On July 24, in what amounted to my FanGraphs debut, I wrote in so many words that Matt Harrison is – and I quote – “back.” Well, he’s back, all right – back on the disabled list, not only with stiffness in the surgically repaired back that kept him sidelined for the better – or, really, worse – part of two years but also with a diagnosis of hypothyroidism.
As I wrote in so many words: mercy.
If that weren’t enough turn the aftermath of his six shutout innings against Colorado into something less than celebratory, the veteran left-hander also finds himself with a new franchise, the Phillies, after being traded with five prospects in the deal that brought starter Cole Hamels, with reliever Jake Diekman, to his former team, the Rangers.
A lot can happen in one week. It’s not just Genesis that says so.
It is with this theme in mind that we examine the similarly dramatic return, and more compelling masterpiece, of Harrison’s now-former teammate, southpaw Martin Perez. On Sunday, in his fourth start since returning from a 14-month layoff following Tommy John surgery, the 24-year-old Venezuelan kept the National League’s second-best offense off the bases until Texas second baseman Rougned Odor’s error with two outs in the fifth inning put the Giants’ Brandon Belt on first base. An infield single by the next batter, Justin Maxwell, spoiled Perez’ early-stage bid for a no-hitter, but with low-90s heat and a mid-80s changeup on a 95-degree afternoon, Perez went on to retire the next 10 batters before allowing an Angel Pagan double with one out in the ninth and giving way to Diekman.
On the day, Perez would allow one earned run – Pagan would score on a bases-loaded single off reliever Sam Dyson – in 8.1 innings of two-hit, no-walk work, an 80-pitch effort made all the more impressive in that Perez had allowed eight earned runs in one inning against the Yankees just five days earlier.
Yep, a lot can happen in one week.
One of the amazing things about sports, and baseball in particular, is not only how dramatically a game can turn on a butterfly-effect bounce or a chaos-theory throw but also how radically different a pair of consecutive performances can be. More common than Vander Meer’s no-hitters, and by a long shot, are the sorts of stinker/masterpiece sequences that Harrison and Perez turned in, Harrison having staged the surprise of his shutout effort against the Rockies with a four-inning, six-run clunker against the D-backs.
But how, one might ask, as one most assuredly should, does this even happen? How, when an athlete has converted luck-of-the-draw DNA and movie-montage work into a place in the sport’s highest echelon, can his performance vary so widely that on one day he’s the target of fantasy-league scorn and on another the recipient of league-wide praise?
Inconstancies of performance can be hard to decode. Given the need for extemporaneous analysis, broadcasters often mistake an effect for a cause, telling viewers that a pitcher “just isn’t keeping the ball down” when the viewer thinking is, “Yeah, buddy, I see that, but why isn’t he keeping the ball down?” Sometimes the only answers are in your weekend golf game: On Saturday you hit your drives right down the middle — Golf is easy!
But on Sunday? Ouch. Duck-hook city, man.
The mystery is always the why Why WHHHYYYYYYYYY?
Therein lies the answer: No matter who you are, the question is yours to consider.
Like you, only with more time and money, the pro can turn both inward and outward for help. Perez later explained that after some reflection, plus some consultation with his catcher, Chris Gimenez, and his pitching coach, Mike Maddux, he made two small but significant changes to his approach. One was physical and one…well, let’s call it emotional. He took a deep breath before every pitch – not through the eyelids, mind you, but with the sort of Savoyesque deliberation that can calm a pitcher who often gets over-excited and whose otherwise outstanding changeup can flatten if he throws too hard – and stood more upright on the mound in efforts to better align his body with home plate.
“I slowed my emotions,” he told reporters, “but not the timing of the game.”
Thus did Perez deliver his pitches unto good ol’ chaos theory: a small change in initial conditions yielded a big-time changeup … and sinker … and four-seamer. Note that in both starts – the clunker against the Yankees and the masterpiece against the Giants – Perez generally kept the ball low in the zone. But low doesn’t always mean effective; poised with a Louisville Slugger and prepared to do damage is another pro who is constantly tweaking his own expertise. The pitch has got to move. This isn’t golf.
Here’s his zone plot vs. the Yankees.
And vs. the Giants.
Note, too, that in Perez’ start against San Francisco, unlike his start against New York, his pitches, perhaps like your drives, showed a lot more zig and zag.
Here’s his movement vs. the Yankees.
And vs. the Giants.
The difference in your game and his is that this sort of movement is precisely what he wanted, and precisely what he will hope to feature in his next start. Will he? Who knows. Results, especially for a guy coming off major surgery, arrive as if on a scalpel’s margin.
John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.