After very cleverly acquiring Oliver Perez's incredible upside for next to nothing last summer, Mets GM Omar Minaya is now banking on it after the hot-stove pitching market underwent a dramatic inflationary spike.
Turning Perez from icing to cake is risky to the extent that many rational observers consider the very idea half-baked. But is it unreasonable to think that Perez could not only provide innings as a starter, but innings of high enough quality to positively impact the Mets' '07 fortunes?
Perez is one of the most tantalizing players in baseball. But "tantalizing" in March quickly becomes "frustrating" in May, when the games count and negative trends suddenly seem intractable.
The numbers on Perez are mostly negative, especially on the surface and most recently: 5.85 ERA in '05, 6.55 ERA in '06 and even a 6.38 ERA in seven starts for New York. Heck, he even had a 6.05 ERA last summer in four starts for AAA Norfolk in a pitcher's league and stadium.
Is there anything to be excited about other than the Game 7 start in the NLCS, which cynics coldly say was saved only by the greatest, home-run robbing catch in postseason history?
To find cause for optimism in Perez' recent past does take some forensic work. The 96-mph fastball pops out at you, of course. And Perez did strike out more than a batter per inning, with more than twice as many Ks as walks, in 36.7 regular-season innings as a Met. It's very hard not to succeed as a lefty with that kind of dominance. But that's what allowing 1.65 homers per nine inning will do every time.
Average pitchers give up a home run on about 10 percent of flyballs. Perez last year for the Mets was at 16.5 percent. That's a rate not likely to be repeated over a larger sample size given how difficult it is for righties to hit homers at Shea (lefties hit three homers versus Perez last year).
It would be easier to argue that the homers allowed by Perez as a Met were a fluke if they weren't such a significant part of his bad recent history: 36 homers allowed in his last 179 innings as a Pirate.
But if it's so easy to hit homers versus Perez, why does he strike out so many guys? His slider/slurve is so good that he maintained decent K-rates even when his fastball mysteriously dropped down to the mid-to-high 80s as a Pirate (causing many to surmise that he was covering up significant arm woes). With the Mets, the fastball clearly returned, consistently being clocked in the low-to-mid 90s with enough high 90s readings to arch anyone's eyebrows. The change-up is still developing, but flashes promise like almost everything else about Perez.
But it's not just homers that Perez gives up. He's very hittable otherwise, too, allowing more than a hit per inning despite the good K-rate post-2004. You can blame the Pirates' crummy defense for most of that, but the Mets defense was well above average in turning balls hit into play into outs and Perez allowed more than a hit per inning for them, too.
Of course, Perez had it all working in 2004. And that's what the half-full crowd sees: the sub-3.00 ERA, the 239 Ks in 196 innings (81 walks) - most of this before his turning 23 in August of that year.
Perez has long been precocious. At age 13, he was pitching professionally in his native Mexico. By 20 he was in the majors, throwing pitches from many angles almost like a young El Duque. The Padres wanted him to find a consistent arm slot and he resisted, the first of many encounters with coaches where he could be fairly be described as stubborn. After being shipped off to Pittsburgh, Perez blossomed and then struggled mightily with homers and walks, moving through multiple pitching coaches and never recapturing his 2004 form for more than fleeting moments. But both his velocity and control returned to about 2004 levels with the Mets, though the results were clearly lacking.
The optimists are far from cock-eyed in light of these radar readings. How can you not be excited by a 25-year-old lefty who hits 96 MPH? Remember, those bad Pirates stats were marked by a dramatic, unexplained decrease in velocity. So, it's reasonable to say those stats are rendered largely irrelevant if all or at least most of this lost velocity has returned (Perez reportedly touched 98 MPH on occasion in 2004).
Remember, too, that 2004 happened for Perez. It's real, not a projection. As my colleague Ron Shandler is noted for saying, when a player reaches a level of performance he owns it and can recapture it again at any time unless hampered by age or injury, which currently are not factors in assessing Perez' prospects.
Perez' 2004 caused hitters to compare him to Randy Johnson in his prime. He ended that year viewed by many as a lefty as intriguing as Johan Santana, who is two years older than Perez. Of course, since then, the fortunes of Santana and Perez have greatly diverged. Yet Perez' 2004 was nearly as impressive as Santana's if you factor in their respective ages at the time.
How Perez' velocity returned and whether this return is sustainable are reasonable questions. But Rick Peterson has had a solid track record of success with pitchers despite the flack he's taken locally for his reported prediction that he could turn Victor Zambrano around in "10 minutes." Of course, that didn't work out. But now we know that Zambrano was hiding a significant elbow injury from the moment he arrived at Shea. Give Peterson a pass there and his record as a pitching coach is sterling. He even similarly helped ancient Roberto Hernandez gain at least six MPH on his fastball in 2004. No pitcher has performed worse with Peterson than without him, which says a lot. He clearly knows what he's doing. But Perez is his biggest challenge to date.
So how do we project Perez? Bill James gives him a 5.03 ERA in 111 innings (117 Ks and 63 walks). My friends at Baseball Prospectus project a 4.60 ERA in 97 innings (92 Ks, 52 walks). Mets fans aren't going to like those projections and I don't like them either not because they're negative but because they split the difference. Maybe that's where the probability lies with every player in an abstract statistical sense. But I don't see much room for compromise in Perez. If he's throwing in the mid-90s consistently, he's going to be much, much better than these projections and a reasonable approximation of what he was in 2004.
If he's in the unable to break 90 MPH with his fastball, that means his arm is hurt and/or his mechanics are all screwed up. Then, his ERA will be six-ish instead of five-ish and he'll be a candidate to be designated for assignment, as he's out of minor-league options.
Perhaps Perez's velocity will fluctuate wildly from start to start, but that's rare for the broad population of pitchers. And it's unlikely to be the case for Perez. Given that Perez recaptured his velocity after just a few weeks with the Mets coaches while dramatically improving his control, I think it is reasonable to expect him to greatly exceed the expectations reflected in these published projections. Adjusting for park factors and defense (Willie Randolph would be wise to start Endy Chavez every time the fly-ball prone Perez pitches), I'll put the over/under on a 4-ish ERA in 180 innings with about a strikeout per inning and half as many walks.
That may seem heady, but it's far from a unique view. While it's always best to judge others on their actions rather than mere words, this is a case where inaction speaks loudly. Looking within to fortify his Pedro-less rotation indicates that Minaya also believes that Perez has a reasonable chance to recapture past glory in the very near future.