Salvador Perez: Anatomy of a grand slam

Perez plays the hero again, crushing another dinger to give the Royals a lead they would never relinquish. Welcome to the Summer of Salvy.

When did you turn off the Royals game on Thursday night? Be honest. These West Coast games can be a grind, with a start time two hours later than usual. The mood wasn’t helped when Brad Keller couldn’t find the strike zone in the first. Or when he left the game in the fifth with an apparent injury. Or when Joel Payamps couldn’t close out the inning when summoned from the bullpen.

So the Royals were down 4-0 through five innings. The bats were ice cold, the pitching lukewarm, it was late…

It sure feels like this has been Salvador Perez Week at the newsletter. Since Friday’s lid-lifter in Chicago against the Cubs, the dude has just raked. And walked. We cannot forget the walks. Anyway, in the six games to open this road trip, Perez had five hits—four of which were home runs—three walks and just six whiffs in 23 plate appearances. The home runs have been timely, but if you want to complain about something, maybe it’s that none of those four dingers came with runners on base. They’ve all been solo shots.

That changed on Thursday. In a big way.

Mariners starter, lefty Yusei Kikuchi, had allowed just two baserunners in the first five innings. One of which, Whit Merrifield getting hit by a pitch to lead off the game, was erased immediately in a double play. The wheels flew off in the sixth. Two singles, a double and a walk plated a run for the Royals and chased Kikuchi from the game.

With the bases loaded, the Mariners turned to Joe Smith to secure the platoon advantage against Perez and rescue them from this particular jam.

Smith is a side-arming, right-handed pitcher. You would think that Smith would have a natural advantage when facing hitters from the same side since it appears the ball is practically behind the batter when it leaves his hand. In his career, yes, Smith does have better results against right-handed hitters, holding them to an average 20 points lower and a slugging percentage 50 points lower than their counterparts from the left side of the dish. Perez and Hunter Dozier, the next batter in the lineup, hit from the right side.

However, this is how Smith’s splits look in 2021:

Same-siders are crushing him this year. (To be fair, those numbers do include Thursday’s game. Still, the point remains.) So, this is perhaps the first issue with bringing Smith into the game in this situation.

But wait! Smith throws a mean slider. It’s his best pitch and with that delivery, it can be absolutely lethal against righties.

That was against Wil Myers back in May. The damn pitch glides like a frisbee.

You know where I’m going with this. Sliders off the plate are Perez’s kryptonite. The dude just can’t help himself, even when he’s locked in. So while Smith isn’t getting the job done against right-handed batters this year the way he has in the past, they still had to like their chances of getting Perez to chase a slider or two off the plate.

Instead, Smith went inside with back-to-back sinkers to start the at bat.

Perez has come through in the clutch time and time again in 2021. Yet he still has this tendency to swing out of his shoes when he’s amped up. Don’t you think he was up there with RBIs dancing through his brain? The dude was dying to swing the bat. And Smith comes at him with a pitch so far inside, there’s no way in the world Perez could swing. Easy take for ball one.

Notice the score bug that says Perez is 0-5 against Smith in his career with three strikeouts. Here is the location of the final strike in those at bats.

Two sliders and a four-seamer. All away. I mean, this is just crazy how obvious it is.

Pitchers are throwing Perez sliders off the outer half of the plate at a high rate this year. He’s seeing that pitch in that location 12.8 percent of the time. He’s hitting .111 against those pitches and slugging .171. If you want to attack Perez, this is how you do it—sliders out of the zone.

Perez is swinging and missing 28.5 percent of the time on sliders in that location. Sure, he spits on plenty of them, but you really have to like your chances here of securing the strikeout with the bases loaded and nobody out. A 1-0 slider off the dish and perhaps you can even the count.

Instead, Smith went back inside with another sinker.

If Perez is looking for a pitch to drive (and you know damn well that’s what he’s looking for), he’s searching for something out over the plate so he can extend his arms. He’s loading up, but the sinker runs inside and, since that’s where the pitch is starting from with the sidearm delivery, Perez isn’t going to be fooled on that.

I’ve been writing about attacking Perez with sliders off the plate. While that’s a good strategy, the margin for error is nil. That’s because Perez is crushing sliders that catch too much of the zone this year. There’s still some healthy swing and miss on sliders in the zone, but when he connects…lookout. Perez is hitting .420 with a .797 slugging percentage against sliders located in the strike zone in 2021. Miss there, and odds are strong you will be punished.

In fact, Perez is just blistering sliders in general this year.

While Perez’s 2020 offensive output was the best of his career, his evolution of how he’s handled sliders is what had made him just a complete threat. Throw out the old playbook on how to attack Perez. Or just use the old one, but tread carefully.

Once Smith missed with his first two pitches to fall behind in the count, the advantage moved to Perez. Smith was now in danger of walking the newly-selective Perez. He needed to throw a strike.

Oh, he threw one all right. LIFTOFF!

Perez knew it the moment he made contact. The ball just exploded off the bat.

An aggressive hitter in a home run groove (although to be fair, he’s been in a home run groove for over a full calendar year), in a favorable count with the opportunity to seize the lead…Damn straight Perez is going to obliterate a center-cut sinker coming in at 85 mph.

It’s just an awful pitch in a horrible location. Or, from Perez’s point of view, the perfect pitch in the greatest location possible. Ding dong. Grand slam. A 4-1 deficit turns in to a 5-4 lead.

Perez has now hit 35 home runs on the season. He’s not missing mistakes left in the zone.

It was his fifth dinger against a sinker in 2021, making it his third-favorite pitch to feast upon.

With an exit velocity of 111.2 mph, it was his third-hardest hit home run this year. At an estimated 418 feet, it was the 14th furthest blast he’s hit in 2021.

What Perez is doing as a power hitter this year is simply amazing. His .255 ISO and .527 slugging percentage are clocking in as the best full-season rates of his career. He’s building upon his success from the shortened season of 2020 and has transformed himself into a feared slugger. The power is prodigious and unrelenting. He is, quite simply, the man in this Royals lineup.

Welcome to the Summer of Salvy indeed.