Royal presence: Perez a force at, behind plate

Royal presence: Perez a force at, behind plate

Royal presence: Perez a force at, behind plate
BOSTON -- Salvador Perez hears the question -- how's the knee? -- and his brilliant white smile lights up his face.

"Perfecto," he says. "Everything is good."

That also could be the description of the Royals' 22-year-old catcher since he's returned to the lineup after 3 1/2 months of down time because of left knee surgery. He's surged back into prominence -- stabilizing the pitching staff, discouraging base thievery, exerting considerable leadership and hitting nearly .300.

Perez, from Valencia, Venezuela, is a young man of many facets and capabilities.

"Whatever he is, he's special," said pitcher Luke Hochevar.

Perez guided Hochevar through eight shutout innings in Tuesday night's memorable duel with Tampa Bay's David Price, and it's generally accepted that the catcher's return has paralleled the recent upsurge of success among the Royals' starting pitchers.

"Absolutely. He has a lot to do with that," Hochevar said. "He's got a gift. He's got a great feel for the game. He's a great teammate, so guys respect him. He works hard and he plays the game right. So just by doing those little things, you get a lot of respect from your pitching staff.

"But a really big thing is the way that he handles the pitching staff -- calling a game, managing a game and competing. It's kind of weird to say that a catcher really competes back there, because you can't see it, you have really no way to show it, but you can tell he just flat out gets after it."

Perez, the tall figure wrapped in knightly armor, goes far beyond just putting down his fingers. He exudes energy, his dark eyes scan the field, his agile mind whirs, his feet dance, his huge hands envelop a baseball, his cannon arm snaps off a throw.

These are things Perez couldn't do very much while healing from his Spring Training injury and surgery.

"I felt bad and I felt sad, because I like to play, you know? That wasn't good," Perez said.

Happily, Perez was able to spend most of his recovery time with the Royals in Kansas City and on the road. He kept in close contact with the pitchers and the coaches.

"That made me feel better. It helped a little bit," Perez said. "Talking about the game. Watching the game. And coming back, that's helped me."

Manager Ned Yost, a former catcher, believes that Perez's return has helped the Royals. Shortly after he was activated on June 22, Yost talked about Perez's loss having affected the Royals' lineup early in the year.

"It was a way different feel. That's why when he went down, going into Spring Training that was my worst nightmare," Yost said. "I never thought it would happen, and when it happens, it's like, 'Whoa!' "

In addition to adroitly guiding pitchers through a game, Perez has helped them stop the running game. He's thrown out eight of the past 17 runners that attempted a steal and has picked two off base. Opponents are so wary that there have been just 11 attempts in Perez's past 29 starts behind the plate.

A 6-foot-3, 240-pound right-handed batter, Perez also has the knack for delivering big hits. Last weekend, in a sweep of the White Sox, he belted a game-winning double in the opener and knocked in three runs in the finale. Perez goes into this weekend's Boston series with a .297 average, 11 doubles, eight home runs and 22 RBIs in 45 games. Bonus: He's struck out just 13 times in 165 at-bats.

"He's just got a real fundamentally sound swing, as good as anybody on the team," said hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. "He's just got great hands, short stroke, great recognition, no panic, doesn't try to do too much, stays in the middle of the field, good two-strike hitter. I saw the ability to make adjustments early on when I first saw him."

As big league pitchers adjust to Perez, he adjusts to them as well.

"One of the biggest things that young kids will have a problem adjusting to is hitting breaking balls in fastball counts," Seitzer said. "He's a very good offspeed hitter."

Last season, as a rookie, Perez batted a surprising .331 in 39 games.

"I figured he'd be a .280-type hitter, and that's probably what he'll end up being," Yost said. "But I think he's got the ability to hit 20 or 25 home runs and drive in 85 to 100 and be real solid behind home plate."

Beyond his wide smile and outward calm, there's an edge to Perez's personality, too.

"Yes, and there's a lot of energy in there, too. I've seen him get mad, I've never seen him get down," Yost said.

At just 22, Perez already shows the makings of a team leader, a role that is sure to grow with time.

"I just try to be a good teammate, do what I can do to help my team win every night," Perez said. "That's what I try to do. As far as being a leader, I don't think about that."

His horizons seem boundless.

"He's going to be an All-Star, he's going to be a perennial All-Star," Yost declared. "He's going to be one of the top catchers in the league for years to come, because he can catch, he can throw, he's very intelligent and he can hit. He doesn't strike out, he puts the ball in play. He can hit with power to all fields, and he can hit the ball to all fields."

Perez's primary contribution, though, is shepherd to the pitchers.

"He puts his work in, preparing for a lineup, knowing what pitches to attack certain hitters with, but he also has a great feel for the game, because the situation changes and he adapts," Hochevar said. "And you don't teach that. It's a gift."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.