The Perez Sweepstakes

With C.C. Sabathia off the table and A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe presumably next to go, the focus of the starting pitching market will soon shift to the second tier. These are the guys who lack the star power of the front liners, but are counted on to contribute innings and an above average performance in the middle of the rotation for their new team. Some recent second tier pitchers you may remember include Gil Meche and Ted Lilly in 2006 and Kyle Lohse last winter.

At the head of this year’s second tier is Oliver Perez, formerly of the Mets.

Perez is a rarity in the free agent market: After turning 28 last summer, he’s just now entering what should be the prime of his career. Up until now, he’s been one of those guys that hasn’t been able to shake the “potential” tag. Expectations have followed Perez throughout his career, but aside from a handful of quality starts each year, he has yet to fully capitalize on his ability. A high strikeout rate gets your mouth watering, but the rest gives you an empty feeling.

While he’s not without his positives, since 2004 he’s been fairly inconsistent.

   Year       IP       ERA       K/9       BB/9      HR/9      ERA+      xFIP
   2004      196       2.98      10.9      3.7       1.0       145       3.74
   2005      103       5.85      8.5       6.1       2.0        72       5.48
   2006     112.2      6.55      8.2       5.4       1.6        67       5.59
   2007      177       3.56      8.9       4.0       1.1       120       4.74
   2008      194       4.22      8.4       4.9       1.1       100       5.02

As I said, Perez has posted some nice strikeout numbers, but like many young pitchers, he’s struggled with control. Even in his best season for walks (2004, which not coincidentially was the best season of his career to date), his rate was slightly worse than league average. Perez throws a first pitch strike roughly 55 percent of the time, which means it’s slightly better than a coin flip that he’ll actually work ahead in the count. Last year, Perez threw a first pitch strike only 52.9 percent of the time, which was better than only Barry Zito (51.5 percent) and Edinson Volquez (52.6 percent) among starters. The lack of command obviously hurts, even more so when we see he allows home runs at a better than average clip. Perez has cut his home run rate in recent seasons, but it’s really his lack of command that has rendered him inconsistent from year to year.

Perez is represented by Scott Boras. (Seriously, when is Boras going to represent internet baseball writers?) So it should come as no surprise that Perez is reportedly seeking a five-year deal worth around $70 million. By comparison, previous members of the second-tier club earned much less. Meche signed a five-year, $55 million deal and Lilly was inked to a four-year, $40 million package. Lohse (also represented by Boras) couldn’t find a buyer last winter and signed a bargain basement deal at $4.25 million for one year with the Cardinals. Apparently, St. Louis liked his production, so they extended him to four years at a total of $41 million last September.

Since Boras is involved, teams that are interested in signing the lefty can expect to get a spiffy binder showcasing his talents. Obviously, the purpose of the binder is to sell the player to the prospective team, so it takes a little digging to get to past the sales job to find the truth. The New York Times “Bats” blog actually got their mitts on the presentation package for Perez.

According to the Times, the binder contains eight chapters extolling the virtues of Perez. Let’s take a look at a few of those claims and see if they hold any truth.

The claim: Perez is durable.

One section claims that Perez has remained free from injury and can be counted on to make his 30+ starts every year while logging some serious innings. It’s true, Perez is durable. He’s been on the DL twice since 2004: once for a sore back in 2007 where he missed the minimum amount of time, and in when 2005 he missed two moths after breaking his big toe kicking a laundry cart. He also missed a couple of starts in 2005 with a sore shoulder, but overall he has remained free of the types of injuries that can short circuit a pitchers career.

Verdict: True

The Claim: Perez is an innings eater

Since 2004, Perez has thrown 782.2 innings. That total ranks him 56th in innings pitched during that time, and works out to an average of 5.2 innings per start. On the other hand, true innings eaters like Jon Garland averaged 6.2 innings per start, Dan Haren also went 6.2 innings and Javier Vazquez logged roughly 6.1 innings per start. Then there’s Roy Halladay who averaged over seven innings per start. Perez can’t compete with those guys, but he isn’t a slouch.
Last season, Perez made a career high 34 starts and logged 194 innings, which averages to 5.2 innings per start, right in line with his career average. It should be noted he has only three complete games in his career and hasn’t completed a start since 2006. He’s good, but he’s not an “innings eater” as far as we think of the cliche.

Verdict: False. But not grossly exaggerated.

Claim: Perez’s career-to-date compares favorably to a certain Hall of Famer.

There’s a section in the binder that encourages prospective employers to look past the control issues that Perez has battled in the past. To emphasize the potential for a turnaround, it compares Perez to one of the more dominant left handers in the history of the game who also had control issues early in his career.

Stats through age 23

  Player        IP       ERA       K/9       BB/9      HR/9      ERA+
Oliver Perez  515.2      4.26      10.0      4.8       1.4        96
Sandy Koufax  516.2      4.16      8.5       5.3       1.2        99

Wow. I’m not sure what is more shocking: that Boras has the audacity to compare his client to the great Sandy Koufax or the fact that the comparison of the early portion of their careers is a fair one.

But look at how their careers diverged over their next four seasons.

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Stats from age 24 to age 27

  Player        IP       ERA       K/9       BB/9      HR/9      ERA+
Oliver Perez  483.2      4.52      8.5       4.7       1.2        94
Sandy Koufax   615       3.33      10.0      3.7       0.9       128

Koufax’s stretch of dominance was the four years from 1963 to 1966, which means only one of his truly great seasons is captured in the time frame above. If Perez is going to make the leap from mediocre, middle of the rotation starter to elite, potential Hall of Famer, he hasn’t laid the same kind of foundation as Koufax did from age 24 to 27. Even if you’re looking at Koufax as the absolute, best case scenario—meaning you’re hoping for just some improvement from Perez over the next five years, it doesn’t look like that’s a safe bet. Perez’s performance has stagnated in that the second half of his career is almost a mirror image of the first half.

Verdict: To compare Perez’s potential to Koufax is outrageous under any circumstances. Even more so when Perez hasn’t shown the ability to put together anything that would lead us to believe he’s improving as a starter.

Claim: Perez is one of the top five left-handers currently in the game.

Another chapter in the binder claims that Perez is one of baseball’s top five left handed pitchers. Boras puts Perez in a group that includes Johan Santana, Sabathia, Cole Hamels and Lilly. Really?

Here are the top five left-handed starters from last year (who pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title) as ranked by ERA+:

Cliff Lee: 175
Santana: 163
Sabathia: 162
Hamels: 145
Jon Lester: 143

There are a bunch of quality young southpaws in the game that finished outside the top five. John Danks, Joe Saunders, Mark Buehrle, Paul Maholm and John Lannan are all 29 or younger and all posted an ERA+ of at least 110. Don’t forgetScott Kazmir who isn’t included because he didn’t pitch enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.

Perez ranked 16 out of 24 left-handed starters last year with an ERA+ of 98.

Since it’s clearly unfair to judge a player’s career on a single season, let’s look at left-handed starters who have thrown at least 600 innings since 2004. Here’s your top five, again ranked by ERA+:

Santana: 157
Sabathia: 130
Kazmir: 124
Buehrle: 121
Randy Johnson: 119

In our sample, Perez is again in the bottom third, ranking 21st out of 26 players with a cumulative ERA+ of 99.

Verdict: False. To claim Perez is one of the five best left-handed starters is absurd. He’s not even in the top half. I enjoyed Dave Cameron’s take at Fan Graphs.

As you can see, it’s quite a bit of work to separate fact from fiction in one of these famous “Boras Binders.” Since free agency is all about earning a contract based on past performance while management keeps their fingers crossed a player doesn’t decline under the new contract, it helps to look at some of Perez’s current comparables from Baseball Reference. Guys not named Santana or Sabathia. According to his entry page, the two most similar pitchers to Perez through the age 26 are Mark Langston and Bobby Witt.

Like Perez, Witt battled command issues in the early stages of his career. Through his age 26 season, he posted an astronomical cumulative walk rate of 6.1 BB/9. Over the next five years of his career, Witt was able to curb his wildness, slicing his walk rate to 4.6 BB/9 over that span. But still, as the graph at right illustrates, Witt rarely was able to keep his walk rate around the league average mark and was wildly inconsistent from one season to the next.

The issue with Langston was the same early in his career. His walk rate of 4.7 BB/9 through his age 26 season is right in line with Perez’s current career mark of 4.8 BB/9. And like Witt, Langston found improved control with maturity, but with greater success. Over his next five seasons, Langston posted a respectable walk rate of 3.7 BB/9 including a career best 2.9 BB/9 in 1992. That season kicked off a stretch of five seasons where he was able to post a better than league average walk rate four times. However, it’s worth noting that the ’92 season was his age 31 season which would be the fifth season of Perez’s desired five year contract. In other words, Langston was a late bloomer, finding control and success once he hit his 30s. Langston enjoyed two strong seasons and three slightly above average (and injury plagued) seasons after turning 31.

While the Koufax comparison is hogwash, the careers of Langston and Witt show prospective bidders that Perez can certainly improve his command as he matures and continues his development as a pitcher. However, if Perez is fortunate enough to follow Langston’s career arc where he finally discovers better than average control, the real winner could be not the team he signs with this winter, but the team he signs with in his next go around as a free agent.—

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