The Mercury News

Pérez's defense separates him from other catchers

- By Evan Webeck ewebeck@bayareanew­

Inside his humble community college dorm room in Lake City, Florida, about as landlocked of a location as it gets in the state, midway between Jacksonvil­le and Tallahasse­e, Roberto Pérez learned to swear.

The room, which he shared with a teammate on the college's pitching staff, was where Pérez found himself in 2006, after being drafted by Dodgers out of high school in Puerto Rico but opting not to sign. Just 17 years old, Pérez didn't know a lick of English, despite courses in school, and knew that to achieve his goal — catching in the big leagues — communicat­ion was going to be essential.

“I really wanted to go to college and test myself,” said Pérez, who joined the Giants organizati­on as a minor league free agent this winter. “Instead of rooming with a Latin player, I chose to room with an American guy. He would talk to me in English and I would talk to him in Spanish. We kind of helped each other out. I didn't know at first what he was saying, but I got used to it. I would talk by pointing at things.”

The dirty words, of course, came first. His roommate was a New Yorker, after all.

“That's the first thing you learn, those bad words,” Pérez said with a laugh. “He had a New York accent. It was tough.”

Now 34, Pérez finds himself in another unfamiliar setting.

It took him two years at the community college to grasp the English language, while also doing enough on the field to maintain his draft stock. He piqued Cleveland's interest in the 33rd round in 2008 and spent the next decade of his life in the organizati­on. He made the improbable climb from late-round draft pick to the major-league roster, won two Gold Gloves and helped Cleveland to three playoff appearance­s, including an American League pennant in 2016.

But after a slew of injuries, most recently a torn hamstring that ended his 2022 season and required surgery, Pérez is once again the new guy, this time in the Giants' group of catchers, his third different spring training camp in as many years.

In a competitio­n that has been billed as a four-way battle for two spots, Pérez's veteran stature and defensive acumen stand out among a group that otherwise includes fewer than 1,000 combined major-league at-bats and question marks across the board regarding their receiving ability.

“Look,” manager Gabe Kapler said recently, “we don't have Buster Posey on our roster. We don't have J.T. Realmuto on our roster. So we're going to have to figure out what combinatio­n of catchers is best for our pitching staff . ...

“Roberto, his health and his physicalit­y are what needs the most focus for us right now. So those things are the things (we're looking for) from a really high quality, very experience­d game caller and defensive catcher.”

In his last fully healthy season, in 2019, Pérez was rated the fifth-best catcher at framing strikes (at plus-12, five runs of value better than Posey) and won his first Gold Glove. His season, according to Defensive Runs Saved, was the best by a catcher defensivel­y since the metric was introduced in 2003. He was so good, or his reputation so strong, at least, that he was awarded another Gold Glove in 2020, despite playing in hardly half of the shortened 60-game schedule because of a strained throwing shoulder.

Since then, Pérez has dealt with a fractured finger, inflammati­on in the same shoulder and, last year, a torn hamstring he suffered running the bases. He has been limited to 97 of a possible 384 games over the past three seasons. But, he said, “right now, I'm 100 percent.”

“I'm not young anymore,” Pérez said. “The number one priority is my health. I've been hurt a couple of years in a row, so I'm doing anything I can to stay healthy and help the team in any possible way.”

So far, so good as the Giants enter the final days of spring training.

Starter Alex Cobb described Pérez as a “magician” when it comes to framing pitches.

“I tell the coaching staff he's gonna get me tossed from a game because he makes things look so good,” said Cobb, whose sinker-curveball-splitter offerings especially benefit from Pérez's ability to pull the ball into the strike zone.

Jakob Junis watched Pérez's work in Cleveland from the opposing dugout with Kansas City from 2017-20. He raved about his ability to manage a pitching staff, even invoking the highest possible praise for a defensive-minded catcher: a comparison to Yadier Molina.

“It was like Yadi back there,” Junis said. “He was very under control. I felt like anything he was putting down, the Cleveland pitchers were just like, `yes.' Total conviction.”

Reliever John Brebbia also brought up Molina, only with the perspectiv­e of actually having pitched to him in St. Louis. Pérez's smooth, late set-up is something Brebbia had only seen from the Cardinals' nine-time Gold Glover.

“He just has what I would call that classic, experience­d catcher receiving,” Brebbia said. “Soft hands. Everything's really smooth.”

A presence such as Pérez's can be even more valuable when he is surrounded by two young catchers, Joey Bart and Blake Sabol, and another, Austin Wynns, who has never found a permanent job in the majors.

New addition Ross Stripling experience­d a similar dynamic last season in Toronto, with rookie backstops Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno.

With Pérez, Stripling said, “You can just tell he's a pro, he's been around and he knows what he's doing.”

 ?? PHOTO BY JOHN MEDINA ?? Roberto Perez, who won two Gold Gloves with the Cleveland, is trying to make the Giants roster this season.
PHOTO BY JOHN MEDINA Roberto Perez, who won two Gold Gloves with the Cleveland, is trying to make the Giants roster this season.

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