Royals' Perez keeps 'em on their toes

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals isn't the only Missouri-based catcher with a knack for convincing base runners that inattentiveness can be hazardous to their self-esteem.

Kansas City's Salvador Perez threw out 37.5 percent (15 of 40) of aspiring base stealers last season, and sent several others back to the dugout with dirt on their uniform jerseys and forlorn looks on their faces by leading the majors with five pickoffs in 2012. He's already the Royals' career leader with eight pickoffs in 115 games. Darrell Porter, who previously held the club record, needed 492 games to pick off seven runners in the late 1970s.

Perez's success is the product of several factors, including a strong working relationship with corner infielders Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas going back to their mutual apprenticeships in the minor leagues. When Hosmer and Moustakas think a runner is getting a little frisky in straying from the bag, they'll flash a sign to the catcher, and the ball is on them in an instant.

"He doesn't look like much of a quick guy behind the plate, but his footwork and hands are second to none," Moustakas says of Perez. "If you're not paying attention, you're out. And even if you are paying attention and you take one step too far, you're out. He puts it on the money every time."

The Royals, who upgraded their pitching with the offseason acquisitions of James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana in hopes of making a run in the American League Central, are comfortable entrusting their staff to Perez even though he's only 22 years old. In six seasons with the Kansas City organization, he has shown that he's both physically gifted and emotionally invested enough to be an elite catcher in the big leagues.

"He's into every single pitch," Shields says. "When he has a bad at-bat, he doesn't take it into the field with him. He's very animated. And he's very talented. He can hit, he can catch and he can throw runners out with the best of them. He's a kid who thrives on learning every single day. He's a very receptive kid, and that's a great attribute."

Perez was 17 years old when he signed with Kansas City out of his native Venezuela in 2006. He has elicited comparisons to Sandy Alomar because of his 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame, but his professional role models are closer to home. Growing up in Valencia, Venezuela's third-largest city, Perez was a fan of Victor Martinez and former National League batting champion Andres Galarraga. In his first interview after turning pro, Perez told reporters that he aspired to a career on the magnitude of Galarraga, "El Gato Grande." He saved the newspaper clipping of the story, and was fortunate enough to meet the Big Cat several years ago.

Perez runs a game with intensity and an infectious, fist-pumping enthusiasm that resonate with his pitchers. Despite his youth, he is never hesitant to go to the mound and assert himself when he thinks the situation warrants it.

"Even when I was a little kid, I always had good energy," Perez says. "I would always tell everybody, 'Let's go. Keep doing it. We can win.' I'm real focused when the game starts."

Last spring, the Royals made a commitment to Perez with a five-year, $7 million contract extension that takes him through the 2016 season. The deal includes three club option years that could increase its overall value to $21 million, plus incentives. If Perez turns out to be what the Royals hope and expect he will be, the contract has the potential to be a steal for the club.

Perez got off to a rough start in 2012 when he tore the meniscus in his left knee during spring training. But after coming off the disabled list in late June, he led AL catchers in batting average (.301), hits (87), runs (38) and doubles (16). He is more than just a one-trick Royal.

Amid heightened expectations this spring, Perez is ready to take his game to the next level. Kansas City fans -- like opposing base runners -- will be paying close attention.