Justin Masterson and the Indians played what many would consider an ideal Opening Day game through the first eight innings Thursday against Toronto. The offense produced a solid four runs off Ricky Romero, Masterson struck out 10 and got another 11 batters to ground out in an eight-inning, one-run masterpiece start, and the Indians carried a 4-1 lead into the ninth. But then they handed the ball to Chris Perez, and things went downhill in a hurry.
The Blue Jays needed just five batters to tie the game against Perez; he would face seven overall, allowing three runs on three hits and two walks, recording just two outs. Let’s take it hitter-by-hitter:
Links lead to Brooks Baseball at-bat pages.
Immediately one thing jumps out: Perez, a supposed flamethrower — one with a 94.3 MPH career average fastball and 93.4 MPH average fastball last season — is barely cracking 90 on the radar gun. His location has always been a bit iffy, and it was here as well — the strike call on the 1-0 pitch was questionable, and even with that gift, he served up a nearly dead-center 91 MPH fastball on the next pitch. Pitchers can get away with that pitch at 95; not so much at 91.
Runner on first, none out: vs. Kelly Johnson
0-0 90 MPH high outside ball
1-0 90 MPH middle outside looking strike
1-1 83 MPH middle middle swinging strike
1-2 82 MPH low outside foul
1-2 92 MPH middle outside foul
1-2 83 MPH middle outside line drive single center field
If Perez’s poor velocity was a result of not taking enough warmup pitchers, it hardly surfaces in his second batter faced. Perez dialed it up to 92 against Johnson and it would be his fastest pitch of the outing. Perez had another gift call here — the 1-0 pitch to Johnson was well outside of the strike zone. The 27-year-old’s curveball appears here and generates the only swing-and-miss of the day for Perez, and surely Johnson wants this pitch back:
Despite gaining the advantage at 1-2, Perez is unable to put Johnson away, and Johnson is a straight-up bad contact hitter — he mustered just a 71.8% contact rate last season. It became apparent that Perez’s stuff simply lacked the oomph — whether it was the break of the breaking ball or the fast of the fastball — to put hitters away. Perez threw nearly the same mistake curveball on the at-bat’s final pitch, and Johnson did not miss it again:
The result: a single to center field and the rally is started.
Perez just doesn’t seem to have much of an idea where the ball is going. The second pitch of the at-bat nearly hits Bautista before Perez serves him up a very hittable low-in-the-zone but down-the-middle pitch which Bautista drives to left. It isn’t deep enough to tie the game, but Bautista hit it well enough not only to score Escobar from third but to move Johnson up from first to second.
Runner on second, one out: vs. Adam Lind
0-0 90 MPH middle inside ball
1-0 90 MPH low outside looking strike
1-1 91 MPH middle outside ball
2-1 82 MPH low inside ball
3-1 92 MPH middle middle looking strike
3-2 90 MPH high outside ball walk
Perez’s control is mostly gone by this point, and Lind seems to pick up on that fact: his bat leaves his shoulder just once on this at-bat, to check his swing on a well out-of-the-zone full count fastball. Although Pitch F/X suggests Perez may have been squeezed on the first pitch, the strikezone against lefties was shifted towards the outside corner all game long (as we saw on the second pitch against Johnson). From there, it was darting in-and-out, low-to-high, and the final pitch of the at-bat missed the zone by about a foot, bringing up the winning run with just one out.
First and second, one out: vs. Edwin Encarnacion
80 MPH high middle ball
91 MPH middle well inside ball
92 MPH middle middle strike looking
91 MPH low outside ball
91 MPH middle inside fly ball left field double off the wall
Perez remains wild, missing badly with his first two pitches. This allows the Jays’ DH to get ahead, and whereas Lind let a 3-1 meatball go by (and Encarnacion let a 1-1 meatball go by), Encarnacion does not hold back on a second opportunity, crushing the 91 MPH middle-in fastball off the left field wall to tie the game. This is not the kind of pitch we expect from an elite reliever, whether it’s speed, movement, location or results:
Perez would muster one more out against Brett Lawrie (despite throwing some more middle-middle mistake pitches) and then walk Eric Thames on four straight before departing. With the velocity never showing up, Perez was a shell of even the pitcher who struggled to miss bats in 2011 (5.6% swinging strike rate). He drew just one whiff in 31 pitches, and on a mistake pitch against a poor contact hitter at that.
This lack of velocity has to be a major concern for the Indians, as never in the last two seasons (and just once before overall) has Perez ever struggled so much to get life on his fastball:
Click to embiggen
Perez put up a 4.27 FIP with a 93.4 MPH fastball last season. The Indians have a very capable relief ace in Vinnie Pestano waiting in the wings — he worked 1.1 scoreless in extras Thursday, including a strikeout and three whiffs in 25 pitches. Perez simply doesn’t have the control to offer anywhere near what Pestano does without that life on his fastball; if Perez can’t find it soon, he’ll be one of the first closers to lose his job.