Salvador Perez spent his Monday morning in a back corner of the Royals’ clubhouse, fiddling with the leather straps of a gold championship belt.
The souvenir was a gift from pro wrestling superstar Triple H, who last year promised a keepsake after the Royals won the World Series. The belt had arrived over the weekend and was shown around the clubhouse. By Monday morning, Perez had it wrapped around his waist.
All things being equal, most Royals fans would prefer to the see the 6-foot-3, 240-pound catcher wrapped in something with a little more protective value, like foam padding or bubble wrap. Such is the value of Perez, a perennial All-Star who last week signed a five-year contract extension.
Two years ago, Perez set a major-league record by catching 158 games, including 15 starts in the postseason. One year later, his body bore the stress of another 153 starts behind the plate.
For much of the last two years, Royals officials have acknowledged the need to keep Perez fresh and healthy with a steady diet of days off, but after the team invested another $52 million in the 25-year-old catcher, manager Ned Yost says he does not intend to take any added measures to protect the club’s long-term asset.
Yost said that when the 2016 season begins, Perez will play as much as he did before the extension.
“We’re not going to give him any more days off now that he’s signed a five-year contract,” Yost said. “We’re going to manipulate it like we have in the past. I thought we did a really good job last year.”
In all, the Royals were able to shave six starts off Perez’s total in 2015. The math looked like this: Perez started 143 games behind the plate during the 2014 regular season. He logged time at the spot in three other contests. In 2015, Perez started in 137 games at catcher and finished two others. The total still led all catchers by five games.
Yost concedes that he has a conflict of interest when it comes to Perez. Yost said that if it were solely up to him, Perez would start 162 games.
Instead, Yost relies on catching coach Pedro Grifol to keep tabs on Perez and offer guidance. Yost said that when Perez begins to wear down, it’s up to Grifol or bench coach Don Wakamatsu to lobby for a day off.
“He plays every day until Pedro talks me out of it,” Yost said. “Pedro is the one who has to lean on me and talk some sense into me. (Perez is) a Gold Glove catcher, an All-Star. … I don’t ever want to sit him.”
In the last two seasons, Perez’s heavy workload has correlated with declining offensive production. In 2014, he batted .283 with 11 homers during the season’s first half. His numbers slipped to just .229 with a .236 on-base percentage after the All-Star break.
The effects were less pronounced last season. Perez put up a .263 batting average with 15 homers before the break. His batting average held firm during the second half, but his power waned. He hit just six homers during the second half.
Perez rebounded with four homers during the postseason and claimed World Series MVP honors after collecting seven hits in five games against the New York Mets. Yost said he thinks the free-swinging Perez will continue to develop at the plate as he matures.
“He’s going to continue to improve,” Yost said. “He’s going to become more selective. He’s got tremendous power. He can hit the ball to all fields. He can put the ball in play. So (it’s just) just a natural progression.”
There are other reasons for the Royals to be judicious in their use of Perez. His body type lends credence to the idea that he may have to become a part-time designated hitter or first baseman later in his career.
There are recent precedents. Two years ago, the Minnesota Twins moved former major-league MVP Joe Mauer from catcher to first base. The transition came just four years after the club signed Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million extension. He was 30. In San Francisco, the Giants already use All-Star catcher Buster Posey as a part-time first baseman.
Such a setup is unlikely in Kansas City, where Eric Hosmer plays every day at first and much of Perez’s value tied to his defense. For now, general manager Dayton Moore said the club expects Perez to catch full time for the duration of his contract.
“He works so hard,” Moore said of Perez. “His flexibility is as good as it’s ever been. He’s here working hard every single day. His passion to go out there and compete, that covers up a lot of strains and sprains.”
Perez also has youth on his side. He will be 31 when his contract expires after the 2021 season. At 25, he already has proven himself to be relentless behind the plate.
If it were solely up to Yost, Perez would see his name in the lineup every day. But as Perez enters the next phase of his career, he says he is ready to shoulder a heavy load once more.
“I like to play,” Perez said. “It doesn’t matter. Every time I show and my name is in the lineup, I’m going to feel good.”