Here are Oliver Perez’ average fastball and slider velocities in the majors from 2002-2012, according to BIS data from FanGraphs:*
Notice anything? As you’ll recall, 2004 was the last—and really, the only—season in which Perez was a great pitcher. He led the NL in strikeout rate, kept his walk rate more or less under control, and came as close to 200 innings as he ever has. Not only did he throw the best he ever has and the most he ever has, he also threw the hardest he ever has. Until now.
When we last saw Perez in the big leagues, in 2010, he looked like he had nothing left. His heater averaged under 88 mph even after a move to the bullpen, and he walked more men than he struck out. By the time spring training started in 2011, the situation had worsened: he could barely top 80. The Mets released him toward the end of camp, with $12 million remaining on his contract. The Nationals picked him up two days later, and he spent the season on and off the disabled list with Double-A Harrisburg. In Baseball Prospectus 2012, we said:
Signing with the Nats after getting released by the Mets in March might have seemed like a good idea for Oliver Perez, but an attempt at a mechanical makeover was hampered by a midseason lat injury.
Shortly after the book went to print, Seattle signed Perez, and it’s the Mariners who might be reaping the rewards of that makeover. After five games and 6 1/3 innings, Perez looks like a pitcher again. He’s struck out six and walked only two. While the sample size is much too small to tell us anything about his control—he walked 19 in 31 innings in the PCL, so it’s not as if he knows where the zone is—it’s not too small to tell us something about his stuff.
When Perez was called up from Triple-A Tacoma, the Seattle Times reported that Perez had “considered retiring before finding his fastball in the Mexican Winter League.” “I started working hard,” Perez said. “My velocity is back, and that’s got me very excited.” The numbers bear out his story. Consider the contrast between his 2010 and 2011 stats for the Tomateros de Culiacan:
Granted, the first line belongs to a part-time starter, and the second line belongs to a LOOGY. Still, only the second one looks like something you’d want to see anywhere near a major-league mound.
We don’t know where Perez’ fastball went, and we don’t know why it’s back. Maybe he’s finally fully recovered from the knee surgery he had in August of 2009. Maybe he owes his resurgence to the mechanical changes Rob Castellano pointed out over at Amazin’ Avenue: Perez appears to have altered his posture, and he’s throwing from a higher arm slot. Regardless, he’s only 30 years old, and we know all about the life expectancy of lefty relievers.
Don’t be fooled by that familiar velocity: this isn’t the same Perez we saw on the Pirates. The latter-day edition reaches those speeds only in short bursts. Still, the fact that he’s reaching those speeds under any circumstances is something we couldn’t have seen coming. Perez has always been able to get lefties out, and now he has his stuff back. Maybe this is the last gasp of a fast-fading career. But it might just be the beginning of a sustainable second act.
*Normally, we’d reference the PITCHf/x values from Brooks Baseball, but they don’t go back beyond 2007, and in this case, I wanted to cover Perez’ entire career. What’s more, the 2012 values are almost identical: Brooks has Perez’ lost-and-found fastball and slider at 93.4 and 80.4, respectively.
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