Salvy pumped for seventh ASG, first Derby

Royals' beloved catcher is fully recovered and having a resurgent season

July 12th, 2021

When was told he would miss the entire 2019 season after having Tommy John surgery, his first goal was to get back to the big leagues. His second was to be an even better player than he was before he underwent the elbow surgery, a rarity for big league catchers.

“It’s hard,” Perez said, shaking his head. “It’s so hard. Missing a year and not knowing what it’s going to be like when you get back. I don’t wish that on anybody. After they do my surgery, I just put my mind in a place where I needed to be concentrated, work as hard as I can, try to do everything the trainers tell me to be back soon and good. Because sometimes that doesn’t happen.”

Two years removed from the operation, Perez hasn’t missed a beat. The veteran Royals catcher will compete in his seventh All-Star Game on Tuesday night and make his sixth start behind the plate for the American League. It’s an honor Perez doesn’t take lightly.

“Every one is special,” Perez said. “For my kids to see me there, they’re proud of me. I see my mom and my dad there, makes me feel happy.”

After Perez underwent Tommy John, there were questions about how he would return, if he’d still be the same hitter and thrower he was before the operation.

He was ready for Opening Day in 2020 but got an extended break because of the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down baseball for four months. That actually helped him, he said, giving him more time to rest and get his arm ready. But when the Royals returned to the field in July, Perez missed time because of a positive Covid-19 test. Then he missed more time because of a left eye injury.

Still, he hit 11 home runs with 32 RBIs in 37 games and posted a .986 OPS, by far the highest mark of his career.

That small sample led to skepticism about Perez’s ability to maintain that type of production.

Through the first half of 2021, the skepticism has gone away, as the 31-year-old hit .275 with 21 home runs, on pace for the highest total of his career. This season hasn’t been without struggles for Perez; he has struck out 98 times and walked just eight times, although early on in the season he showed a better pitch selection approach than he has before and he hopes to get back to that when the season resumes.

Perez has also played every day, all 89 games through the first half, with designated hitter days sprinkled in when he needs a day off his feet. He wants to play all 162 this year if he can, and that mindset has allowed him to work harder and smarter, knowing when he needs rest and what it takes to make sure his body is recovered.

“I watch some of the things he’s doing in the clubhouse,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s constantly doing something to help his body recuperate. Those are the ones that are special. They maximize what they have for as long as they possibly can.”

His willingness to play every day is what stands out to his teammates, too.

“To be a catcher and do what he does every day is extremely impressive,” said Whit Merrifield, who will join Perez in Denver as an All-Star. “The energy he brings every day, regardless of catching a ton of games, his consistency and his physical endurance, and being able to swing like he does after taking the brunt of what catching does to your body, is incredibly impressive.”

There’s been a new switch unlocked for Perez this season, even with playing as much as he does and swinging the most dangerous bat in the Royals lineup. He comes up time and time again in big situations and comes through, delivering home runs and walk-off hits. He’s hitting the ball harder than he ever has before. His average exit velocity is 93 mph -- an increase over the 91 mph last year and his 89.6 mph career average. It ranks in the top six percent of the league. The added strength comes from maximizing his lower half and core through his swing, something he worked on over the offseason.

For as good as he already is behind the plate and at the plate, Perez keeps searching for ways to improve.

“I don’t think we have the kind of time to think, ‘OK, I’m going to take tomorrow off,’” Perez said. “No. You want to be one of the best? You’ve got to work. As soon as the season’s over, I start working out. Preparing for next year. That’s going to make the difference. I feel stronger. I feel healthier.

“I feel great. And I’m having fun.”

Perez has always had fun playing -- it’s part of what makes him Salvy. He keeps the energy up even as he takes the brunt of balls in the dirt behind the plate, as he takes swing after swing at the plate and as he leads the Royals through the season. He looks at the energetic leadership role as his duty.

“You have to show your people that no matter what, you’re back there with energy trying to do the best and everything to win,” Perez said. “You got to show that to your teammates. They see that, and they’re going to play hard, too. It’s part of the job.”

And the fun you see him having while doing it? It’s genuine.

“The more time I spend around him, the more I appreciate him,” Matheny said. “The talent’s obvious. But the heart, man. He makes himself more vulnerable to be seen as who he is than most of us in this game do. But it’s the real deal. This is a great-hearted person who is a great player. He’s just unique.”

While Perez is no stranger to the All-Star Game, it will be his first time competing in the Home Run Derby on Monday night. Royals batting practice pitcher Miguel Garcia will throw to him, and they went through a practice round on Friday at Progressive Field. When talking about it Saturday, Perez couldn’t stop smiling.

“This is going to be so much fun for me,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I want to compete, but I’m going to have fun and be in the moment. Do the best I can while being smart. Because I do have another half of the season to play. We’re going to have fun.”