Aided by Yordano Ventura‘s solid start in his return from elbow soreness, the 23-year-old allowing just two earned runs in six innings of work*, the Kansas City Royals yesterday snuck past Michael Wacha and the Cardinals 3-2. In doing so, they took the ‘Battle of Missouri’ 3 games to 1, and secured bragging rights in the I-70 area for the next 12 months, so congratulations to them. Naturally though, seeing as how nothing good can ever happen for the Royals without something equally bad, or just unintentionally hilarious, striking them back, this happened during the win:
Yep, that’s Nori Aoki getting drilled in the back of the head by Yadier Molina, who was simply throwing back to the pitcher from the crouch, as he often does. Not exactly a case of intentionally backing Aoki off the dish. Anyhow, after crumpling to the floor and taking a couple of minutes to
regain consciousness shake off the concussion he was hiding compose himself, Aoki would eventually resume his at-bat. Oh and by the way, this was the very first batter of the game for KC! I’d love to know, does not a single day pass without at least once instance of #RoyalsbeingRoyals?
In off the field news concerning Kansas City, the organization made Brandon Finnegan, a left-handed pitcher from TCU, their first round (no.17 overall) pick in the 2014 amateur draft, a move which didn’t exactly go down well on Twitter:
Finnegan is shortish (5-11), has history of shoulder issues, lacks great 3rd pitch, projects as possible closer in the big leagues. #royals
— Jeff Rosen (@jeff_rosen88) June 6, 2014
I have no opinion on Finnegan personally, but the medical reports I’m hearing on him are positively scary.
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) June 6, 2014
Hey, in a draft supposedly loaded in pitching, anytime you can grab a guy with a potential shoulder injury lurking (and then double down with another lefty, Foster Griffin, at no. 28 overall), you have to do it! Thursday truly was a masterclass in #Royaling.
* Though he only struck out one, his velocity, which had so worryingly dipped in his last outing, was back to its usual ridiculous level; his four seam fastball averaged 98.15mph, his sinker 97.81, and slider 89.43. Sure looks like the ‘Father of Dragons’ is back.
Widely predicted to challenge for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs prior to the 2013/4 NBA season tipping off, the Cavaliers instead endured a year from hell. The grand Andrew Bynum gamble was an irrevocable disaster, the bowling enthusiast turning practice into a spectacle worse than even his hair. Dion Waiters and the team’s star point guard Kyrie Irving allegedly fought. No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett was an unmitigated flop. The coach they re-hired, and gave a five-year contract too in the process, was duly fired after one.
Naturally then, the Cavs landed the No.1 pick for the 2014 draft, and thus the right to presumably choose between Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid.
There weren’t so many high hopes for the Cleveland Browns last season – the AFC North always looked to tough for them to truly challenge – but still, not much went according to plan. Jimmy Haslam, the team’s new owner, was (and still is) under federal investigation. Just as Brian Hoyer was starting to look good at the QB position, he tore up his knee. Coach Rob Chudzinski was fired after one year, as was Mike Lombardi – even after acquiring a first round pick for Trent Richardson.
Of course, they not only landed Justin Gilbert in the draft, but some kid called Johnny Football? With Manziel in tow, along with a ton of merchandise money, there’s now hope for the Browns.
The Cleveland Indians meanwhile, have so far been nothing but disappointing. After going to the Wild-Card game last year, they currently stand at 22-25, last in the AL Central. Danny Salazar is in the minors. Carlos Santana is batting .146. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the team’s big free agent additions a year ago, have alternately been battling injury and ineffectiveness. All-Star second baseman, Jason Kipnis is currently sidelined with a strained oblique. 2013 pitching ace Scott Kazmir is thriving, except he’s in Oakland now.
Now in his sixth season in the big leagues, the 27-year-old Brantley has been the lone bright star in what has otherwise been a gloomy quarter-season for the Indians. Case in point, the left fielder leads the team in darn near all offensive categories; batting average (.302), on base percentage (.370), slugging percentage (.523), home runs (9), RBI(zzzzzz) (36), hits (52), oWAR (1.6) – you name it, Brantley probably leads it. In fact, if it weren’t for Asdrubal Cabrera having one measly run scored more than him, Brantley’s name would head every offensive leaderboard for the team. With little help coming from elsewhere in the lineup, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the left-handed Brantley has almost single-handedly kept the Cleveland offense afloat amidst their early season struggles.
It hasn’t exactly been a fluke either. A career .277 hitter prior to the season, his 2014 success in hitting for average hasn’t been BABIP fueled; his current batted ball mark of .277 is actually 25 points below his career average. After being considerably limited by fellow southpaws in the past too (his average fell .30 against portsiders, whereas his slugging percentage dropped .80), Brantley has this year been an equal opportunities hitter, battering lefties (.288 average, .887 OPS) at a clip almost identical with his mark against right-handers (.292 and .872 respectively). Sure you can point to his 2013 Will Venable impersonation in regards to his HR/FB rate – which currently sits at a round 20.0% – and thus scream regression at his power totals, but having just turned 27 (and apparently, having carried his newborn baby around everywhere all winter too), is it totally unreasonable that Brantley is hitting for more power than ever? His approach at the plate certainly can’t be argued with – only marveled at; having struck out just 16 times in 192 plate appearances, ‘Dr. Smooth’ ranks fifth-lowest among AL qualifiers in K% with a mark of 8.3%. Thanks in part to his elite contact rate (91.2% for his career) and decent patience, he’s actually drawn ball four (17) more often than fallen victim to the K.
All signs then, point to Brantley continuing to enjoy his ‘breakout’. The Cleveland front office will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of him doing so – prior to the season, they locked him up to a four-year contract extension worth a total of $25 million which will see Brantley in an Indians uniform through his age-30 season (a club option for a fifth year for $11 million could extend that to through 2018).
God might still hate Cleveland, but there’s always room for optimism. He might not be a Wiggins-esque franchise savior, and is nowhere close to becoming a Manziel-level cash cow, but Michael Brantley is darn good.
If you’re a Royals fan, first off, I’m sorry for everything – your team seems to be under some all-encompassing curse which not only affects the play out on the field, but the decisions made off it. Your futility has reached illogical levels, to the ridiculous point where #RoyalsbeingRoyals and #Royaling are things used commonly to explain events concerning KC. If so far in 2014 you’ve got a horrible sense of deja vu however, well that’s completely rational. Because with embattled third baseman Mike Moustakas, it’s been another winter of adjustments, another hot Spring Training, and yet another terrible start to the season.
Since becoming the first pick of the Dayton Moore era in KC, the headline talent of what was at one point touted as one of the most loaded farm systems in baseball history, Moustakas has not only repeatedly failed to live up to expectations, but managed to get worse every year. After tearing up the minors to the tune of a .282/.337/.503 line, the second overall pick of the 2007 amateur draft hit .263/.309/.367 in a shortened rookie campaign back in 2011. That he was often overmatched wasn’t especially concerning, he was only 22-years-old at the time, and the world hadn’t yet been introduced to the likes of Mike Trout (who inarguably has raised the bar for impactful rookie performances to an unrealistic height). The California native would tout his occasional promise the following year, hitting 20 home runs in his first full season at Kauffman stadium, he regressed significantly in other areas, eventually posting a woeful slash line of .242/.296/.412 over 614 plate appearances. Last season however, even after a Spring Training showing that convinced many his struggles were behind him, Moustakas contrived to somehow get even worse, batting just 233/.287/.364 while seeing his power numbers sharply decline (he hit 12 home runs in his 514 plate appearances).
Once again, this year was meant to be different. After his dismal 2013, Moustakas spent part of the offseason in Venezuela, playing winter ball for Kansas City’s hitting coach Pedro Grifol, and working on his swing and his batting eye with the hope of redeeming his previously heralded status in 2014. He even carried over his hot hitting from Venezuela to Spring Training, hitting .429 ( the third-highest preseason average) with four homers and seven doubles, consistently driving the ball to all fields – a huge development considering how often he was shifted against the year prior. And yet, 39 games into the season, it appears that to an even greater extent than in 2011, Moustakas is again overmatched; by OPS+, he’s been the third-worst hitter among qualifiers in the American League this season*, and despite being platooned more than ever to save him from facing fellow southpaws, Moustakas is hitting just .161/.226/.348.
Once thought of as the future anchor to the Kansas City lineup, the now 25-year-old Moustakas has only succeeded in dragging down the team’s offense. Most often batting seventh, Moustakas has had men on base in just under half of his trips to the plate (60 out of 124), but has hit just .135. With over 1600 career plate appearances under his belt**, he’s become the poster boy for that mostly-failed bounty of prospects, and with such languid production, in danger of seeing his time in Kansas City cut short imminently; though he will only become arbitration eligible for the first time after this season, the Royals may be inclined to move on from him way before then – see the numerous calls for him to be demoted to Triple-A Omaha not simply in order to see if it can inspire some confidence in Moustakas, but make the KC offense better.
What might eventually reprieve Moustakas from a trip to the minors is an unfortunate reality for Kansas City fans – the club has little depth they could otherwise plug in at the position. Dayton Moore himself acknowledged on Tuesday “What’s the alternative?” and really, the Royals GM has a point; Danny Valencia played that day as part of the team’s platoon against southpaws, but is far from an everyday player. Johnny Giavotella has played much of the season for Class AAA Omaha at the hot corner, but remains a liability defensively and is currently covering for the injured Omar Infante at second base. Pedro Ciriaco is Pedro Ciriaco. Prospects Cheslor Cuthbert and Hunter Dozier are still a way off from being ready for the majors. Outside of a trade, it seems like Moore can do little but pray on Moustakas eventually rounding into form.
It’s not just the man they call Moose who has underwhelmed on offense so far this season of course; designated hitter Billy Butler currently has a .603 OPS, one home run, and has contributed -0.4 WAR. After finally appearing to crack the whole ‘hitting for power’ thing towards the end of last year, Eric Hosmer has just one long ball so far in 2014, rendering his .304 average somewhat empty. Alex Gordon and his .675 OPS has contributed the same amount of OWAR (0.1) as Yordano Ventura, who has two freakin’ plate appearances. The team as a whole ranks second from bottom among AL teams in both runs scored per game (4.03) and OPS (.677), and dead last in slugging percentage (.367) and OPS+ (85). And yet, the Royals are 20-19, and trailing only perennial powerhouse Detroit in the AL Central, thanks entirely to their terrific pitching and fielding (and in spite of Ned Yost‘s absurd managerial strategies).
Glassy-eyed optimism on the part of Moustakas, quoted recently in saying “I’m going to go out there and get four hits one day, four the next day, and nobody’s going to be thinking about this anymore,” and deflection tactics from Moore, who angrily asked reporters “Anyone want to talk about our bullpen? Or talk about our starting pitching?” a few days ago, can’t obscure what’s going on in Kansas City. This is a make or break season for the Royals, the last in which they’ll have ace James Shields under contract after mortgaging Wil Myers and a host of other prospects for a two year crack at the playoffs. Year one was promising, but ultimately unsuccessful. Year two is off to a shaky start. If the Royals are to fail in breaking their playoff drought once again, who knows what might happen – you’d have to think both Yost and Moore would be on the wobbly chair come the end of the season, and a roster shake-up would follow.
If he doesn’t pick up some of the slack soon however, Mike Moustakas might understandably be the fall guy well before then.
* Brad Miller of Seattle, and Alejandro de Aza in Chicago, if you were interested, are no. 1 and 2.
** As pointed out by Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star, “Including his signing bonus, the Royals have spent more than $5 million and waited nearly 2,500 days for him to be a good big-league player.”
Max Scherzer is “mad”, apparently. “Mad” in the insane sense, for turning down the six-year, $144 million contract Dave Dombrowski and the Detroit Tigers offered to him before the season; for betting on himself to turn in an even better performance than his Cy Young showing in 2013, and get an even bigger payday in free agency this offseason; for doing so in an era when a new pitcher every week seems to need Tommy John surgery, and a year in which he’ll turn 30. More traditionally “mad” – angry, really – because Sports Illustrated brought up the topic of his contact in a recent cover story on him, “Mad Max’s $144 million bet,” a piece which they subtitled with the question “did he make a dumb wager on his future?”
“Mad” in another respect too though. “Mad” like the New York slang meaning – a term defined by the always-reputable Urban Dictionary as “an appropriate replacement for Northern California’s “hella” and Boston’s “wicked”. In the common vernacular, it translates into “a lot” or “extremely.” In that regard, Max Scherzer is most certainly “mad”; “mad” good.
We all know the events that occurred between Scherzer, his (super-)agent Scott Boras, and the Tigers organization during the winter/Spring Training period. Offered that aforementioned six-year, $144 million contract, a deal which would have put him on the same pay scale as Cole Hamels, but perhaps-crucially not as much as Detroit teammate Justin Verlander, Scherzer declined, dismissed the possibility of talks during the year, and thus seemed to clearly announce he would test the waters of free agency after 2014. At this point, things got a bit sour publicly between Boras, his client, and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, as rumors about ‘who offered what exactly’ and mutual hurt feelings led to some sniping back and forth through the media. Meanwhile, several commentators panned Scherzer’s decision to turn down the money ($144 million!), figuring his value would never be higher. Matters weren’t helped by Miguel Cabrera receiving a massive extension the following week – presumably tying up Detroit’s future payroll.
You couldn’t exactly blame the doubters; since being selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the University of Missouri product had been solid, if unspectacular, as a starter prior to 2013. His 108 ERA+ between 2010 and 2012 (and 9.2 K/9 rate over that same span) certainly made him a quality option on the bump for the Tigers, but he wasn’t dominant. His award-winning 2013 then, looked a tad out-of-place; while his superficial stats (2.90 ERA and league-leading 0.97 WHIP) made him worthy of Cy Young consideration, other pitchers were arguably better (both Yu Darvish and Anibal Sanchez had higher ERA+ marks, while Felix Hernandez also had a strong case). Scherzer’s case was almost certainly helped by an incredible amount of run support, a factor which propelled him to a 21-3 win/loss record. Whether he’d get such help again while simultaneously proving his improvement wasn’t a fluke and staying healthy, meant betting on himself during 2014 was a risky proposition.
So far though, Max Scherzer’s “$144 million bet” is looking good to pay out, and do so in a big way. After starting well in 2013 (he had a 13-1 record at the All-Star break), the 29-year-old has been hot out of the gate once again, compiling a 1.72 ERA through his first seven starts. More than simply that crude measure of performance though, Scherzer has either improved his peripherals further from their 2013 spike, or simply maintained their excellency – the difficulty in doing so being the very reason why many prognosticators (myself included) expected regression. A quick overview; his K/9 rate is up from 10.08 in 2013, to 11.49 this year; his walk rate has improved too, falling from 2.35 BB/9 to 2.30; mixing in his curveball just as much as last season, his opponent’s average allowed has effectively remained the same, currently resting at .195. After getting a little lucky with his FB/HR% a year ago, his rate has stabilized back to league average in 2014, which in addition to an increased ground ball rate has led to a career-best xFIP (2.43).
By every measure, be it tERA (2.75), SIERA (2.36), or the simple eye test, Scherzer has been even better in 2014 than when he won the Cy. With every start then, each outing being one less in which he could possibly incur injury, and a further reminder that he is a legitimate ace, his price tag is going up. Now it’s unlikely he challenges Clayton Kershaw‘s record a.a.v (Kershaw is three years younger after all, and has an even-better track record), but what would Scherzer command on the open market should he win two Cy Young awards in a row?
Scherzer’s future might not be in Detroit, but one thing’s looking certain about the righty this winter; that $144 million figure will undoubtedly be put in the rearview mirror – offers beyond $200 million will be the new benchmark. All he has to do is get there in one piece – the performance is no longer in question – and he’ll be getting paid, big-time.
Not a bad outcome for such a “dumb wager”.
Way, way back in my MLB Season Preview Series, I lamented how quietly the Chicago White Sox had quietly limped to a 99-loss season in 2013. In doing my research for the post, I’d been surprised to see quite how bad they had been, and wondered how they had pulled off such anonymous incompetence. I figured it had been their anemic offense, something an influx of exciting new players would help cure, and thus get the Pale Hose back on the national radar. Using that logic, I wrote about Adam Eaton as the key to Chicago’s turnaround.
In a way, I was right; Eaton has been every bit the leadoff force that many predicted of him back before injury derailed his 2013 season in Arizona (and before Kevin Towers traded him at his lowest value). In a larger respect though, I was dead wrong; while Eaton’s arrival has undoubtedly had a positive impact on both sides of the ball, it has been the South Sider’s other notable offseason addition that has garnered baseball’s attention so far. One month into his major league career, 27-year-old rookie Jose Abreu has crushed his way into the wider consciousness, and, in the words of Jonah Keri today, “turned a moribund White Sox team into a must-watch outfit every night.”
Signed to a six-year, $68 million deal back in October (the largest in White Sox history in terms of total money), the acquisition of the right-handed slugger was deemed “a calculated risk, but one we had to take,” by none other than Chicago GM Rick Hahn at the time. Even after putting up video-game numbers in Cuba (Abreu batted .316 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs over 83 games in 2013, while posting a .479 on-base percentage and a .604 slugging percentage*), there were still concerns over how his perceived ‘long’ swing would hold up against American League competition, the usual cultural shift worries, and whether the heavy expectations upon his shoulders (he’d be replacing beloved face of the franchise Paul Konerko at first base) would further impede his production translating. That “bold and aggressive” move though, is looking like a stroke of genius on the part of Hahn so far in 2014.
Abreu has been sensational during his first four weeks in the majors, obliterating pitches and setting all sorts of records along the way. With a major hat-tip to ESPN’s Stats and Information crew, through last nights games:
– Abreu’s 10 home runs are the most by a White Sox rookie in any month, and the most for a White Sox player since Konerko had 11 in 2001 (Jim Thome hit 10 in 2006).
– His 31 RBIs set an MLB rookie record for March/April, beating the previous mark set by… Albert Pujols. His impressive total also established a new franchise record for the opening month, topping Konerko’s mark of 28 in 2002, and has tied Frank Thomas for the most by a White Sox player in any month (Thomas had 31 in August 2003)**.
– And (as illustrated in this excellent piece) he’s just destroying the outside pitch: Eight of his 10 home runs have come against pitches on the outer half of the plate or off the outside corner, which along with his .797 slugging percentage against similar pitches, give Abreu the highest marks in baseball (His six extra-base hits against pitches out of the strike zone rank second only to Mike Trout).
Less statistically significant, but still valid: he’s destroyed at least one backstop phone, been called ” the best player in the world … ever … right now,” by Evan Longoria (admittedly after he hit the above walk-off grand slam against Grant Balfour and the Rays on Friday), taken pretty good pitchers by the names of David Price, Justin Verlander and Chris Archer deep already, and taught Danny Salazar to never, ever, hang a breaking ball again.
More than anything though, Abreu has awakened the Pale Hose offense from its 2013 slumber; along with Eaton, he’s at the forefront of a lineup which leads the majors in runs scored (143), and is largely responsive for keeping Chicago afloat at .500 in the AL Central (especially considering how ace Chris Sale is out and the rest of the team’s pitching stinks – only Arizona have allowed more runs). His monstrous impact has even made Hawk Harrelson more exclamatory than usual. So while it’s a cert that he won’t keep up his torrid pace of record-making (if he hits 62 homers and 193 RBI, I’ll turn vegan), Abreu has already achieved something I thought far more improbable; almost single-handedly, he’s made the White Sox watchable again.
* Numbers which actually made it a below-average year for the big righty. Including postseason appearances, he batted .392 over the 2010-13 seasons, with 133 home runs, 337 RBIs, 311 runs and 278 walks.
** Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cuban defector is the first rookie with 10 homers and 30 RBIs in a calendar month since Al Rosen and Luke Easter both did it for the Cleveland Indians in June 1950.
Heading into yesterday’s game against Tampa Bay, I would have imagined not too many Royals fans would have been pleased with the how the young season had to that point played out. Tipped by many for at least a Wild-Card berth – if not more – the early returns hadn’t exactly been encouraging (Salvador Perez‘s performance excluded – the guy is incredible); the normally-dominant bullpen, already weakened by the loss of Luke Hochevar, was all of a sudden looking shaky – Greg Holland and the gang yielding walk-off wins to the Detroit Tigers in the first two games of the season, and leaking runs since. Ned Yost was still driving the diehards crazy with his lineup construction and in-game decision making – #Yosted and #smrtbaseball routinely appearing together on my Twitter feed. New second baseman Omar Infante was sidelined by a beaning – a loss made all the worse by KC management decided having a backup middle infielder on the 25-man roster was unnecessary. Emilio Bonifacio – their infield utility man from last year – was raking with his new team, the Cubs. The team was yet to hit a home run, ranking last in the ML with a .307 slugging percentage. The last thing Royals fans needed then, was to see reigning AL ROY Wil Myers and the Rays to come to town and serve as a reminder of how they likely only have 31 more starts of James Shields, and thus what might have been.
It’s amazing what a 102.9mph fastball will do however, to wipe a discouraging early season slate clean.
Yordano Ventura is here to wash away my pain and suffering.
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) April 9, 2014
After having his first scheduled start of the season against the Detroit Tigers (perhaps fortuitously) rained out, the diminutive Yordano Ventura finally got his chance to shine yesterday – and boy, did he show out; as Michael Baumann put it on Grantland earlier today “my goodness gracious, was Kansas City’s Happy Meal–size top pitching prospect as good as advertised.” Yeah… that about sums Ventura’s performance up.
In six innings of work, the 22-year old allowed only two hits and walked none, striking out six batters and flashing incredible stuff – quite simply dominating the poor Rays hitters. His well-renowned four-seam fastball (Ventura already owned the fastest regular season pitch by a starting pitcher during the PitchFX era, a 102.8mph offering that Yan Gomes somehow hit for a single last September) was just as advertised, the righty throwing his trademark heat 45 times out of his 98 pitches at an average velocity of 99.5mph. And no, that average is not a misprint – per Brook’s Baseball, his top velocity last night was actually 102.9mph, therefore giving him both the first and second fastest regular season pitches by a starting pitcher during the PitchFX era.
The Dominican Republic native also flashed a 96mph cutter (which he threw 10 times), a 97mph sinker (2) and a 83mph curve (19 times) that on one occasion just froze Evan Longoria. But it was perhaps his changeup that was the star of the Ventura show; coming in at an average of 89.51 mph (and thus quicker than both fellow rotation mates Jason Vargas‘ and Bruce Chen‘s four seam fastball offerings), the pitch generated 4 swings and misses, and befuddled Wil Myers more than once (Myers would endure a particularly horrific evening, striking out 3 times – much to the glee of Royals fans).
All in all, it would be a highly impressive showing from the young flamethrower, his dominant outing serving to not only dispel fears that his 5’11 frame might only limit him to bullpen duty and justify the spring decision to include him in the starting rotation, but alleviate the fan’s fears of losing Shields for nothing at the end of the year (especially given how the once-vaunted crop of young arms on the KC farm – Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi etc. – have either failed to develop or been traded away).
With Ventura in tow, there’s significant cause for optimism in Kansas City – the season is yet young, and the team simply too good (and the AL Central too weak) to continue slumping the way it has; the bullpen issue will resolve itself eventually. Infante will come back. Bonifacio won’t hit all season-long in Chicago. The team have already (finally) called up Johnny Giavotella to resolve the infield issue. Yost even employed a decent-ish lineup in today’s game! Things should turn around soon enough. But even if the Royals’ season does continue down the disappointing path it has initially taken, in Ventura, there will at least be a must-see pitcher on the bump every fifth day, pumping 100mph fastball after 100mph fastball for six innings at a time.
If Tuesday was anything to go by, that’s not a bad consolation prize.
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.