Salvador Perez had quite a day.
In the first inning of yesterday’s tilt in Oakland, Perez set up to catch Johnny Giavotella’s relay throw, and the ball arrived milliseconds before Jemile Weeks plowed into him. Perez held onto the ball, and Weeks was out, but Perez was shook up on the play and seemed to end up with a welt behind his ear.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Michael Taylor fouled a ball right back into Perez’s body. It’s not clear where the ball hit Perez, but it was clearly very painful – he needed about 30 seconds to compose himself before signaling that he was able to continue. Tim Collins finished the inning with a strikeout, but Perez looked so dinged up at that point that I fully expected Brayan Pena to pinch-hit for him in the top of the eighth.
Instead, Perez batted with two out, and after falling behind 0-2, worked the count back to 2-2. He then went with a fastball on the outside corner at the knees, lining it into right field for a clean single. This kept his batting average above .300 since joining the Royals last month.
It was, as you probably know, the Royals’ first hit of the game.
Salvador Perez wasn’t supposed to be doing this. He hit .290 with seven home runs last year, and he did that in high-A Wilmington. He was one of my favorite prospects in the system, and the fact that he ranked somewhere between 17th and 20th in the organization was a testament to how deep the farm system was – but still, he wasn’t supposed to be here.
Perez hit .283/.329/.427 for Northwest Arkansas this year before he was promoted to Omaha in late July. In 12 games for the Storm Chasers, he hit .333/.347/.500, and here he is. He wasn’t supposed to be here. Alone among the Royals prospects to debut this year, he was being rushed. And as recently as two weeks ago, you could argue that he didn’t deserve to be in the majors. In his first 12 games in the major leagues, he hit .227/.271/.318.
Since then, he’s hit .381. In his brief, 23-game major-league career, Salvador Perez is hitting .302/.337/.430, while showing excellent defensive skills and – as he showed yesterday – a catcher’s toughness. And he’s just 21 years old. He’ll still be 21 years old when next season begins.
Maybe that doesn’t sound all that impressive to you. It’s only 23 games and 92 plate appearances, and batting average is subject to so many fluctuations that a .300 average is meaningless in a small sample size. (I actually coined Jazayerli’s Law of Backup Catchers sometime in the last century to describe this phenomenon: Any player can hit .300 in a small number of at-bats. Remember Hector Ortiz?)
Still, Salvador Perez is hitting .300. And he is 21 years old. And – at the risk of being mercilessly mocked for creating a pointless and misleading list – here is the list of every catcher (defined as someone who caught in 70% of his games played) in major-league history who 1) batted 75 or more times and 2) hit .300 or better in his age 21 season. (No catcher has hit .300 or better at age 20 or younger.)
It’s not a long list.
1) Al Lopez. Lopez debuted with the Dodgers in 1928 for three games, but was their regular catcher in 1930, when he was 21 (he turned 22 that August.) He hit .309/.362/.418, which in 1930 wasn’t all that impressive – the league hit .303/.360/.448. Still, Lopez played 19 seasons in the majors, and finished with 1918 games caught in his career, which was an all-time major-league record until it was broken by Bob Boone more than 40 years later. He was so respected as a game-caller and game-manager that he received MVP votes in seven different seasons, including one in which he hit .218/.317/.251 in 91 games. (Imagine Jason Kendall getting an MVP vote last year.)
After his playing days were over, Lopez took over as manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1951. He would manage the next 15 years – six with the Indians, nine with the White Sox – and his teams finished over .500 every single year. He went to the World Series with the 1954 Indians and 1959 White Sox, which is more impressive than it sounds: those were the only two non-Yankee teams to win the AL pennant from 1949 to 1964.
His lifetime winning percentage was .584, which is a better winning percentage than the 1985 Royals. Lopez was inducted into the Hall of Fame for his work as a manager in 1977.
2) Ted Simmons. Simmons was the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 1967 out of high school and debuted in the majors a little more than a year later. In 1970, as a 20-year-old rookie, he hit .243/.333/.317 in 82 games. The following year he took over the everyday job and hit .304/.347/.424, earning some MVP votes. That was the start of a 13-year-run in which Simmons hit .294/.356/.459, good for a 126 OPS+ in the low-offense 1970s. He had a reputation as a subpar defensive catcher, but still finished with over 50 bWAR in his career, and is widely considered one of – if not the best – eligible catcher not in the Hall of Fame.
Lopez and Simmons are not fair comparisons to Perez, because they both played a full season in the majors at age 21. Our next two players, like Perez, played abbreviated seasons.
3) Dale Murphy. It’s easy to forget this now, but Murphy came up as a highly-touted catcher, reaching the majors for a cup of coffee at the age of 20 in 1976. In 1977, he played in 18 games and hit .316 with 11 extra-base hits in 76 at-bats.
The following year he played everyday, but his shaky defense behind the plate became untenable when he developed a mental block about throwing. He only caught in 21 games, playing the rest of the season at first base. He hit .226 and led the league with 145 Ks, but also hit 23 homers. In 1979, the Braves once again tried him behind the plate, and once again the experiment failed, as he caught just 27 times. But in 104 games he hit .276/.340/.469.
Finally, in 1980 the Braves gave up and moved him to center field. He responded by hitting .281/.349/.510 and making his first All-Star team. After an off-year in the strike-shortened 1981, Murphy was probably the best player in the NL from 1982 to 1987. He won MVPs in 1982 and 1983, led the league in home runs in 1984 and 1985, and had perhaps his best season in 1987, hitting .295/.417/.580 with a career-high 44 home runs.
He was just 31 that year, but he was essentially done; two years later he was one of the worst players in the NL, hitting .228/.306/.361. He hung around until 1993 and even latched on with the expansion Colorado Rockies in 1993 in a failed effort to get to 400 career home runs. He finished with 398. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, but depending on how strongly you weight a player’s peak over his career contributions, you can certainly make a case for him.
4) Joe Mauer. In 2004, as a 21-year-old rookie and the #1 prospect in baseball, Mauer hit .308/.369/.570 in 35 games before an injury cost him the rest of the season. He returned in 2005 to hit .294/.372/.411, then won batting titles in 2006, 2008, and 2009. (No other catcher in American League history has won even one batting title.) He’s suffered through a lousy, injury-plagued 2011, but he has to be considered better than even odds to wind up in the Hall of Fame.
5) Salvador Perez, who in 23 games is hitting .302/.337/.430.
Well, that was fun. And pointless. And misleading. But still fun.
No, I am not saying that Perez deserves to be discussed in the same sentence, or paragraph, or even the same book as the four other guys on this list. One of the reasons I wanted to write this today is that if he goes 0-for-3 tonight, he will drop off this list tomorrow.
What I am saying is that Salvador Perez has elevated his status dramatically this season. A year ago he was in the Carolina League; today he’s holding his own in the major leagues offensively and defensively. Maybe it’s a fluke, but precisely because he is so young (he’s the third-youngest player to appear in an AL game this year), we can’t rule out the possibility of a tremendous upgrade in his base skills. I don’t think he’s a .300 hitter; I do think that he has shown himself to be ready for the challenge of hitting major-league pitching at the age of 21. As you can see, that in itself is a rare, and highly promising, skill.
I don’t think Salvador Perez is headed to the Hall of Fame. I do think that given his defense at a key position, he might be the most important prospect the Royals have called up this year other than Eric Hosmer. And I do think that having a catcher who can contribute on both sides of the ball is going to make the challenge of contending in the next few years a lot easier.