Why the Royals may be better off with Martin Maldonado than Salvador Perez in 2019

I imagine this headline might infuriate some people. But there’s plenty of explaining to do. When the news surfaced that the Royals may lose Salvador Perez, their World Series MVP, perennial All-Star and Gold Glover, and face of the franchise, for the season, their was plenty of reason for fans to be sad. Losing a good catcher on and off the field, along with a player that was a driving reason for many fans to even watch or show up to games is not a good thing.

But if you look deeper, you can find many reasons on why this isn’t such a terrible outcome. For starters, it may be good for Perez himself. Giving his knees a full-season rest in a season that most likely will amount to nothing is a positive. Second, I don’t think the Royals are losing much “on-field” value here, bringing in veteran catcher Martin Maldonado on a one-year deal. Third, if all goes well, this could amount to some value at the trade deadline.

If you’re a casual fan and you judge players with the eye-test, you’re taking Perez over Maldonado eleven times out of ten. Perez has the advantage in most recognizable areas. He’s by a superior overall hitter, he hits for far more power, and by most accounts, his glove behind the plate is at an elite-level. Counteracting with Maldonado, he’s a worse hitter (career 72 wRC+ vs Perez’s 97). He doesn’t hit as many home runs (51 vs 141). Looking to the glove though, they are comparable (Maldonado was worth 11.3 defensive runs above average in 2018, Perez 10.7). You may even remember him edging out Perez for the Gold Glove award in 2017, ending Perez’s four-year run, rightfully so.

Judging off that quick comparison, Perez looks like the better player. But there is still a very important aspect of the catching game that I haven’t gotten to yet. Framing. Easily one of the more important areas that a catcher can excel in, yet one of the least recognizable talents for watching fans.

Do give you a quick run down on framing, here’s the definition Baseball Prospectus has instilled for their metric that measures it.

The specified details of the CSAA mixed models are in the Appendix. The Reader’s Digest version is as follows: the model considers each and every pitch thrown in the major leagues each season. For each pitch where a batter did not swing, we input (1) whether the pitch was a ball or strike (our output variable), (2) our various participants: the pitcher, catcher, batter, and umpire, which are our “random effects”; and (3) our chosen “fixed effects” we found to be meaningful: the PITCHf/x probability of the pitch being strike, the handedness of the pitcher and batter, and whether the team was playing at home or away. All of these fixed effects have a statistically significant effect on the likelihood of a pitch being a strike. For CSAA, we ran the model separately for each season from 2008 to the present time, and collected each season’s results.

To break down the framing numbers incorporated into overall defensive value between Maldonado and Perez in 2018, I’ll prorate their Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) to 120 games.

  • Maldonado: 119 games, 3.1 FRAA, 3.12 FRAA/120 games
  • Perez: 129 games, -8.1 FRAA, -7.53 FRAA/120 games

The difference in framing is huge between the two. Perez is generally considered a terrible framer, severely hampering his value. Maldonado on the other hand is considerably above-average in the department, making him an underrated asset. This changes this gap in overall value, even with hitting and other defensive aspects considered (looking at WARP), as Maldonado very well might be the better player

  • Maldonado, 2016-18: 333 games, 6.2 WARP, 2.23 WARP/120 games
  • Perez, 2016-18: 397 games, 5.1 WARP, 1.54 WARP/120 games

Now you may be asking why framing is such a big deal and how the Royals are impacted by this. To break it down in easier terms, I’m going to look at the rates in which both catchers assist their pitchers. There’s two things you can look at to easily identify this. Out-of-zone strike% and in-zone ball%. Narrowing a sample size to a minimum of 2,000 pitches caught in 2018, I’ll start with out-of-zone strike%. Out of 67 qualified catchers, Maldonado ranked sixth. Last year he ranked sixth and in 2016 he ranked 12th. He’s consistently good at helping his pitchers get strikes outside the strike-zone.

First Name Last Name Year Team Sample oStr%
Austin Barnes 2018 Dodgers 3501 11.1
Jeff Mathis 2018 D-backs 4589 10.9
Raffy Lopez 2018 Padres 2215 10
Luke Maile 2018 Blue Jays 4839 9.5
Yasmani Grandal 2018 Dodgers 8479 9.4
MARTIN MALDONADO 2018 Astros 2473 9.4
Max Stassi 2018 Astros 5004 9
Roberto Perez 2018 Indians 4149 8.8
Tyler Flowers 2018 Braves 5436 8.8
John Ryan Murphy 2018 D-backs 4053 8.6

Perez is the opposite. Last season, he ranked 51st out of the 67 qualified. In 2017 he ranked as the second worst catcher. In 2016 he was the worst catcher. Terrible. Here are the 20 worst catchers in this for 2018.

First Last Year Team Sample oStr%
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 2018 Rangers 2576 4.2
Jesus Sucre 2018 Rays 4203 4.7
Andrew Knapp 2018 Phillies 3427 4.8
Austin Wynns 2018 Orioles 2838 4.8
Curt Casali 2018 Reds 2424 4.9
Grayson Greiner 2018 Tigers 2365 4.9
Omar Narvaez 2018 White Sox 6101 5.2
Drew Butera 2018 Royals 3429 5.3
Francisco Arcia 2018 Angels 2128 5.3
Francisco Pena 2018 Cardinals 2796 5.4
Devin Mesoraco 2018 Mets 4083 5.5
Matt Wieters 2018 Nationals 4652 5.6
A.J. Ellis 2018 Padres 3366 5.6
Welington Castillo 2018 White Sox 3397 5.6
Kurt Suzuki 2018 Braves 6775 5.8
SALVADOR PEREZ 2018 Royals 7541 5.8
Caleb Joseph 2018 Orioles 6435 5.8
Chance Sisco 2018 Orioles 3322 5.9
Francisco Cervelli 2018 Pirates 6907 6.2
Spencer Kieboom 2018 Nationals 3135 6.2

Looking to the other side of things, in-zone ball% (you want to have a lower-rate), Maldonado was again, pretty good. In 2018 he ranked 14th out of 67. In 2017 he was fifth. In 2016 he was 20th. Here were the top 20 catchers from last year.

First Last Year Team Sample zBall%
Sandy Leon 2018 Red Sox 5818 9.5
Max Stassi 2018 Astros 5004 10.8
Pedro Severino 2018 Nationals 4302 11
Roberto Perez 2018 Indians 4149 11.2
Christian Vazquez 2018 Red Sox 5552 11.3
Gary Sanchez 2018 Yankees 5666 11.4
Jorge Alfaro 2018 Phillies 7394 11.5
John Ryan Murphy 2018 D-backs 4053 11.7
Grayson Greiner 2018 Tigers 2365 11.7
Luke Maile 2018 Blue Jays 4839 11.9
Russell Martin 2018 Blue Jays 5665 12
MARTIN MALDONADO 2018 Astros 2473 12.1
Brian McCann 2018 Astros 4049 12.1
Tyler Flowers 2018 Braves 5436 12.2
Austin Hedges 2018 Padres 6293 12.2
Yan Gomes 2018 Indians 7784 12.3
Bobby Wilson 2018 Twins 3398 12.5
Austin Romine 2018 Yankees 5502 12.5
Matt Wieters 2018 Nationals 4652 12.5
Austin Barnes 2018 Dodgers 3501 12.6

For Perez, again, not good. Last year, he had the fourth highest rate. In 2017 and 2016, he respectively had the 17th and 22nd highest rates. Here were the ten worst from 2018.

First Last Year Team Sample zBall%
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 2018 Rangers 2576 17
Manny Pina 2018 Brewers 6604 16.4
Nick Hundley 2018 Giants 5714 16.2
SALVADOR PEREZ 2018 Royals 7541 16
Tucker Barnhart 2018 Reds 8712 15.9
Welington Castillo 2018 White Sox 3397 15.8
Victor Caratini 2018 Cubs 2670 15.6
Jose Briceno 2018 Angels 2628 15.6
A.J. Ellis 2018 Padres 3366 15.5
Kevin Plawecki 2018 Mets 5107 15.4

All stats courtesy of StatCorner

These lost and added calls for the pitching staff add up over thousands and thousands of pitches. For perspective, Maldonado has added 146 calls for his pitchers the past three seasons. Perez has lost 515 (!!!) calls in that same time, by far the most in baseball.

For visual effect, here’s a heatmap of each catcher’s called strikes the past three seasons.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant
Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Or in form of GIF. Here’s Maldonado using his skill to pull a ball slightly up into the zone, presenting it well for the umpire. It was tracked outside the zone, but called a strike to end the game.

Here, on a pivotal 3-2 count, he does the same thing to net his pitcher a strikeout.

Varying in certain counts and situations, this can have a enormous impact in an at bat, a game, or even a season. For example, a lost strike to begin an at bat can be a swing of nearly a tenth of a run. That adds up over the course of a long season.

Having Maldonado become the Royals starting catcher will theoretically help a lot of pitchers on the Royals staff. The added advantage for the younger arms on the staff is a nice compliment too. The injury to Salvador Perez is a very unfortunate blow to the franchise and to the season, but don’t be surprised if the pitching staff and the Royals come out looking better because of it.

Photo Credit: MLB.com

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7 thoughts on “Why the Royals may be better off with Martin Maldonado than Salvador Perez in 2019

      • I don’t think his numbers were posted because he caught so few games last year but everything I read says he is well above average and more important, Royals pitchers definitely pitch better when he was behind the plate. Better than Salvy or Butera anyway. Think part of that might be fact he worked with many of those pitchers over the years in minors.

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  1. If all goes well, Maldonado can be traded. That is a big IF. There is a reason no one signed him until Dayton pulled the trigger. There was talk of Houston offering him 2 years $12M but reality is that offer was never made according to Houston.
    My fear is Ned will play him most every day and he will produce less than Gallagher and Viloria would have both on defense and offense. I won’t be surprised to see him match what Escobar did last year on offense. And Royals were already anemic at the plate before Maldonado.
    My opinion is this was just another reaction move by Dayton and it will only cost the Royals more wins this year (unless tanking is the real goal).
    Many fans want to wear the rose colored glasses and drink the blue kool aid with this move. I fear the reality may be a whole different story.

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  2. My questions still is…how does signing Maldonado help David Glass increase revenue? What does he get for his $3.9M spend? Maldonado will win negligible more games than Gallagher or Viloria. Even if he creates a +1 WAR (did not last year), what is the difference between 70 and 71 wins in value.
    Also, I would have to believe Gallagher and Viloria would bring more fans to games as young prospect talent than watching veteran Maldonado behind the plate. He has never generated much fan interest before.
    Finally, Gallagher is accepted by Royals pitchers. Wonder how they will accept Maldonado since one of the raps on him is his poor rapport with pitchers during games.
    So why spend the money?

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  3. This might have been a good move for a team that had a realistic chance to contend and also had a potent offense already. Maldonado will be another weak bat in this line up as he would be in any other. The difference is, this team is not going to contend. In that case, I don’t think the move is that good even considering what he might bring to helping a pitching staff. if you figure the pitchers benefit from his framing ability, you also have to figure that they will face a letdown when Perez returns. I see the help as negligible – and that’s before considering the cost and the loss of experience by our two in-house prospects. In a season that lacks real competition for the playoffs, they could have gained invaluable Major League experience.

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