Perez wows teammates with ability, work ethic
Catcher studies video of opposing clubs each night before bed
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It doesn't take much to get Luke Hochevar, who heads the Royals' pitching staff, enumerating the merits of 21-year-old catcher Salvador Perez.
"He really, really impressed me," Hochevar said. "Granted, I was spoiled throwing to [Jason] Kendall. He taught me a lot about navigating through a lineup, game planning and game calling, and he can catch and throw with the best of them. He taught me a lot, and knowing what I learned from Kendall and having Perez step in back there, I was impressed.
"I told him my game plan and he did not skip a beat. What I like about him is that he wants to be good and he wants his pitchers to be good, so he puts forth the effort and prepares for a lineup. So you tell him what you want to do or give him a report on how you want to pitch a guy, and the kid goes home and studies it. He drills it in his head, that this is how I'm going to do it, so when the game comes it's just second nature to him."
Mention all this to Perez and the huge smile that habitually fills the big man's face breaks out anew.
"It's my job," he said, laughing. "I have to try."
He tries and conquers most of the vast complexities of catching with a finesse that astonishes baseball people like Kendall, who remains with the Royals in a coaching capacity.
"He's a bright kid," Kendall said. "He's something special."
After winding down his effusive praise, Hochevar did find one fault with Perez.
"The only thing that I don't like about Perez is that he receives so well; his hands are so soft that he makes me feel like I'm throwing 75 miles per hour," Hochevar said jokingly. "His hands are so soft that the glove doesn't pop. So you're like, 'Geez, I don't have it today.'"
Hochevar chuckled and added, "He's too good."
Perez, from Valencia, Venezuela, is a huge tower of a catcher -- standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 240 pounds -- with giant hands and quick feet. Manager Ned Yost spent a lot of time a year ago in Spring Training talking about Perez's defensive ability. By Aug. 10, Perez had advanced through Double-A, made a brief stop at Triple-A and was catching in the Majors when the Royals took on the Rays in Tampa Bay. In his first game, Perez picked off a runner at first, a runner at third and gathered in five -- count 'em -- five popups. And, oh yes, he also got his first hit, first run and first RBI.
One of his first acquisitions after cracking the big league roster was an iPad, on which he could watch videos of opposing teams. He assigned himself a lot of homework.
"I study it 20 or 30 minutes every night before I go to sleep," he said. "It helps me a lot. You see how a batter moves his hands, his legs, whether he moves up or back. That's what I try to see in the video."
Apparently he sees it very well.
"He's very smart, he catches on very quickly, he understands the pitchers' dynamics both mentally and physically and he gets on the same wavelength they're on very, very quickly," Yost said. "That's a unique talent to have."
Pitcher Will Smith led the Texas League in victories last season partly because of Perez's help at Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
"He's a big studier of the game," Smith said. "At crunch time you're always on the same page. It's almost like he can read your mind about what's going on."
Of the Royals' three primary catchers last season -- Matt Treanor and Brayan Pena were the other two -- Perez had the best pitchers' ERA (4.23) and the best won-lost record (19-20). He lagged behind only in potential basestealers thrown out, at 16 percent to Pena's 25 and Treanor's 21.6.
Kendall didn't play last season because of shoulder surgery, but was around the Royals' clubhouse as he underwent rehabilitation. And he provided Perez with the benefit of his 15 years of catching.
"Once a pitcher trusts you, it's so much easier," Kendall said. "They don't have to worry so much. But it's also a lot of work. You have to know each pitcher, who you have to kick in the rear, who you have to pat on the back. We just sat down and talked baseball, basically."
Perez did gain the pitchers' trust.
"As far as defensively, he's as good as it gets," reliever Greg Holland said. "Big target, good hands; you feel really comfortable throwing to him.
"And I'd say he's really mature for his age. He's always in the film room doing his homework. BP [Brayan Pena] helped him with that a lot, I think. Actually, at the end of the year, he and the other catchers were doing the scouting reports before each series. He was going through every hitter and what he wanted to do."
Like Hochevar, Holland had one tongue-in-cheek reservation about Perez.
"I make sure he stays at the bottom of the mound when he comes to see me because he's so big," Holland said. "He makes me look even smaller."
A catcher's primary job is defense and calling the game. Any unexpected offense he can contribute is a bonus, and the Royals cashed in last year. Perez hit .331 after being called up and drove in 21 runs with 13 extra-base hits in his 39 games.
That was even more than hitting coach Kevin Seitzer expected, considering that Perez's average was .290 for his two Minor League teams last year.
"I didn't expect .330, let's put it that way," Seitzer said. "But I did expect him to do OK. I thought he'd come up and hit .260 or .270, just because of the adjustments I saw him make."
Those adjustments were made between a three-day rookie development program in Kansas City in January of 2011, when Seitzer made some suggestions, and the start of Spring Training about a month later.
"Just a few little things, there was nothing major at all," Seitzer said. "He's got a very fundamentally sound swing. There's not a lot of moving parts that can break down. He's got great hand-eye coordination, handles the offspeed pitch and just never looked overmatched. And that carried on when he came to the big leagues."
As a matter of fact, he hit .374 in his last 30 games. There's nothing like a little momentum to carry into 2012.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.