Perez, Power and Positivity

There isn’t any serious doubt that the greatest power-hitting catcher in baseball history is Josh Gibson. We will never know just how many home runs Gibson would have hit in the major leagues, and we are lesser for that … but it is pretty obvious that he would have set all the home run records for catchers.

This is partly true because Gibson was a one-of-a-kind talent … but it’s also partly true because so many factors work against catchers hitting home runs. Consider:

— Catchers cannot play every day. It’s too grueling a position. So they will likely miss 10 or 15 or 20 games every season, and one of the most overlooked and underappreciated aspects of big statistical seasons is that the player really needs to play the whole season to put up those kinds of numbers.

— Catchers wear down over the long season. How could they not?

— The demands on a catcher are such that hitting is often secondary. You want a catcher who can handle pitchers, who can block pitches in the dirt, who can frame those pitches around the corners, who can be athletic around the plate, who can throw out baserunners, who can be vocal leaders. If you have a really good hitter who can’t do those things especially well, you move that player to the outfield (Dale Murphy) or first base (Mike Sweeney) or second base (Craig Biggio).

The first super-impressive record for home runs by catchers was set by the great Gabby Hartnett in 1930. He hit 37 home runs, which was light years ahead of the record (which Hartnett himself owned — he’d hit 24 homers in 1925). Other than Hartnett, no catcher had managed even 20 home runs before 1930.

Hartnett’s 1930 season was impressive … but some context is needed. That was a silly season for offense. I mean, the whole National League hit .303/.360/.448. Hartnett’s teammate Hack Wilson hit 56 home runs and drove in 191 runs. Bill Terry hit .401. Chuck Klein had 445 total bases, which is still second in National League history.

Still, Hartnett’s 37 homers was the standard for catchers for 23 years … until a guy named Roy Campanella came along. Campy was small (5-foot-8), and he looked squat — but as Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer: “When Campanella took off his uniform, there was no fat … he was a little sumo wrestler of a man.”

When Campy finally got the call to the big leagues — he was the sixth African-American to play in Major League Baseball after integration — only three catchers had hit 30 home runs in a season. He did it four times. He had great natural power and he also had the advantage of playing his home games in a friendly bandbox, Ebbets Field, where over his career he hit an even .300, slugged .562 and bashed 140 of his 242 Dodger home runs.

In 1953, he became the first catcher to hit 40 homers in a season — 41, to be exact.

And that became the record.

That one lasted for 17 years … until Johnny Bench. He, like David S. Pumpkins, was his own thing. He came on the scene at age 19 and made it clear to anyone and everyone that he intended to become the best catcher in baseball … no, even that’s underselling it, he believed he already WAS the best catcher in baseball. And he was right. Bench was a seemingly impossible blend of talent. He was the quickest catcher around the plate anyone had ever seen. He had the best arm anyone had ever seen. He hit with astonishing power.

In 1970, at age 22, Bench hit 45 home runs, and that became the record. Sort of.

What do I mean by sort of? Well, in 1953, Campy hit 40 of his 41 home runs while playing catcher (he hit one as a pinch-hitter). Bench played several other positions in 1970 and hit only 38 of his 45 homers as a catcher.

So you could certainly argue that Campanella still had the record.

And in that way, the two records branch off and live separate lives. Campy’s record of 40 homers by a catcher was broken in 1996 by Todd Hundley, who hit 41 homers while catching for the Mets. But Bench’s record stayed intact.

Then, in 2003, Atlanta’s Javy López hit 43 homers total — and 42 of them were as a catcher. Lopez hit all those home runs in just 129 games, which is utterly remarkable — that remains, perhaps, the most remarkable home run season ever, though it has long been assumed that López used performance-enhancing drugs to bulk up that year. He all but admitted it in a remarkable 2010 interview when he said, “If you’re going to race cars, and some people are using nitro in the fuel, and you see them winning all the time, and you’re using regular gas — you know what? … Well, I’d be stupid enough not to use nitro too.”

In any case, López set the home-runs-hit-while-catching record.

But the Bench record — most home runs in a season by a full-time catcher — stayed intact. It survived Lopez, Mike Piazza, Gary Sanchez, Ivan Rodriguez and all the rest.

And nobody in a million years would have guessed that Johnny Bench’s record would be broken by Salvador Johan Perez.

The Royals signed Salvy Perez out of Venezuela for $65,000. He was 17 years old, and though he flashed a pretty strong arm and a sound ability to put bat-to-ball, it was his attitude that won over Royals scouts. The kid was always smiling. He was always playing the game with joy. Other scouts would come in to watch him and they left generally unenthused. Salvy was calendar slow, and his bat speed was lacking, and though he was a big guy, the ball just didn’t seem to pop off his bat.

He did hit for pretty good averages as he worked his way through the minor leagues, and he showed a nice feel for catching … but few saw any star potential there.

But the Royals’ new general manager, J.J. Picollo, sure did. Every year, before the season began, I would ask J.J. to give me a sleeper in the Royals system, somebody he thought had a chance to be really special that everybody else was overlooking. He was pretty uncanny at picking them. One year, he told me about a hard-throwing righty pitcher named Yordano Ventura.

And before the 2011 season, he told me: Watch out for Salvador Perez.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because he has the best attitude you’ve ever seen. He just loves the game. You just know he’s going to make the most of what he has.”

Wow, has that turned out. Perez came to big leagues at age 21 and in 39 games, he hit .331 with some power. The next year, in 76 games, he hit .301 with 27 extra-base hits while playing sublime defense.

The next year, 2013, he made the All-Star team, got some MVP consideration and won his first of five Gold Gloves.

The next year, 2014, he started in the All-Star Game, as he would for five straight seasons. He won another Gold Glove. He helped lead the Royals to the World Series.

And the next year, the Royals won the World Series.

All the while, I would say, many Royals fans saw Perez as being a true superstar, which was not necessarily the way he was viewed outside Kansas City. In those five years when he started the All-Star Game, he hit just .254/.285/.438 — a 93 OPS+. There were statistical breakdowns that showed him to be a good but not necessarily great defensive catcher (he never scored well as a pitch-framer). And so on.

But if you watched him play every day … you couldn’t help but love him. The joy that pushed the Royals to sign him in the first place, well, he never lost that. His smile was the sunshine as the Royals collapsed in the aftermath of World Series glory. He was the one thing you could count on in Kansas City baseball; Salvy would always be there, always smiling, always swinging for the fences, always playing his guts out.

And then, he missed the entire 2019 season with an elbow injury.

I’m trying to think what the odds would have been in 2019 that Salvy would be the one to break Johnny Bench’s home run record. A thousand to one? A million to one? He’d been a solid power hitter — hitting as many as 27 homers in a season before the injury — but he was also turning 30, and there were a lot of miles on that body, and …

… and in 2020, Perez played in 37 games and slugged .633. The ball was just jumping off his bat. It was quite stunning. He had worked all offseason with hitting coach Mike Tosar, and he looked like an all-new hitter.

And then came this year. Perez always struggled against breaking balls of all sorts, but this year he’s teeing off on sliders. And if you leave a fastball out over the middle of the plate, say goodnight. Salvy has simply refocused his game. He’s striking out more than ever, hardly ever walking like always, but now when he hits a ball in the air, it’s leaving the park almost 28 percent of the time.

That’s fourth in the American League behind Shohei Ohtani (of course), Joey Gallo and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

It’s crazy stuff.

Perez will not approach López’s record for most homers hit as a catcher — he has only 31 while catching. The rest have come as a designated hitter. Perez is a truly wonderful designated hitter; he takes the title seriously. He swings hard and hopes for the best. In 35 games as a DH, he’s hitting just .227 and has struck out one-third of the time. But he has 15 home runs in those 35 games.

When you add it all together, Perez has 46 home runs, which has him tied for the league lead with Vladdy Jr. And it breaks Johnny Bench’s record. Bench was beautifully gracious about it, tweeting multiple times about how proud he was of Salvy. It’s always wonderful when great players of the past appreciate players of today.

I often get asked if Salvy Perez will end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I think it’s still too soon to tell, but I do think he has a real shot. He has been more than a terrific player, he has been such a force for good in baseball. And, just maybe, the best is yet to come.