Salvador Perez's personal experience of the 2014 season was akin to wandering into a time machine and going back 40 or 50 years. The 24-year-old Royals backstop started 143 games at catcher, the most in the majors, was a defensive replacement in three more, and then added another 15 starts in the postseason. That total of 158 starts was the most by any catcher in at least a century and represented the kind of workload that was a regular occurrence for players such as Johnny Bench, but that teams have largely decided is not in their best interests.
Ned Yost and pals can't be faulted for riding Perez hard. The playoffs last four rounds nowadays, and you're not going to start Erik Kratz in a key game if you can help it. What makes the whole thing curious is the team's consent or acquiescence in the matter of Perez going off to Japan with a team of all-stars to catch yet more games. With two more games caught and the possibility of five more to come, Perez is on the verge of going where no major league catcher has gone before. In 1968, Randy Hundley of the Cubs started 156 games for the Cubs and entered late in four other contests for a total of 160 games played. Assuming each player had a like number of spring training squats, Perez may finish his tour of the Pacific Rim as the catcher to have put the most mileage on his odometer in a single year.
The funny thing is it may not matter, at least, not in the near term.
This is a movie we've seen before, at a time when baseball culture got weird in terms of tacitly attaching the appellation "Iron Man" to pitchers and catchers in a more pervasive way than ever before. In the 1960s and '70s, managers decided to test the endurance of pretty much everybody. Starting pitchers were pushed harder than they had since the 1910s:
Relievers began to pitch more than 100 innings a year on a regular basis, climaxing with Mike Marshall's 208⅓-inning Cy Young season of 1974:
And catchers caught a lot of games:
Expansion counts for some of this just in terms of the increased number of players having seasons of every kind, but not all of it. Of the top 30 catchers in career games caught, a third of them began in the 1960s or 1970s. At times, managers seemed to forget they had reserve catchers. The apogee came 1968 with Hundley and Bench; the latter, then 20, started 139 games and came on in relief of other starters in 15 more games.
As you can see from the table above, while more catchers may be in the lineup on a regular basis (catching roughly three-fourths of the season) than ever before, the idea that a team benefits from treating a catcher as if he's Cal Ripken, Jr. seems to have died. From 2000 to present, just one backstop has appeared in 150 games in a season, current Tigers manager Brad Ausmus in 2000 (140 starts, 10 substitutions), while only Jason Kendall played in 140 or more games on a regular basis. Of the 19 140-game seasons by catchers since 2000, seven belonged to Kendall, two to Ausmus, two to Russell Martin. No one else had more than one.
It's hard to say if these catchers suffered from being worked so hard. Most tailed off in their early 30s, but catchers seem to do that regardless of their workload -- the position is wearing even with conservative deployment. Prior to 2000, Ausmus had been a decent hitter by his standards, with a career OPS+ of 86. After, although defense and leadership kept him around until he was 41, the OPS+ dropped to 65. He also turned 32 that year, which means the downturn might have had more to do with his reaching the catcher sell-by date. Kendall's bat withered when he was 30.
Even the cumulative workload only means so much. By their 24th year, Ivan Rodriguez and Butch Wynegar, who both became major league regulars at 20, had caught roughly 700 games. Both kept rolling after that. Bench and Ted Simmons, also high up on the by-24 list, had plenty of good baseball left in them. Taking things from the beginning of Bench's career on, only nine catchers had caught more career games than Perez at the same age, but none of them really flatlined at that point either, Kendall being the possible exception, a year or so on.
So it's hard to generalize, and in the end it might be best to treat Perez as an individual having a uniquely worrisome season, though one he might not pay for until a few years from now, and even then we won't know for sure if it was this year that brought on his decline or simply the unnatural, wearing act of catching. But there is, perhaps, a clue in Perez's second half, when he slumped to .229/.236/.360 and "admitted" that the five days off between the end of the ALCS and the World Series helped him.
Maybe that's the proverbial catcher-canary in the coal mine. Just because managers have tried and failed to break catchers with heavy workloads before doesn't mean that Perez can't be the first. From the start of his major league career until the end of June, Perez had hit .298/.332/.452 in more than 1200 plate-appearances. Maybe he was tired in the second half, maybe unlucky. Perhaps pitchers figured out how to exploit his lack of patience and used his ability to make contact against him.
The only thing certain is that something went wrong. A few more days off might not have helped that, but they certainly wouldn't have hurt. Perez doesn't want that day off, saying, "I love to play. I love to catch every day. I know I need to rest now and again but I hate when I'm not playing." That kind of exuberance is great, but the Royals owe it to Perez and themselves to check it from time to time. They've already embarked on an experiment, regular season-postseason-Japan, that would seem to have little upside for the long-term competitiveness of the franchise or the value of the player in question.