There have been a lot of surprising developments in baseball this year — the Pirates and Orioles are contenders, Carlos Ruiz is an MVP candidate, and Josh Reddick is among the Major League lead in home runs. Baseball is really good at constantly surprising us with things that you just couldn’t have predicted.
But, even by the unpredictable standards of MLB, there’s probably nothing more shocking than the ongoing career rebirth of Oliver Perez. Perez was last seen in the Majors in 2010 with the Mets, falling apart in year two of an ill-fated extension granted to him by Omar Minaya. In the first two years of that three year deal, he issued 100 walks in 110 innings pitched, and was so bad that he didn’t even get to stick around for the final year of the contract. Perez ended up spending 2011 in Double-A Harrisburg, the Nationals affiliate in the Eastern League, and he wasn’t even particularly good there.
Coming into the year, Perez was a 30-year-old washout who had essentially been laughed out of the big leagues and then struggled to get 22-year-olds out in a level two steps below the Majors. There was just no reason to think we’d ever see Oliver Perez in the Majors again.
So, when the Mariners signed him to a minor league contract back in January, no one really noticed. Perez received an invitation to spring training as part of the deal, but he was predictably awful in Peoria, giving up eight runs in four innings, and got shipped off to Tacoma to toil in the PCL. The Mariners had no interest in him as a starter, so he had to try and make it back to the big leagues as a left-handed reliever, a role he’d never really tried before. Even when the Mets shifted him to the bullpen in 2010, they used him more as a long reliever, and the goal was to get him sorted out so he could rejoin the rotation.
Getting used for short stints for the first time in his career, Perez has found new life. He credits his renewed efforts to the birth of his daughter over the winter and the health of his knee, which has allowed him to find his fastball again. In 2010, Perez’s average velocity was 88 mph; this year’s, it’s 93.8. For those who enjoy pictures, here’s Perez’s PITCHF/x plot from 2010, and then that same plot from 2012.
The fastball was 87-91, and he threw some that had cutter-like movement but weren’t particularly good. He also had to keep up his change-up to try and get the steady string of right-handed hitters out. Now, its 92-96, the change-up is gone, he’s re-invented himself as a fastball/slider reliever, and the results have been fantastic.
In 13 innings, Perez has thrown 207 pitches, and 149 (72%) of those have been strikes. To put that in perspective, only Koji Uehara (74%) has a higher rate of strike throwing this year, and the list of guys over 70% strikes include the likes of Cliff Lee and Bartolo Colon. Yes, it’s a tiny sample, but since Perez arrived in Seattle, he’s been pounding the zone like a hard-throwing relief version of Cliff Lee.
Velocity and command are a pretty nice combination, so no surprise, Perez is actually pitching well for Seattle. With a 7.1% BB% and 25.0% K%, Perez can still be effective even with his extreme fly ball tendencies, especially as a match-up left-hander. There just aren’t many lefty relievers in baseball throwing 95 with command.
Given Perez’s history, it’s certainly possible that he reverts back to his prior walk-the-world ways, as 13 innings is far too early to declare that this version of Perez is here to stay. But the velocity jump is real and we’ve seen pitchers make huge leaps in performance when shifting to the bullpen before, so this wouldn’t be the first radical transformation we’ve seen from a guy after making a move to the bullpen.
Is Oliver Perez the new Joe Nathan? Probably not. However, the fact that he’s reemerged as a quality reliever with a good fastball and the ability to throw strikes is amazing enough in and of itself. If Perez can stay healthy, he may yet have a second career as a left-handed reliever, and if he can keep this strike-throwing thing up, he may actually turn into one of the better left-on-left pitchers in baseball.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.