“..there isn’t any reason to expect anything from (Oliver) Perez in 2012″- Me, January 18th 2012.
I don’t want to go into too much detail into the Oliver Perez story because I already have and Geoff Baker wrote a very good story on him earlier this week, but there really was no reason to believe that Perez would help the Mariners this year back in February. Yet, helping the team is exactly what the 30 year old left-hander has done. Since being promoted, Perez has a 50 ERA-/75 FIP- in 28.1 innings, which is very good (100 is league average).
However, his strikeout rate has only been about league average at 20.5%. His walk rate is a little bit high as well, at 8.6%. So what exactly Perez being effective at? I wanted to look at batted ball distance and see if Perez is doing a good job of limiting hard contact. For his career, the average ball off the bat (all of these are non bunts) is 263.316, which if you recall, is worse than Josh Kinney’s. This year, it is 253.301, 10 feet of difference on average. Of course, numbers usually mean very little without comparison, so how does he stack up against some other notable pitchers? Pretty well actually:
Tom Wilhelmsen: Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 251.751
R.A. Dickey (since 2010): Pitcher Batted Ball Distance with and average distance of 251.334
Matt Cain: 262.286
Cole Hamels: 257.705
So he is better (or at least has been this year) than Matt Cain (someone who has baffled defensive independent metrics) and Cole Hamels at limiting strong contact and slightly worse than Tom Wilhelmsen and R.A. Dickey (knuckleballers are somewhat known for being DIPs independent, and getting a lot of weak contact). I am not making the argument that Perez is a pitcher that will defy defensive metrics (there simply aren’t many, and most of them have to do with ballpark or defense), but he is doing a good job this year of not giving up hard contact and perhaps most importantly, homers. Perez’ average distance on balls in play (34 or more than half of the balls he has allowed in play) is in the 190-280 feet range. This shows how few grounders he has been getting, but the fly-balls he is giving up aren’t going very far.
Most of this seems to be because of velocity return. After his velocity absolutely disappeared with the Mets, he is averaging 94.50 MPH on his fastball (and 93.64 MPH on his sinker) this season. Only 12 lefties in the Majors (not counting Perez) have thrown at least 20 innings in 2012 with at least an average of 94 MPH on their fastball. That is less than 1 per half the teams in the Majors. So that is a valuable commodity.
Here is how much his fastball has improved:
It is not just his fastball that has seen improvement, his slider is harder as well.
He is almost a LOOGY as, in the small sample size we have him in the Majors so far this year, he has been much more effective against lefties than righties by the defensive independent metrics. While he has been adequate against righties (3.89 FIP), he has been pretty dominant against lefties (his slash line against them is very unimpressive and worse than his slash line against righties, but that is almost certainly because of BABIP and small sample size). His homer that he allowed was against a righty. In AAA, he was dominant against lefties (2.14 SIERA, 2.40 FIP) and downright terrible against right-handed hitters (5.28 FIP, 4.31 SIERA). He simply does not get ground-balls from right-handed hitters, and that will make his splits widen as the sample size gets larger.
One of the reasons for this is that his slider does a good job of clustering on the low and away corner against lefties. Against righties, for whatever reason (perhaps he is afraid that low and in to righties with the slider would not be a good idea. Maybe not), they are much more inconsistent. Instead, he is throwing a lot right down the middle, which is a problem obviously. It seems like (at least according to the 2008 heat map) that the slider was something he used to go to a lot to righties (but still had the same problem).
The problem of the slider staying in the middle of the plate against righties seems to always have been a problem.
For whatever reason, he doesn’t have the same problem against lefties. I have no idea why, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but it’s there. The location is worse against righties, so it is just going to be worse against righties. This means he will have to rely on his fastball/sinker to get righties out, and the lack of an effective breaking pitch will cause his platoon splits to be pretty high most likely.
The lack of ground-balls (he has always been a fly-ball pitcher, but when things were going well he was racking up a ton of strikeouts) and a decent but not great strikeout rate (especially paired with the walks) is concerning. Even with the good strikeout rate, he didn’t have much success in the PCL this year because of the tendency for fly-balls to simply fly out of the park in a very hitter friendly league. The Mariners do play in Safeco, so if this is still a problem for Perez, the home park can mask that. He isn’t a junk baller that is only looking good because of the home park, so it isn’t that he has no value as a Safeco baby. Perez has an expected OPS of balls off the bat of .942, adjusted to .810 if you consider getting infield pop-ups a skill (since they are basically an automatic out unless the infielder drops it, which has nothing to do with the pitcher obviously). Once you factor in strikeouts and walks, Perez’ xOPS is this season is .754 without factoring in infield pop-ups and .660 xOPS with factoring in infield popups.
The only homer he allowed was on the road and he has actually been better on the road according to FIP (xFIP has him slightly better at home). Even with the decent strikeout rate versus bad ground-ball rate and slightly high walk rate, he seems to be a decent to solid reliever, hinging somewhat on how you view infield pop-up predictability. A quick look at the top 10-15 pitchers in infield pop-ups from each of the past years doesn’t look very promising in terms of correlation, but I would love to see more data in that department. It has been something that Perez has been pretty solid at in his career, but has been under this number his whole career excluding 2005 (which was his first terrible year).
Remember that all of the numbers are small sample size, this is why scouting is really important when looking at Perez. When I watch him pitch, I see an above average fastball from a left-hander that comes at a somewhat irregular angle. That fastball has been really effective, as just 13.79% (8 in all) of the fastballs/sinkers put in play off Perez have gone at least 280 feet and none of them have gone at least 370 feet. Basically all the numbers point to Perez being better than Kinney, and all of the scouting tools as well as just the eye test agree. Perez isn’t like Kinney, relying mainly a breaking pitch. He has a legitimate fastball coming from the left side.
So what is Perez worth? He is strictly a reliever, and not even one that is going to pitch in long spurts (less than an inning per appearance this season). He is on the wrong side of 30, even though not by much, and has a history of knee issues and serious control issues. While closers are usually overvalued, situational/platoon relievers are usually undervalued. However, the velocity that Perez has may up his value on the free agent market. As stated before, there is simply not a lot of lefties that throw as hard as he does. I see no way that he takes a minor league contract. He is going to get a guaranteed deal, most likely a 1 year deal, but some guaranteed money. If I were Perez (or his agent), I would be looking for at least a couple million dollars, heavily playing up the idea that I’m left-handed and throw hard. But how far should the Mariners go? First you have to look at the options the Mariners have in house. Of course, Charlie Furbush is better than Perez and will get the bulk of left-handed work. Lucas Luetge was also serviceable this year, but can start in the minors next year and I think Perez is better (96 FIP -, slightly worse than an average reliever). In the minors, Anthony Fernandez may get a fast track to the big leagues as a reliever, but I would much rather seem them wait and try him as a starter as he doesn’t throw very hard (perhaps he could be a cheaper Safeco baby than Jason Vargas). In Tacoma, Brian Moran and Bobby Lafromboise are interesting as LOOGY types with somewhat weird arm angles. Mauricio Robles is on the 40 man roster, but can’t throw a strike to save his life and I don’t think veteran Cesar Jimenez is an option. If one was perhaps really aggressive, they could think about a very fast track for Nate Koneski as he was already a college senior when drafted and impressed (if you look at strikeouts and walks) in short season ball this year, but even this would be a mid-season type solution and only if he dominated at least AA. So the actual substitutes for Perez in the Mariners system are not that good other than a couple of deceptive LOOGYs, one of them already 26 years old. It would seem that Perez could help this team if they bring him back simply because of lack of other options. I fully expect for the Mariners to bring in a couple of lefties on minor league deals, but it would be hard to count on to them to be as productive as Perez.
A lot of this depends on what the Mariners want to do with their payroll and what direction the team believes they are headed and how far they are on that journey. If the Mariners believe that they are somewhat close to be a competitor in the AL West after a season a few games under .500, they may be open to spending more money, and it would make sense to make sure you have as many bullpen options as possible and spend to keep Perez. If they believe they are still a couple of years away (which I believe they are) it may be wise to let Perez walk, and to give the limited options they have in the minors a chance to establish themselves.
I think a reasonable salary for Perez is somewhere between the 2-4 million dollar range. I would not go more than one year (although 1 year with an option/buyout is likely). Essentially, all you would be asking him to be is a 1 win player (for what it is worth, and probably not much, he has a .4 fWAR and .8 rWAR this year with a .5 WARP in his 28.1 innings. If you assume his 31 AAA innings would have been pitched at roughly the same effectiveness, he would be worth roughly 1 win according to these metrics. According to Fangraphs’ WAR dollars, he has already been worth 2 million dollars this year.). Other than the injury risk (with the knee), I don’t think it is fair to look at what Perez did in the Majors as a starter when evaluating him. His walk rate has never been lower, he is throwing a fewer pitches per plate appearance, and has a much higher strike percentage (68%, above league average) than he ever has before. This is a different pitcher, a different Oliver Perez, and he should be evaluated as such.
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