With the All-Star catcher gone for 2019, the Royals need competent defensive catchers for their pitchers to work with.
The Royals received terrible news on Salvador Perez this week, with Tommy John surgery looming for one of the club’s most beloved leaders. With the Gold Glove catcher lost for 2019, what can Kansas City do to replace Perez behind the dish?
First of all, let’s get something out of the way—the Royals can’t really replace Perez. They don’t have anyone in-house to do the job, and at this late stage, there aren’t any free agent catchers who can do what Perez does both on offense and defense.
But forget the offense. The Royals aren’t making a playoff run this year anyway, so let’s just write off any offensive production (and while we’re at it, we may as well write off the leadership, personality and fun Perez brings to the game, too).
What I’m concerned with, as a Royals fan, is finding a catcher who can take care of the young pitchers, a just-give-me-a-catch-and-throw guy.
If we’re just looking for a guy who can get it done behind the plate, there might be an alternative or two available.
First of all, the Royals can look in-house at Cameron Gallagher, who’s seen a tiny bit of major league action over the past two years. While I don’t think Gallagher will be much of an offensive threat—with a career MLB slash of .218/.274/.333 (albeit, in an extremely small sample size)—he does appear to be a solid catcher.
Using the catching metrics at Baseball Prospectus, Gallagher has positive framing statistics in Triple-A, showing he can potentially handle himself behind the dish. In Gallagher’s last two seasons with Omaha, the Royals’ Triple-A affiliate, his Framing Runs Above Average (FRAA) was 11.8 and 11.9 in 2017 and 2018, respectively. In much smaller sample sizes, he posted an FRAA of -0.2 in 2017 and improved to 2.4 in 2018 during his time with Kansas City.
The potential is there for him to at least be an average big league catcher. Gallagher isn’t as savvy as Perez when it comes to throwing out base runners (not many are), but If he can work behind the plate like he’s done in Omaha, the Royals could have a decent game manager on their hands.
Another option the Royals are reportedly pursuing is the acquisition of free agent catcher Martin Maldonado. He’s not any better than Gallagher offensively, but has a lot more big league experience with 612 games under his belt. Maldonado also has some post-season experience, catching seven games for Houston in the 2018 playoffs.
The best thing about Maldonado? He can catch. In eight major league seasons, he has compiled an FRAA of 77.9, for an average of 9.7 per year, mostly as a part-time player.
Maldonado’s 2017 season makes him an even more appealing receiver. That year, he played a career-high 138 games and had an FRAA of 32.1, which placed him second overall (again, among catchers with at least 3,000 framing chances) in the majors. Maldonado is also great at gunning down would be thieves on the base paths—leading the league in caught stealing percentage in 2018 by shutting down runners at a 49 percent clip. For his career, he has caught 38 percent of opposing runners—slightly better than Sal’s 35 percent career mark.
On top of his excellent work behind the plate, Maldonado also managed to slug 24 homers over the last two seasons (in 875 at bats)—that’s a clip of 16.45 homers per 600 plate appearances.
To further compare this trio of catchers—Perez had a total fWAR of 3.8 over the last two seasons (1,043 PA) and Maldonado had a 1.9 (875 PA), while Gallagher had a -0.2 fWAR (only 96 PA). That comes out to an fWAR of 2.2/600 for Perez versus 1.3/600 for Maldonado, which isn’t too far apart, really.
Gallagher’s sample size is simply too small to run a fWAR/600 comparison. That said, if he can post the 0.5 fWAR projected by ZiPS for 2019, and we add that to Maldonado’s projected 1.0, these guys add up to a 1.5 fWAR, which is just 0.2 fWAR shy of the 2018 version of Perez.
The Royals should sign Maldonado and give him and Gallagher both work behind the plate this year. Replacing Perez won’t be easy, or even possible in many ways—but if the Royals are concerned with having someone competent for their pitchers to work with, they could do much worse than this tandem. Offensively, just bat this two-headed offensive black hole toward the bottom of the lineup and take what little they give.
In the meantime, those of us who root for the Royals will begin counting down to the eventual return of our All-Star catcher. Get well soon, Salvy.
Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC