The All-Star game is at the end of the day an exhibition for baseball fans. It doesn’t “count” anymore (thank God), and even though most fans will vote on players based on merit, it is understandable that fans may vote a player in over one who may be more deserving statistically. One can look at Bryce Harper, who’s playing the All-Star game in his hometown, for getting voted in as a starting outfielder, even though he is hitting only .214, the lowest batting average of his career. But, his copious amounts of dingers (23 home runs thus far), and the host crowd got him over, even though there probably were better starting options available in the National League.
In the American League, some are making the case that Royals catcher Salvador Perez shouldn’t be on the All-Star roster, let alone starting (though to be frank, he is only starting because original starting catcher, Wilson Ramos, suffered a hamstring injury right before the break and is expected to go to the DL. The emergency start will be the 29-year-old Venezuelan’s fifth-straight start in the All-Star game and his sixth appearance in the Mid-Summer Classic overall. Yet despite those gaudy accolades, it isn’t hard to see where non-Kansas City baseball fans might have a problem with Perez taking an All-Star spot, as this season has been one of the more mediocre ones of his career statistically, and he is the face of the worst team in baseball record-wise at the break. Some may argue that Yan Gomes of the Indians should have been starting the All-Star exhibition rather than Perez, considering Gomes’ offensive numbers are better than Perez’s and the Indians are in first place in the AL Central. And furthermore, some may argue for the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez, whose average is a lot worse than Perez’s (.190 to .221), but has demonstrated better-advanced numbers than Perez in the first half (.313 wOBA to .281 for Perez).
I am not saying that Perez is a slam dunk All-Star selection by any means. This first half has certainly been concerning for one of Royals fans’ most beloved players. That being said, I will explain why Salvy deserves an All-Star berth and even start this year even though the “surface level” stats may say otherwise.
The case against Salvy starting/playing in the All-Star Game…
The main case against Salvy starting the All-Star game mostly centers on offense. And to be honest, you would have a point. In the table below that I created initially on Fangraphs, I sorted all AL Catchers who had 200 or more plate appearances. As you can see, according to wRC+, Salvy ranks 8th out the 11 qualifying catchers, with a mark of 73. If you sort the other offensive only categories below, he ranks near the bottom in most.
Another aspect that hurts Perez is his offensive runs above average (OFF), which sits at a negative-12.1, good for 9th out of the 11 qualifying AL catchers in this sample. OFF combines batting runs and baserunning runs, and as one can see, Perez has been more detrimental than positive to the Royals lineup (though to be fair, this is a 27-win Royal team we’re talking about; pretty much everyone has been detrimental to this roster this year). One big reason for Perez’s lackluster offensive ability has been his lack of plate discipline this season, as Perez has become more free-swinging than ever. Al Melchior of Rotographs wrote a great piece on Perez’s ineffective and wild approach at the plate as a big reason for his decline in 2018. Melchior had this to say about Perez in his article (for more context, check out the graphs embedded in Melchior’s piece):
“If he is slumping, it may be because of where he is at in his career arc. Perez has never been a choosy hitter, but his plate discipline has been especially bad the last two seasons…He has increased his O-Swing% substantially this year, just as he did last year. Possibly because pitchers know they don’t have to give Perez pitches in the strike zone, his Zone% has fallen precipitously, especially from 2017 to 2018…It’s a trend that is working against Perez, because he has the lowest wOBA on pitches outside of the strike zone…of any hitter this season (min. 100 plate appearances on pitches out of the zone). Perez (.173), Chris Owings (.189) and Alcides Escobar (.196) are the only hitters with a sub-.200 O-wOBA.”
Everything about Perez’s offensive numbers screams “horrendous”. His .221/.259/.394 slash resemble a starting catcher at the end of his prime, not a 29-year-old All-Star. His BB/K ratio sits at 0.14, and his walk rate is 2.9 percent, a sign of a grossly impatient hitter. Lastly, his swinging strike percentage of 13.4 percent is the highest rate of his career and his 77.4 percent contact rate is the lowest of his career.
And when you combine that with the fact that he plays on a 27-win Royals team which plays in arguably the worst division in baseball (at least the Orioles have the excuse that they’re playing regularly against the Red Sox and Yankees), and it’s easy to see why the argument against Perez being an All-Star is valid. Yes, Salvy is a loveable figure in baseball. Yes, he is associated with great memories of success for Royals fans. Yes, he’s probably one of the few (if only) guys keeping this Royals team together in the clubhouse.
But, according to critics, All-Star appearances should be awarded by merit, not reputation. And thus, based on his qualifications and offensive output, it is understandable to see why Perez shouldn’t deserve an AL All-Star nod in 2018.
Why Perez deserves an All-Star berth…
As an offensive lynchpin in the Royals lineup, Perez has been disappointing. As a fantasy player, Perez has been disappointing. There’s no question about that. However, baseball is more than just offense and how much a player impacts fantasy statistical categories. If it was only about that, then there wouldn’t be a vote, MLB would just pick the top guys based on wRC+ and WAR and not think twice about it.
When it comes to judging a baseball player completely for an All-Star berth, his defensive ability also comes into play, and by most advanced metrics, Salvy is one of the best in the American League. His defense and ability to save runs as a catcher is a big reason why he deserves a spot on the AL All-Star roster this year.
Now, catcher defense numbers are still a work in progress, but there are many ways to evaluate how effective a catcher is behind the dish. Practically speaking, when one evaluates catchers two tangible things come to mind:
1.) How often does he throw runners out?
2.) How well does he keep pitches in front of him?
When it comes to caught stealing percentage (i.e. the percentage of runners he throws out trying to steal a base), Perez is at 43 percent, the second-best mark in the American League (behind the Angels Martin Maldanado who has a 48 percent caught stealing rate). He also has the second fewest bases stolen against him with 16, a sign of the respect for Perez’s arm from opposing teams (Thus affirming point 1 from above). Furthermore, in addition to saving runs on the basepaths, Perez also prevents baserunners from advancing, as he has only three passed balls this year, which ties him for fewest in the American League with the Blue Jays’ Russell Martin. (Thus affirming point 2 from above.)
(The passed balls category is where he and Maldanado deviate, as the Angels catcher actually leads the AL in passed balls of qualifying catchers with 10 this year.)
Perez’s advanced numbers are even better, as you can see in the graph below (this too was compiled from Fangraphs, originally).
As the numbers demonstrate, he leads in defensive runs saved above average (DEF) and stolen-base prevention (rSB) of qualified American League catchers with marks of 8.5 and 4, respectively. And thus, while one can question Perez’s offensive merits this season, his defensive prowess is not debatable. Salvy has been unquestionably one of the, if not the, best defensive catcher in the American League so far in 2018.
That statement alone merits Salvy a spot in this year’s All-Star game in the Nation’s Capital.
What are my final thoughts on Salvy?
Perez undoubtedly is hitting a crossroad in his career. Offensively, he probably is on the decline and is what he is: a free-swinging hitter who will hit home runs, but will strike out too much, ground out too much and walk too little to really be beyond average. His advanced numbers, especially in the area of plate discipline (as Melchior of Rotographs pointed out), aren’t promising and considering he’s going to turn 30, he’s not at an age where he can really revamp his approach. Sure, he may get a little better possibly in the next year or two, but it’s likely that Perez will be a 0.15-0.25 BB/K ratio guy for the rest of his career (meaning there won’t be much difference between his average and OBP). Longtime batting habits, especially for guys who have played in the Majors and had as much success as Salvy, are hard to break.
That doesn’t mean Royals fans should like Salvy any less or shouldn’t appreciate the value he brings to this Royals team. He’s one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, and his leadership in the locker room can’t be overstated. The guy brings joy to the ballpark and gives the Royals a likable face to a nationwide audience, something not every club in the league can boast. Yes, maybe he’s not statistically the best guy for the All-Star game. But, baseball fans are going to be a lot more entertained with Salvy in the AL dugout than a Jonathan Lucroy or Mike Zunino.
Salvy deserves his All-Star spot. The Royals deserve to enjoy his infectious smile and superb defensive ability in the All-Star game in D.C., especially after this tire-fire of a season thus far.
So for chrissakes baseball fans, let’s cut Salvy (and the Royals overall) a break here.