In between attending my first day of spring semester classes, I today managed to fit in (somewhat annoyingly given I have the full subscription) the MLB.tv free game of the day; James Shields and the Kansas City Royals taking on Justin Verlander’s Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. While half-heartedly skimming through the course outlines for ENG 322 and 323, I caught quite the game, as the Tigers eventually came through in the ninth thanks to, believe it or not, an Alex Gonzalez walk-off single. In a match-up with plenty of talking points though – Verlander’s iffy 4th inning, the loaded Royals bullpen blowing a lead, the Tigers’ glaring inefficiencies etc. – one player in particular stood out.
If it wasn’t clear already, after tallying three hits off him as part of an impressive 4-for-4 showing, Salvador Perez can now officially lay claim to owning Justin Verlander; after today, the Venezuelan’s career batting average against the 2012 AL MVP now stands at .458 (11-for-24) – the highest mark Verlander has allowed amongst opponents with 20 at bats*, while simultaneously the loftiest number Perez has accrued against any similarly qualified pitcher.
All three times he faced the decorated righty, the 23-year-old looked to be aggressive (he only faced 6 pitches), but remained in control throughout each trip to the plate; in the second inning, Perez crushed a 1-0 91mph fastball off the base of the wall in the deepest part of left center field for a stand-up double. Next time up in the fourth, it was a 93mph heater that was one-hopped to the left field fence – again for a double – scoring Alex Gordon from first for Kansas City’s first run of the afternoon (Perez would later cross the plate himself as part of a three-run frame in which Verlander threw 33 pitches and walked 3 batters). When it was the catcher’s time again in the fifth, he finally saw an off-speed pitch – not that it was a problem for Perez. In a 2-0 count, he simply hung in and took the 85mph offering right back up the middle for an easy single. That would be the last he saw of Verlander, but no. 13 on the Royals would continue his fine day by reaching base once again in the eighth, this time lining a single between third and short off of Al Alburquerque.
If Verlander isn’t careful Sal Perez is gonna steal Kate Upton from him.
— Danny Parkins (@DannyParkins) March 31, 2014
Bloop hits just out of the reach of the Tigers’ new middle infield pair – Ian Kinsler and the aforementioned Gonzalez – these weren’t; this was a batter in complete command of his swing, and hitting intelligently, so much so that on both the FSD and FSKC broadcasts the announcers paid homage to Perez as a future MVP contender. Of course, it wasn’t all roses for the Royals’ backstop – he couldn’t corral Aaron Crow’s wild pitch on a Nick Castellanos strikeout in the seventh inning, allowing Austin Jackson to score – but his afternoon of dominance at the dish made for an incredibly strong start to the season nonetheless; in racking up his fourth career four-hit game, per Baseball Reference, Perez became only the 13th catcher in the live ball era of Major League history to record four hits on Opening Day.
One of the finest defensive catchers in the game already (he won his first Gold Glove of presumably many last year after finishing fourth in AL defensive WAR with a mark of 2.2), if Perez can fully break out at the plate, well, Rany Jazayerli’s fandom for Salvy might somehow take an even less platonic tone. Entering his third full season in the big leagues after first being called up for 39 games as a 21-year-old in 2011, Perez up to now owns a career .301/.331/.451 triple slash line (with a 112 OPS+ too for the more refined readers), but has still more room for growth; though boasting an above average 22% LD rate, at a mere 23, there’s perhaps more power to come from his mid-teens average HR output so far, while his BB rate of 4.0% is exactly half the MLB average.
Already a bargain deal for the Royals thanks to the five-year $7 million contract he signed in February 2012 (there are an additional three years worth a total of $13.75M in club options too), if today’s output is anything to go by at least (small sample size alert!), Perez is well on his way to not only becoming a superstar, but the most underpaid player in baseball**. A dubious accolade for his agent perhaps, but ultimately indicative of the immense talent Kansas City have on their hands.
After Salvy’s showing today, Justin Verlander can’t be glad that his greatest adversary will be around in the AL Central for years to come. Considering his .389 average and a couple of HRs in 18 ABs against Tuesday starter Max Scherzer though, he can at least take solace in not likely being the only Tigers starter this week to meet the growing dominance of Salvador Perez.
** Given he was worth 4.3 WAR last year, using the commonly accepted $6M-per-win rate, Perez more than triply paid back his contract with performance in 2013 alone.