plate, just look for one pitch and try to hit the ball up the middle all the time," Perez said. "We need people like that on the team."
More and more, the Royals are realizing they need people like Perez on the team. He's defense, he's offense, he's leadership. He's good fun, too.
The other day in Cleveland, Perez took a Fox TV microphone and "interviewed" Chen in his booming, heavily accented English. It was punctuated with laughs, jokes and Perez's wide smile.
"He has something that people don't have," Chen said when it was over. "He has charisma."