Salvador Perez: A.L. MVP

October 13, 2013
 
Don’t take the title of this article too literally: I’m not really advocating that Salvador Perez, the Kansas City Royals catcher should be the American League MVP for 2013.
 
But the discussion about the AL MVP has been pretty dull this year, mostly because Miguel Cabrera is going to win it again. No one (except David Price) seems eager to reprise last year’s debate about RBI’s, a certain Oncorhynchus, and nerds-in-the-basement. Some writer will cast a first-place vote for Crash Davis, and everyone will completely ignore how Robinson Cano guided the New York Raft of the Medusas to contention in the AL East. Pitchers? Bah.
 
So, yeah, the title above is a pretty blatant attempt to get people’s attention. I’m not being serious. Salvador Perez shouldn’t be the A.L. MVP.
 
But he at least belongs in the conversation.
 
*          *          *
 
What started  me thinking about Salvador Perez was one of the Division Series games….I have no idea which one it was, and it doesn’t matter. There was a stolen base…let’s pretend I was watching the playoffs in an alternate universe and it was Billy Hamilton stealing the base. Let’s say the pitcher was Sandy Koufax, and the catcher was the ever-kissable Gus Triandos.
 
The announcer - let’s make it Vin Scully - said that Hamilton stole the base off the pitcher. He said something like: "Hamilton stole that bag off Koufax, who has a very deliberate move to the plate. Trinny had no chance to get the runner." Then Vin Scully told us a wonderful story about Billy Hamilton’s grandma, the first woman to ever run a four-minute-mile. 
 
What Vin Scully said about the base runner stealing off the pitcher is something we now know - something that is in the sphere of general  knowledge about baseball - that people a few decades earlier didn’t really know. Years ago, it was generally assumed that the catcher was the player most responsible for a stolen base. Now, we’ve come around at least halfway…sometimes it is the catcher who is responsible for a stolen base, and sometimes it’s the pitcher.
 
This is not a lead-in into saying that Salvador Perez is an MVP candidate because he threw out a lot of base runners in 2013. This happens to be true, of course: Salvador Perez threw out more base stealers than any other catcher in the AL. He threw out 25 would-be base stealers, one more than Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Wieters, and A.J. Pierzynski. Perez also had the second-best caught-stealing percentage among American League catchers, 35.2% to Matt Wieters’ 35.3%.
 
No…I bring up the subject of stolen bases because having a fast base runner on first, in a stealing situation, is an extremely complicated scenario: the base runner presents new variables to add to all of the ordinary considerations a pitcher has to worry about. It complicates things for the catcher, who has to worry about that throw to second. It complicates things for the first baseman and the second baseman and the shortstop.
 
And we’re just now starting to appreciate that in that specific scenario, both the pitcher and catcher can have tremendous influence on whether or not the base stealer is thrown out. 
 
What we still don’t have a solid sense of – and this is where we come back to Salvador Perez, my outside-the box AL MVP candidate – is how much a catcher influences other aspects of the game.
 
*          *          *
 
But first: the hitting.
 
It would be a stretch to say that Salvador Perez was an elite hitter in 2013. He posted a batting average of .292, which is probably the most impressive part of his batting line. He hit thirteen homers, adding 25 doubles and three triples to the mix. He was tough to strike out, registering just 63 whiffs on the year.
 
On the other hand, he didn’t walk. He took just 21 free bases this year, two of which were intentional. Among qualified players, his walk rate of 4.0% was tied for sixth-lowest in the majors, tied with Torii Hunter and Mean Jean Segura.
 
His offensive production can be categorized as "Good, for a catcher." As a hitter, Salvador Perez isn’t yet in the ranks of Mauer or Posey or Santana, those catchers who don’t need qualifying descriptors about their hitting.
 
Just looking at the raw numbers, a reasonable observer would conclude that Salvador Perez was a pretty decent hitter in 2013. But pretty decent hitters don’t usually figure into the MVP discussion.
 
What is remarkable about Salvador Perez’s 2013 season isn’t how he hit, but when he hit: the Royals backstop was really, fantastically good when it mattered the most:
 
Leverage
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS
High Leverage
.358
.369
.600
.969
Medium Leverage
.308
.332
.430
.762
Low Leverage
.245
.293
.359
.652
 
In low- and medium-leverage situations, Salvador Perez was an average-ish hitter. In high-leverage situations, Salvador Perez turned into David Ortiz.
 
Just going a little further:
 
Situation
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS
Runs in Scoring Pos.
.377
.391
.557
.948
2 outs, RiSP
.355
.365
.581
.946
Late & Close
.322
.351
.467
.818
 
With runners in scoring position, Perez batted three-seventy-seven. With two outs he was equally dangerous, posting an OPS of .946 in those situations. He was really ‘clutch’ in 2013.
 
This doesn’t mean that Salvador Perez has some magic ability to always channel Big Papi when the situation arises: he almost certainly won’t be as effective in key situations in 2014 as he was in 2013.
 
But those key hits in 2013 count. They happened. Whenever the Royals needed a big hit during their improbable run at the playoffs, Salvador Perez came through more than anyone else on the team.
 
One more table:
 
Score
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS
Tie Game
.306
.346
.468
.814
Within 1 R
.305
.339
.452
.791
Within 2 R
.299
.329
.436
.765
Within 3 R
.298
.322
.440
.762
Within 4 R
.295
.324
.438
.762
Margin > 4 R
.257
.316
.371
.687
 
I love this one the best….it is very rare in baseball to find statistics that have perfect symmetry, but this one does. Perez’s OPS was best when the game was closest…when the game was tied. He was slightly worse when there was one run separating the teams. He was a few ticks worse when the spread got to 2 runs, or 3 runs, or four runs. He was the worst when it didn’t matter: when the game was out of hand, when the Royals were either up or down by 4+ runs. The closer the game, the better Perez hit.

Baseball-Reference credits Salvador Perez with an Offensive WAR of 2.8, which is a lot considering his measly batting line. That 2.8 oWAR places him second among Royals batters, between Eric Hosmer (3.1) and Alex Gordon (2.3). He was more valuable at the plate than Billy Butler, who hit a couple more homers and walked 58 more times than Perez. He was more valuable than Alex Gordon, who is a really great player. Eric Hosmer busted out big in the second-half, but the difference in value between Hosmer and Salvador Perez is pretty negligible.
 
*          *          *
 
The Royals contended in 2013. This surprised everyone except their G.M., who made a lot of prognosticators look like holy fools when the Royals ripped seventeen wins in twenty games over July and August.
 
Comparing the 2013 team to their 2012 counterparts, it is easy to see exactly where the Royals made their gains in 2013:
 
Year
KCR Runs Scored/Game
League Avg.
2012
4.17
4.45
2013
4.00
4.33
 
It wasn’t on offense: the Royals scored exactly four runs per game in 2013, which was in line with how they did in 2012. They were a below-average offense in 2013, just like they were in 2012.
 
Year
KCR Runs Allowed/Game
League Avg.
2012
4.60
4.40
2013
3.71
4.29

It was on the side of things that the Royals made their biggest step forward, going from below average in 2012, to the best pitching staff in the AL in 2013. And that 3.71 mark isn’t entirely park effects: the Royals posted the best Adjusted ERA in the AL (120), outpacing Detroit (117), and Texas (114). 
 
It is easy to figure out where those gains came from:
 
1.      James Shields: 228.2 IP, 3.15 ERA
2.      Ervin Santana: 211 IP, 3.24 ERA
3.      Luke Hochevar: 70.1 IP, 1.92 ERA
 
Those are the big gains: the Royals acquired two pitchers who threw a ton of quality innings, and they moved Luke Hochevar into the bullpen, where he was astonishingly good. Really: you should look at the play-by-play for the September 10th against Cleveland to get a sense of how good Hochevar was in 2013. Big game, big moment, and he came in and struck out five straight Cleveland hitters.
 
Actually, let’s look at this systematically. Two pitchers improved their ERA+ dramatically in 2013:
 
Pitcher
2012  ERA+
2013 ERA+
Change
Greg Holland
142
342
200
Luke Hochevar
73
215
142
 
Two relief pitchers here: Greg Holland went from very good to very good. He cut his walk rate way down, and whiffed a few more hitters. Hochevar, aided by that move from the bullpen, dramatically improved his ERA+.
 
Pitcher
2012  ERA+
2013 ERA+
Change
Ervin Santana
74
127
53
Bruce Chen
82
126
44
James Shields
109
131
22
Jeremy Guthrie
93
102
9
 
Four starters also improved their Adjusted ERA in 2013. Ervin Santana was the most surprising bounce-back: his 2013 season was his best since 2008, when he was 16-7 with the Angels. Bruce Chen, something of a journeyman pitcher, had his best season since 2000.
 
Shields bounced back from a disappointing 2012 season, and posted numbers comparable to his 2011 breakout year for the Rays. Jeremy Guthrie went from slightly-below average, to slightly above average.
 
Pitcher
2012  ERA+
2013 ERA+
Change
Aaron Crow
121
123
2
Tim Collins
125
117
-8
 Luis Mendoza
99
77
-22
 
Relievers here…Aaron Crow and Tim Collins pitched about as effectively in 2013 as they did in 2012. Luis Mendoza declined slightly. So far, no really big drop-offs…most of the Royals pitchers, both the imported pitchers and the locally sourced arms, improved in 2013.
 
Pitcher
2012  ERA+
2013 ERA+
Change
Kelvin Herrera
178
107
-71
Wade Davis
159
78
-81
 
Herrera’s ERA+ declined. His walk rate increased, and he gave up twice as many homeruns as he did in 2012. That said, he also improved his strikeout rate, whiffing 11.4 batters per nine innings in 2013, a jump from 8.2 in 2012. Almost all of his decline came because he got unlucky on a few fly balls: it’s possible that he was a better pitcher in 2013 than in 2012, despite the decline in ERA.  
 
So we come to Wade Davis, whose decline in ERA+ looks catastrophic. He went from being elite in 2012, to sub-par in 2013.
 
Except Davis didn’t start in 2012: he spent the year in the Rays bullpen. Prior to 2013, the last time Davis started was 2011, when he posted an ERA+ of 85. The year before that he was at 96. So Davis’ decline isn’t really a decline: as a starter, he pitched as well in 2013 as he did in 2011 and 2010.
 
So here’s what we can say about the Royals in 2013: many of their pitchers improved significantly, and none of their pitchers performed worse than could be reasonably expected. 
 
*          *          *
 
Right now, at this moment, the vast majority of us, asked to speculate on why the Royals went from having mediocre pitching in 2012, to the best pitching in the American League in 2013, would credit that the turn-around almost entirely to the pitchers.

I think we’re mostly right about that: I think the improvement of the Royals pitching staff is mostly about the pitchers doing a better job. But I think some percentage of credit for the startling improvement of the Royals pitchers goes to the guy on the other side of the complex sequence of decisions that make up every at-bat: the catcher.
 
In 2012, the Royals had four catchers, who got about equal time behind the plate, and had just about equal pitcher-ERAs:
 
Catcher
IP
ERA
Salvador Perez
653.2
4.35
Brayan Pena
417.2
4.22
Humberto Quintero
355
4.11
 
It’s worth noting that Salvador Perez had the worst ERA of this lot, but they were all close. And Royals pitchers had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio pitching to Perez than they did when they pitched to either Pena or Quintero.
 
Same table, for 2013:
 
Catcher
IP
ERA
Salvador Perez
1115.1
3.36
George Kottaras
262.2
3.98
 
When Kottaras was behind the plate, Royals pitchers did about as well in 2013 as they did in 2012. When Salvador Perez was behind the plate, the Royals pitchers performed much better.
 
The question is why. Does credit the dramatic improvement of the Royals pitching staff belong entirely to the pitchers, or did the reliably good defense by Salvador Perez have an influence on that improvement? Is that 3.36 pitcher-ERA for Perez a random event, or does it suggest that Perez deserves some credit for the surprising improvements of Santana, Hochevar, Chen, and Holland?
 
One hint at where Perez’s influence on pitchers might exist is his remarkable ability to block pitches. John Dewan and the folks at Baseball Info Solutions count stuff like that: how many times a catcher blocks a pitch. For instance, Yadier Molina, during his run of Gold Glove Awards:
 
Year
IP
Pitches Blocked
Blocks/9 IP
2008
1002
377
3.4
2009
1176.2
564
4.3
2010
1138
567
4.5
2011
1150
657
5.1
2012
1161.1
554
4.3
2013
1115.1
543
4.4
 
This is the best tally I could find: Molina’s ability to block pitches is tremendous, which should surprise absolutely no one. I’ve converted the total to Blocked Pitches Per 9 IP just to give us some sense of context: Molina’s average, over this stretch, is 4.4 pitches blocked per 9 innings.
 
Here’s Salvador Perez, over his career.
 
Year
IP
Pitches Blocked
Blocks/9 IP
2012
653.2
374
5.2
2013
1151.1
690
5.4
 
 Salvador Perez has averaged more pitched blocked per game than Yadier Molina blocked during his best defensive season, 2011. Salvador Perez is really, really good at making sure the tough pitches don’t get by him.
 
The ramifications of this, in terms of a pitching staff, are easy enough to imagine. The Royals pitchers, confident that Perez will catch anything they throw, can more comfortably throw tough pitches in key situations.
 
What’s interesting about the 2013 Royals is that their improvement in Adjusted ERA does not correlated to an improvement in strikeout rates, walk rates, or the team’s strikeout-to-walk ratio. Many of the pitchers who improved dramatically in 2013 did so despite the fact that their rate numbers declined.
 
Bruce Chen, for instance, struck out 6.6 batters and walked 2.2 per 9 innings pitched in 2012. Those numbers declines in 2013: his k-rate dropped to 5.8 batters, and his walk rate jumped to 2.7. Despite this, his ERA went from 5.07 to 3.27.
 
There are two likely explanations, and they have nothing to do with Salvador Perez. The first is that the Royals had a muchstronger bullpen in 2013, which allowed Ned Yost to bring in a good reliever when Chen got in trouble in middle innings. The second is pure luck: Bruce Chen just got a bit lucky in 2013.
 
We’ve sort of fallen down the rabbit hole a bit…let’s bring this back to Salvador Perez.
 
I’ve scoured the numbers on the 2013 Kansas City Royals, trying to find something that would tell me, definitively, that Salvador Perez was the magic ingredient that allowed the Royals to be the best pitching team in the American League in 2013. And I haven’t found it. The best I can say is that Salvador Perez is:
 
a)      The best catcher in baseball at blocking pitches,
b)      Very good at throwing out base runners, and
c)      The primary backstop for a pitching staff that greatly exceeded expectations, through some smoke-and-mirrors trick that did not involve individual pitchers drastically improving their strikeout or walk rates.
 
*          *          *
 
Baseball-Reference credits Perez’s defense as being worth 2.3Wins Above a Replacement Player. His offensive contributions tally an additional 2.8 WAR, netting him a cumulative WAR of 4.1. Fangraphs credits him with a WAR of 3.7. Our Win Shares tally credits Salvador Perez with 23 Win Shares, judging him as the most valuable player on the Royals in 2013.
 
This is not enough to get him into the conversation with Mike Trout (40 Win Shares), Miguel Cabrera (37) Win Shares, Robinson Cano (35 Win Shares), or Crash Davis (33 Win Shares). Salvador Perez, as best as our cutting-edge statistics can gather, was the best player on a surprisingly good team, but not the best player in baseball.
 
But the consideration of Salvador Perez’s contributions to the 2013 Royals raises an interesting question: how much influence can a catcher have on a pitching staff?
 
Right now, our advanced metrics don’t have a concrete answer to this, and we might not ever get a definitive measure of the impact a catcher can have on a team’s pitching performance. It’s possible that Salvador Perez had nothing at all to do with the Royals pitchers improving in 2013…it is possible that that improvement is a combination of roster adjustments and better coaching and pure.
 
And it is possible, too, that Salvador Perez was the central reason that the Royals pitchers miraculously gelled into a staff that allowed the fewest runs in the American League in 2013.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

David Kowalski
Using the team runs saved data, the Royals led the majors with 93 runs saved instead of 12 in 2012. That defensive boost was achieved primarily in the outfield and at second base. Defense saved 81 more runs than in 2012 or 0.5 runs per game. The number of unearned runs for both years was about the same. You might as well give the MVP award to Alex Gordon. Not that I'd vote that way.

Arizona was second in the majors and they, too, benefited from outfield defense especially from Parra.​
11:23 PM Oct 19th
 
hankgillette
I really don't see the point of giving your article a headline which you immediately disavow, other than "made you look!".

I'm pretty sure that Perez does not belong in the conversation at all for American League MVP at all, unless you consider anyone in the top 20 or 30 to "be in the conversation".


3:15 PM Oct 19th
 
shthar
.313 obp vs RH.


12:26 AM Oct 19th
 
David Kowalski
Managers also have an effect on the running game. Gene Mauch was notorious back in the day for insisting that pitchers keep base runners close. It worked. His teams, and he went from team to team, always improved in this. Mauch was most effective when managing OK but not great clubs. As the team improved, he never could quite get them over the hump.

Could it be that controlling the running game is most valuable on exactly the kind of team that KC was in 2013: a teasm below .500 improved to a contender status?
1:19 PM Oct 18th
 
DaveFleming
It's coming, Izzy. Thanks!
6:52 PM Oct 14th
 
izzy24
Hi Dave. Thanks for the article. Will you be writing an update to your 50 fearless forecasts from earlier in the year (spoiler: you got around 10 correct)? Your bold predictions revisited article from last year was one of my favorite articles on this site.
6:35 PM Oct 14th
 
those
"The Royals contended in 2013. This surprised everyone except their G.M.,"

This is not true. I heard a lot of people say the Royals would contend back in March. Most everyone was picking the Tigers, but some were picking the Royals to get one of the wild cards, or at least be close. ESPN"s Aaron Boone and Adam Rubin each picked the Royals to be a wild-card team. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! picked them to win 85 games. SI's Tom Verducci and Joe Lemire each picked the Royals to have a winning record. On CBSSports.com, five of the six writers had the Royals finishing second, and three had them getting one of the wild-card spots.

"Bruce Chen, something of a journeyman pitcher, had his best season since 2000."

Using Baseball-reference.com's WAR that you referred to when outlining Perez' offensive achievements, Chen's WAR was 1.7 in 1013. It was higher in 2005, 2010, and 2011. His ERA+ was the best since 2000, aside from a 48-inning season in 2004.

All writers make mistakes; it's inevitable. Dave does tend to err on the high side (pun intended).
6:05 PM Oct 14th
 
DaveFleming
On the Offensive WAR/Defensive WAR math....when offensive or defensive WAR is calculated, a positional adjustment is added. When calculating overall WAR, you can't simply add a player's oWAR and dWAR, because you'd be crediting the player with a positional adjustment twice.

So, odd as it may seem:

2.3 dWAR + 2.8 oWAR = 4.1 WAR
2:36 PM Oct 14th
 
MWeddell
There's an arithmetic error here, although it might be because the positional adjustment is included in both oWAR and dWAR:

"Baseball-Reference credits Perez’s defense as being worth 2.3Wins Above a Replacement Player. His offensive contributions tally an additional 2.8 WAR, netting him a cumulative WAR of 4.1."
2:17 PM Oct 14th
 
ChitownRon
Dave,

I have always thought that catcher is the most valuable defensive
position on the field. He touches the ball more than anyone else,
& their career is normally shorter. I caught 1 game, that was enough for me.
Interesting Article.

Goldleaf,
Daves first sentance of his short article,
stated "Don’t take the title of this article too literally:"
He is not working on his master thesis.

10:27 AM Oct 14th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Not positive, Dave, but I believe you have stepped into a tremendous argument using a small sample size as your main weapon. You keep citing small differences as evidence here, and even resort to generalizing broadly when your small sizes don't show what you want them to show, as in the ERAs of various catchers showing Perez to be the worst of all Royals' catchers: "Oh, well, it doesn't really matter, what's a quarter of a run between friends, anyway?" . But when Perez's CERA is a little larger (.62 of a run) suddenly that's "much better"--you're working off too small a base of knowledge, I think.​
9:14 AM Oct 14th
 
 
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