Perez a blossoming star in Kansas City
Young catcher already among the best, enjoying life on and off field
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There are many things that describe the Royals' Salvador Perez. He's an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner and a team leader at 23, a big catcher with a big laugh, a big heart and a big future.
Perhaps, though, Royals closer Greg Holland encapsulated it best: "He lives and breathes baseball, and that's what makes him very good."
Perez certainly is a visible presence on a Royals team that appears to be on the brink of a breakthrough.
At 6-3 and 240 pounds, he commands the field in mask, chest protector and shin guards with masterful utilization of a cannon arm, soft hands, quick feet and an agile mind. At bat, there's the strong right-handed swing that blesses him with power, production and average.
Though still about two months shy of his 24th birthday, his clubhouse presence goes beyond his deep, booming voice and his energetic forays around the room as he exchanges smiles and jibes. He's quickly earned respect and friendship among his elders as well as the younger players.
Veteran pitcher Jeremy Guthrie even invited Perez, who is from Valencia, Venezuela, to accompany him on a trip to Spain last winter.
"Not too hard to get him over there. We saw a lot of soccer matches, talked some baseball and had a blast," Guthrie said.
And they bicycled around Barcelona, too.
"That was awesome," Perez said. "It took like four or five hours. We went everywhere -- I mean everywhere. It was awesome. I want to go back."
That's Perez, enthusiastic about everything, especially baseball.
Ned Yost got his first eyeful of Perez's catching skills when, while scouting before becoming Royals manager, he was sitting in the stands with his stopwatch. Scouts time a catcher's throw to second base, mitt to glove, and Yost said the Major League average is two seconds flat and 1.9-something seconds is really good. But 1.85 seconds or below?
"I thought that was a fallacy. I'd never seen that one time in my career -- never," Yost said.
Until he saw Perez, who was just out of A ball.
"The first time I saw Salvy in a game, he threw a runner out and I clicked it and it was 1.83," Yost recalled. "Well I've never been real good with this watch anyway so I figured I'd goofed it up some way. So I turned to the guy next to me and I said, 'What'd you get on that?' And he looked and said, 'I got a 1.83.' I turned to another guy and he said, 'I got a 1.84.' That's when he caught my eye."
Which is why last season he threw out 23 runners trying to steal, most in the American League. Baserunners also have become so wary of his lightning pickoff throws that he nailed just one last year, giving him nine in his 250 big league games as a catcher.
"He's so athletic for a big guy. His bottom half works with his top half [so well]," Yost said. "I've never seen another catcher work like that."
Pitchers love pitching to Perez, as newly-arrived left-hander Jason Vargas can attest.
"He's so young and so talented at an early age. The other catchers that I've had, some have been young, some have been veteran guys, but I think he puts himself in a different category with the way he's played since he's been in the big leagues," Vargas said. "He definitely knows what's going on back there and has a good idea of how to adjust from game to game and pitch to pitch."
Perez's ability to block pitches gives pitchers the confidence, even with a runner on third base, to bury a pitch in the dirt in an effort to tempt a hitter. They're pretty sure he'll come up with it, dust and all. They also can depend on Perez to come up with a plan.
"I played with what I consider the two best in the American League," Guthrie said, "with [Baltimore's Matt] Wieters and him, so I've been impressed with both of them -- the way they do things and the way they command their position. It's a very important position on the field, so I've been very fortunate to play with both. They've both won Gold Gloves and both have been All-Stars in very short careers so far."
Pitching coach Dave Eiland noted that Perez knows that it's important to treat each pitcher differently.
"He doesn't just blanket them and say, 'OK, every pitcher is going to pitch each hitter the same way,' " Eiland said. "He's very good at knowing how each pitcher's strength matches up to each hitter."
All of which got Perez his first Rawlings Gold Glove Award, which he heard about in Spain from Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
"Guthrie came to my room, knocked on the door and said, 'Somebody wants to talk to you.' I see the smile on Jeremy's face when he passed me the phone. I said, 'Somebody wants to talk to me here? I don't believe you, Jeremy,' " Perez said.
"So I got on the phone and it was Dayton Moore and he said, 'I want to tell you congratulations.' I said, 'Thank you. But why?' He told me that I'd won the Gold Glove, you're the best defensive catcher in the American League. I said, 'Thank you, I have to call my mother right now. I'll talk to you later.' "
Perez makes certain that his mother, Yilda, shares his joy. She raised him as a single mom in Venezuela. Salvy often remembers how, as a kid, his mother tossed him corn kernels or bottlecaps for him to hit around the kitchen or the patio with a broomstick.
Hitting is another thing that Perez has done notably well. He batted .301 in his knee injury-shortened 2012 season, and last year, in 138 games, he pounded 13 homers and 25 doubles with 79 RBIs and a .292 average.
Following Thursday's Cactus League game, a 6-6 tie with the White Sox, Perez is 8-for-15 (.533) in Arizona.
Perez has learned an important fact of Major League life, the ability to separate woes at the plate and the responsibilities in the field. No defensive player has more riding on him than the catcher.
"When I catch, I just worry about my position. When I go to hit, I think about hitting," Perez said. "If we win the game, I might go 0-for-4, but I feel happy. I worry more about my defense. That's the thing I can control, I can control what I do behind home plate. Hitting is a little harder -- you can go up and down."
So it's fitting that when Perez recounts the three biggest moments of his career so far, just the third involved his bat.
"I've got three things that I'll always remember. My first Gold Glove. When I caught Mariano Rivera in the All-Star Game. And when I hit a bomb in 2012 to win the game," he said.
Perez and Rivera, saluted in his final All-Star appearance last year at New York, were the only players on the field for that poignant moment. The 2012 home run off the foul pole beat the Angels, 3-2, and followed Billy Butler's two-run game-tying blast at Kauffman Stadium.
"He's going to develop more power as he goes, and he always puts the ball in play," Yost said. "He's not a big strikeout guy, but he'll learn to take more walks and stuff like that which is key to his production."
For all of Perez's defensive skills, the Royals are teaching him to play first base, which he did in the final game of last season and in 22 games this winter in Venezuela. The idea is to perhaps give him an occasional break from the demands of catching or give Eric Hosmer a break against a tough left-handed pitcher.
Make no mistake, though, catching is what makes Perez such a treasure.
"He's way ahead of the curve, he's past the curve. But still has another level to go to, like all our players," Yost said. "You sit here and think, 'OK, he's an All-Star and a Gold Glover,' but what's encouraging is you still see areas in which he can even be better in and will be better in. You look at a guy like [the Cardinals'] Yadier Molina and he's at the level by himself, but Salvy's right behind him."