On Monday, Salvador Perez launched his 46th home run of the year, breaking a 51-year-old record set by Johnny Bench for the most homers hit by a catcher. It’s a remarkable feat, and yet, folks on Twitter have tried to “Well, actually” Perez’s accomplishment by pointing out that Salvy has only hit 31 of his homers while in the lineup as a catcher. The other 15 have come while Perez was the Royals’ designated hitter.
What Salvy has done is amazing and absolutely worth celebrating.— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) September 20, 2021
With that said, it is worth emphasizing that he has hit "only" 31 HR while actually in the lineup as a catcher this year, which is tied for 21st all time and not close to Javy Lopez's record of 42.
I’m going to single out Andrew Simon here because (A) I’m 99.9 percent sure he’s not going to read this, and (B) his tweet was the least egregious. At least Simon pointed out that if we’re going to be pedantic about this, the record for home runs as a catcher is held by Javy López, not Bench. Bench’s record was for most home runs hit by a player whose primary position is catcher (75 percent of games).
But is this, as Simon says, worth emphasizing? Simon’s tweet implies that by crowning Perez the home run king of catchers, we’re ignoring some important context. Perez has the advantage of playing for an American League team and having the option of filling in as the designated hitter when he’s not catching. Perez isn’t a great defender, so one can say it’s preferable to write a “DH” next to his name in the lineup rather than a “C.” He’s not an everyday catcher; he’s a catcher and a DH. Without those plate appearances as a DH, he would have fallen well short of Johnny Bench who had to get his extra plate appearances by playing first, third, and all three outfield positions.
Okay, sure. But that argument is also ignoring important context. Here’s the leaderboard for games started at catcher this year.
Games Started at Catcher
Hmm. It appears that Salvador Perez has started more games at catcher than any other player this year. It’s almost as if teams realize that playing catcher every single day is detrimental to a player’s health and production, so no one starts more than 125 games at catcher every year. Even in 2003 when Lopez hit 42 as a catcher, there were eight players to start more than 125 games behind home plate.* It’s like the role of catcher has changed in the last 51 years, and it’s incredibly valuable if a player can find other ways to work himself into the lineup when he’s not in the squat. If Perez isn’t a catcher then no one is.
*Interestingly, Javy Lopez was not one of them. Lopez only started 114 games at catcher, and still managed to hit 42 homers. Impressive!
That Salvador Perez got 35 starts as a designated hitter shouldn’t be a knock against him. He’s not getting those plate appearances because he’s a bad defender. He’s getting them because he’s a great hitter.
Counting stat records are always going to be influenced by external variables and advantages. Barry Bonds (and Mark McGwire before him) broke the single-season home run record because Bud Selig turned a blind eye to steroid use. Roger Maris broke it because he got to play in a 162-game season. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs against all-white competition.
If Perez and Bench Freaky Friday’d and Salvy played for the 1970 Reds and Bench played for the 2021 Royals, I’d imagine the records get swapped. Perez gets fewer plate appearances without the DH while Bench gets more and he doesn’t have to start as often at catcher. But in this reality, Perez has hit 46 home runs while playing 75 percent of his games at catcher. Bench hit 45 under that same criteria. That’s good enough for Johnny Bench to pass the title.
And if it’s good enough for Johnny Bench, it’s good enough for me.