If you don't know just how magnificent Salvador Perez was for the Kansas City Royals in 2021, you don't know baseball.
In all seriousness, the Royals' star backstop was great this season for a team that was competitive, but bad. After posting a .333 batting average and a .986 OPS in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Perez made his seventh All-Star appearance in 2021 and is likely headed towards the best MVP voting finish of his storied career. He even received top-three buzz late in the year.
Baseball-Reference awarded Perez 5.3 Wins Above Replacement, the highest mark of his career. FanGraphs awarded him 3.4, which is a hot topic of discussion due to his offense blowing every other season out of the water but his defense also doing the same in a negative manner. Regardless of which site's metric you prefer (Baseball-Reference tends to be more generally accepted), Perez's 2021 was terrific. Can he put up similar numbers in 2022? Let's go into a deeper dive of this season to find out.
At the plate
Not only did Perez break the single-season record for the most home runs by a primary catcher with 48, but he tied the 2021 top mark along with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and tied Jorge Soler for the Royals' single-season franchise record. His display of raw power was excellent, as his .544 SLG was his only finish above .500 outside of the abbreviated 2020 campaign. When Perez connected with the ball, it was game over. Just take a look at this:
Perez ranked among the best hitters in all of baseball in several different categories, but he flat-out dominated in regards to HardHit%, Avg Exit Velocity, Max Exit Velocity, Barrel rate and xSLG. His ISO, .271, also graded out as "excellent." Rather than wear down in the second half as he has in the past, Perez only got stronger. In 17 fewer games, he hit six more home runs, walked 12 more times and posted a. 932 OPS (.802 in the first half).
Speaking of walks, Perez's 4.2% walk rate on the year was one of the best of his career. After walking at a 2.2% clip in the first half of the season, Perez began adjusting to how scared pitchers were of leaving quality pitches over the plate. In the second half, those 20 walks gave him a 6.6% walk rate. That easily would have been a career-high over the course of a full season. In correspondence with walking more, Perez also struck out less as the year went on.
On the year, Perez's strikeout rate was 25.6%. That's quite the amount, and it was pretty easily the worst of his career (2020's was 23.1% in 37 games, 2016's was 21.8% in a full season). Before the All-Star break, Perez struck out 98 times in 363 plate appearances — good (or bad) for a 27% clip. Post-break, that declined to 23.8%. No matter how you slice it, Perez's increase in power came at the expense of whatever plate discipline he had left. That's a mostly fair tradeoff if he's clobbering 40-plus home runs. Leading the bigs in bombs and RBIs isn't likely to happen every year, though, and we'll touch on that a bit later in the article.
In the field
Let's get the good out of the way. By Baseball-Reference's standards, Perez was good for 1.2 dWAR in 2021. He posted a 1.3 dWAR in 2018 and a 1.5 dWAR in 2018, so it checks out that his defense is pretty similar to that of his pre-Tommy John surgery form. That's about where the positives end, though.
Pitch framing has long been a highly debated subject regarding Perez, as the general consensus is that he's poor at it. The data backs that up, as FanGraphs' framing metric gave him a -19.5 mark in 2021. That was second to only his 2016 campaign, -19.8, as the worst of his career. In terms of DRS, Perez's -5 was easily the worst of his decade's worth of seasons. Strike Zone Runs Saved, rSZ, was another worst as it checked in at -11. By just about every measurement FanGraphs has to offer, 2021 Perez was the worst of either his career, all qualified major league catchers, or both.
Baseball Savant's Runs Extra Strikes (RES) agrees with the argument that Perez is a poor pitch framer. His -19 RES was far and away the lowest in all of baseball, and the next closest was Pedro Severino at -10. I'm not sure there's any denying the fact that Perez struggles to frame pitches effectively. Depending on how much you value that in a backstop, that could completely shape your outlook on his ability to play defense.
In regards to his arm, though, there's no one better in the game than Perez. Per Fox Sports' data, the 31-year-old threw out 18 of 41 attempted base-stealers in 2021. That 43.9% mark was the best in all of baseball. He also trimmed errors and passed balls from his diet. Those things matter, too, so the narrative that Perez is a horrible defender simply because his pitch framing is bad doesn't exactly tell the entire story. It comes down to weighing each element of a catcher's defense correctly, and I'll leave that responsibility up to people far more intelligent than I am.
After such an amazing 2021 campaign, it's worth questioning whether Perez can replicate that tremendous success moving forward. To be brutally honest, he probably isn't going to do so. Hitting another 48 home runs and driving in 121 more runs simply isn't likely, although that doesn't mean Perez's production is going to fall off a cliff. With that said, given aging, wear and tear, natural regression to the mean and several other factors, at least some level of slip in his numbers is reasonable to expect. FanGraphs' Steamer projections for Perez's 2022 are as follows, with his 2021 average or total in parenthesis.
- 141 games played (161)
- .260/.302/.503 line (.273/.316/.544)
- 38 home runs (48)
- 102 RBIs (121)
- 152 strikeouts (170)
- 27 walks (28)
All in all, that would still be one heck of a season from Perez. Those numbers seem reachable and while that's pretty clearly not the level of production he had this season, it's still really good for a catcher who will be 32 in 2022 and has put so many miles on his body. Could the Royals potentially get Perez even more days off from catching behind the plate next year? It would likely help preserve his body and, in turn, his bat.
Perez was otherworldly good in 2021. Logic and projections suggest he won't be quite as productive moving forward, but he'll still be a star-level player for a Royals team that desperately needs his greatness. In a league that sees plenty of catchers deteriorate or simply not perform well to begin with, Perez is an outlier. Even if he "regresses" in 2022, that'll still be the case. The Royals' best player very well could retain that crown for at least one more year.