By Mike Steffanos
Oliver Perez began his pro career in the San Diego Padres' system after signing as an amateur free agent in 1999. The 17-year-old was widely considered to be the hottest pitching prospect from Mexico since Fernando Valenzuela. He moved rapidly through the system, and made his pro debut with the Padres as a 20-year-old in 2002. Although he had high walk and home run numbers, the league only batted .218 against him, and he was marked as a star on the rise. He struggled early in 2003, however, and spent some time in AAA before returning to the big club, where he continued to be erratic.
In August of that year, San Diego traded Perez to the Pirates for Brian Giles. Perez continued to look unhittable at times and completely lost at others. His mechanics were a mess, and Pirates pitching coach Spin Williams worked with him extensively in the spring of 2004, completely overhauling his delivery. The result was a magical season for the young lefthander, including a sub-3.00 ERA and a strikeout rate of almost 11 per 9 innings, which placed him in the top 10 of all time in that category, while cutting his walks under 4 per nine innings. He looked like a candidate for a Cy Young before he turned 25.
Here is the scouting report on Perez from Stats Inc. heading into the 2005 season:
Perez can often be dominating with his power arsenal. He can throw his fastball as high as 97 MPH, though it is usually sits in the 90-94 MPH range. Perez has two kinds of sliders, one with a sharp late break against righthanded hitters and another that sweeps and eats up lefties. His changeup is developing, but he is erratic with the pitch at this stage of his career. Perez is still prone to walking people, but his command improved dramatically last season after pitching coach Spin Williams completely overhauled his mechanics in spring training. Perez is fragile looking with thin legs but has good stamina and keeps his stuff deep into games.
Unfortunately, inconsistency returned in 2005, as his numbers declined dramatically in all categories. Perez resisted efforts by the Pirates to stop going for so many strikeouts and pitch deeper into games. He was immature and let his temper get the best of him at times. He went on the disabled list in June after losing a battle with his temper and a laundry cart. He only pitched just over 100 innings for the Pirates that season, and looked forward to 2006 to reclaim his place as one of the premier young pitchers in the game.
Things went from bad to worse for Perez in 2006. His velocity was down and his futility earned him a demotion to Triple-A, where things did not improve. He came to the Mets along with Roberto Hernandez in exchange for Xavier Nady at the trading deadline as an acknowledged project and, after a session with Rick Peterson, was sent to AAA-Norfolk to start working out the kinks. Some tweaks were made to his mechanics, but there were no illusions of a quick fix.
Perez came back up to New York in that endless conga line of starting pitchers in late August. The velocity was back, and he tantalized at times, although the inconsistency was ever present. The highlight was a complete-game shutout against the Braves in early September, but that was followed by 3 fairly bad efforts to close out the regular season. Perez was left off the roster for the Division Series against LA, but returned to be surprisingly effective in the NLCS against the Cardinals -- particularly in the deciding seventh game.
Here are his major league numbers since his 2002 debut:
|Major League Stats -- Oliver Perez|
So what to make of Oliver Perez? The opinions run the gamut from a return to top of the rotation form all the way down to complete bust. The ultimate answer is up to Ollie, and will begin to play itself out in St. Lucie in February. There really isn't much of a clue in the numbers from last year -- even the bare stats from the League Championship Series don't do justice to the absolutely fearless young pitcher who gave the Mets everything they could possibly hope for in those October battles. The inconsistency was there right to the end, commingled with the promise that practically oozed out of that electric left arm.
I don't care whether you're an absolute genius with Sabermetrics or a guy who has been watching baseball forever like me, I don't believe there is any way to predict with certainty what Perez might do next year. Those who like the kid, me included, will point to the poise and fearlessness of his playoff performances, and rave about the live fastball and Steve Carlton-esque slider. We like the fact that he cut down on his walks as the year went on. Skeptics will scoff and point to an ERA above 6 and the continued high home run rates, which point to the lack of command and consistency that plagued him right up to the moment when Endy Chavez bailed him out with that amazing catch. The arguments for both sides are too numerous to pretend that anyone knows exactly what Perez will be in 2007.
As someone who tends to the optimistic view, I look at Perez as a 25-year-old who is ready to take the next step. First, there are the positive changes in his mechanics, as pointed out in this terrific study from Baseball Think Factory back in September. Remember that is was mechanical adjustments that led to his great 2004 season. A full spring with Professor Rick should help Perez find the consistency that will enable him to pitch ahead of more hitters and also cut down on poorly-located gopher balls.
Second, I think that the simple fact that he will be more than two seasons removed from that magical season in 2004 is a positive. I honestly believe that too much success too soon became somewhat of an Albatross around the scrawny neck of Oliver Perez. He was still trying to live up to that season when what he really needed to do was chill out and start over. After a debacle of a 2006 that included a demotion to Triple-A where he continued to perform poorly, I think he's beyond trying to be the young phenom he was. The weight of high expectations aren't really there anymore, and with Peterson and a veteran staff of mentors that includes Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez, Perez would seem to be in a very good situation to turn the page and get the most out of his amazing talent.
Third, if there is one thing that Perez has proved in his brief time here, it's that he has absolutely no fear, and enjoys the spotlight. For all of his mechanical flaws, he looks like a guy that was born to be a major league starting pitcher. It's rare that it would actually be preferable for a young pitcher to be in the glare of New York rather than the relative tranquility of Pittsburgh, but I honestly feel that's the case here. He's no longer looked on as the ace of the staff, and has the previously mentioned veterans for mentors. The negatives of the big city -- the demands of the fans demands and a larger and less friendly media -- don't seem to be the kind of things that get to him.
Also, although I understand why the Pirates tried to get him to cut down on his effort to last deeper into games, the more restrained style just didn't seem to suit his personality. He has the psyche of a power pitcher, and any tweaks to his style and mechanics need to take that into account. One thing that Rick Peterson has impressed me with in his time here is that ability to understand what makes a pitcher tick and work from there.
For all of the above reasons, I find myself very positive on Oliver Perez. I certainly acknowledge the possibility that he could be a bust here, but I really do think he'll be okay. Moreover, I hope he succeeds, because as a fan I have a soft spot for the Ollies of the world -- the players with the little bit extra dose of quirkiness and personality. I like the hop over the baseline and the extra bit of fire. I enjoy the way he makes me chuckle when he makes a hitter look really, really bad when he throws one of those really good sliders.
For as deeply as I want my team to win, I also enjoy watching the age-old story play out of the kid who has tremendous talent but doesn't understand quite what to do with it. Baseball is littered with the stories of young pitchers who took a while to put it together. Unfortunately, there are even more stories about guys like that who never quite could. Nevertheless, that's the fun of it -- the risk vs. reward aspect of Ollie Perez.
I've heard some opinions Perez could wind up being what Scott Kazmir should have been here -- the top of the rotation lefthander for the next several years. As for me, all I really need for him to be is Oliver Perez and I'll just sit back and enjoy the show. As for what I expect in 2007, the aforementioned optimism leads to the same expectations I have for John Maine: double-figures in wins and steady improvement over the season. I foresee a rough ride at times, but some really special stuff mixed in, too.
2007 Starting Rotation Previews:
Oliver Perez (This Article)
Rotation Preview Conclusions
2007 Pitching Previews: Summing It All Up