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Trade Deadline Retrospective: Jhonny Peralta

It has been just about a year since Jhonny Peralta was dealt from the Cleveland Indians to the Detroit Tigers. It was July 28th, 2010, and Peralta was continuing his slide from the previous season where he saw his production fall in every meaningful category. His work ethic and conditioning were often criticized and given that his listed weight had gone from 180 pounds to a suck-in-your-tummy 215, his future at shortstop seemed rather dubious.

Cleveland had decided that Peralta wasn’t going to be worth the $7.25 million option they had on him for 2011 and the Tigers decided that having half their team on the trainers table wasn’t getting them any closer to a pennant. And thus, the “other” Giovanni Soto was sent to Cleveland for an underwhelming Peralta, hitting just .246 with seven home runs over 91 games. The general reaction was a bit of a shrug of the shoulders.

Since then, it has been one big gold star for Dave Dombrowski. While Peralta didn’t get Detroit to the playoffs, he demonstrated that he still had some life in his bat, hitting .253 with 8 home runs and driving in 38 runs with his new team over 57 games. Spectacular he wasn’t, but he was good enough for the Tigers to sign him to a two year deal at roughly $11 million with a pretty friendly $6 million club option in 2013. Largely panned as wasted money at the time, it’s looking like one of the shrewdest contracts of the 2010 off season.

Whether or not Peralta belonged on the best shapers list, he has arrived in 2011 not necessarily like a new man, but a heck of a lot like the one that showed up back in 2005. In fact, if you look at some of his statistics this season compared to 2005, the similarities are striking:

His current .322/.368/.542 line with 16 HR’s, 45 runs, and 60 RBI has been good for a 148 wRC+, putting him second to only Jose Reyes for all qualified shortstops, and tops in the American League. How he’s accomplished this depends largely on what lens you’re using. Some observers have suggested he’s going the opposite way better this season, which turns out to be hogwash: Roughly 88% of his hits this year are up the middle or pulled and his career rate is roughly 86%. He’s swinging at fewer balls outside the strike zone and and making slightly better contact than his overall career rates, but not in a way that would explain his about-face in total production.

A cursory glance suggests he’s doing it in 2011 very much the same way he did it in 2005: his 2005 BABIP was .346 and his 2011 BABIP is .345. However, his expected BABIP based on hit trajectory in 2005 was .334 while it is .307 in 2011. Why? For starters, he’s lifting the ball in the air more than any time in his career with a FB% of roughly 47% as opposed to a 36% career rate. That should predict a lower batting average as the AL BABIP on fly balls is just .139. Peralta owns a .170 BABIP on fly balls, but his batting average actually far outpaces the league average on fly balls in large part because of the 33 fly balls he’s hit, 14 of them have left the stadium. So while he’s hitting a lot more fly balls and he’s perhaps finding a fortuitous gap on occasion, he’s also hitting them with apparent authority. The big question is whether or not this is sustainable, and while I’d have to bet that he will begin to hit a few more ground balls, his HR/FB rate (12.1%) is well within range of his career average, and it seems his power production is quite credible.

One interesting change from last year is found in his pitch type values as he appears to be handling off-speed pitches far better in 2011 than at any other point in his career. He struggled mightily with curves, sliders, and change-ups in 2010, being well below average per 100 pitches. But so far this season, he’s been smoking just about anything thrown at him with blind authority. In fact, in 2011, 39.3% of the balls thrown to him have been sliders, curves, or change-ups, yet he’s hit half of his home runs off of said pitches. In 2010, 39.2% of the balls thrown to him were these three off-speed pitches and he hit just one out of the park. Whether this is a change in approach, better coaching or dumb luck, I can’t tell you — but he’s not discriminating when it comes to what’s being thrown at him this year – he’s hitting them all.

From a fantasy baseball perspective, his performance this season has been a boon to both the shortstop and third base positions as he has dual eligibility in many leagues and he was likely a flier in most standard formats, if not free. But he’s also a reminder that the trading deadline presents opportunities for the fantasy owner, and that while the proverbial change of scenery boost may not exist whatsoever, at least for Peralta, he certainly found the grass greener in Detroit.