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June 21, 2012

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Bring Me the Head of Martin Perez

by Jason Parks

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The Backstory
Martin Perez was signed out of Venezuela as an international free agent in the summer of 2007, and it didn’t take long for him to emerge as a prominent figure on the prospect landscape. The precocious talent skipped over the complex league in 2008, jumping instead to the college-heavy Northwest league, where the 17-year-old did more than just stay afloat among the more advanced and experienced talent at that level. I saw Perez in his rookie season, and I was able to do a Spanish language interview with him that fall during the instructional league, and it was already clear that he was a special player. At a very young age, the 6 ft. southpaw had tremendous feel for his craft, and his stuff advanced at a rapid pace, going from a mid-80s fastball that could touch higher as an amateur to a low-90s fastball that could touch higher by the time he was missing bats in Spokane. At the time, his curveball was his best secondary pitch, a big, spike breaker that showed intense vertical depth, and he showed surprising command over the notoriously hard to command pitch with the spike grip. At the time, he looked like a plus offering, and not just based on its potential. His changeup was still in its infancy, but his delivery was already silky smooth and his arm action special, so the pitch had a bright future.

Perez took another step forward in 2009, crushing the opposition in full-season Low-A and making the jump to Double-A to finish the year; the now-18-year-old’s arsenal was flashing plus across the board on a regular basis, and his delivery continued to be slick. Perez started the 2010 season back in Double-A, hoping to take another step forward in his development, a step that would put him on the doorstep of the majors before his 20th birthday. Unfortunately, the season was a series of highs and lows, as Perez missed more than a bat an inning, but he also proved to be hittable and his command abandoned him. Because the stuff remained intact, pundits and prognosticators stayed on the bandwagon, providing necessary context by suggesting Perez was still a teenager facing players many years his senior, and he was still able to miss bats despite taking a step back with his command. He lost a little shine in 2010, but the lofty projections remained and the future was still bright.

The 20-year-old Perez started the 2011 season back in Double-A Frisco, his third stop with the team, and his overall game was sharp early on; he was locating a three pitch mix, attacking hitters, and showing improved feel for sequence. After 88 innings, he was promoted to Triple-A, where the bottom fell out of his game once again, as the balls were finding barrels at an alarming rate. He was still very young, but his performances were getting a reputation for being hit or miss, and when he struggled, he really struggled. His prospect status took another hit, and the bandwagon was making more stops to let people off than ever before. 2012 brought more of the same, as the now-legal-to-drink pitcher returned to Triple-A instead of breaking camp on the 25-man roster, after spending a healthy chunk of time with the major league squad in spring training. Perez’s performance remains bi-polar, with the stuff and the command rarely clicking at the same time, and the overall feel that generated so much buzz early on in his career now drawing criticism rather than praise. So far in his second run in Round Rock, Perez’s stuff has been a bit depressed, with a fastball that has been in the upper-80s/low 90s more than his normal 92-96 range, his curve is all but gone in favor of a slider, and his changeup still stands atop the offerings. His once top-tier prospect status has vanished, leaving behind a young arm with more question marks in his game than ever before. You could make a case that Martin Perez isn’t even a top five prospect in the Rangers system, a distinction that has been poured in concrete since the fall/winter of 2008.

The Expectations
The expectations were very high from the beginning, as Johan Santana comps entered the conversation from the jump. Being a 6ft., Venezuelan lefty with a smooth delivery and feel for his craft, the Santana comps were inevitable, and even the most respected scouts are susceptible to the charms of such easy and predictable comparisons. Finding success at such a young age at such advanced levels only added to the hype, and a very large percentage of national prognosticators and evaluators suggested Perez could have “top of the rotation potential,” which is like being at a party when “Common People” by Pulp appears on the playlist. You just start to dance, you think you can score with anything that walks, and the future appears paved with gold in your moment of celebration. Happiness.

The Quotes

“Simply put, Perez is the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball.” – Kevin Goldstein (January 2010)

"Perez is already the best left-handed prospect in baseball even though he probably would still be finishing high school….Perez projects to be one of the best left-handed starters in the majors when he arrives, perhaps as soon as this September." –Keith Law (January 2010)

“There aren’t many lefthanders who can match Perez’s potential with three pitches, not even in the major leagues.” –Baseball America (2011 Prospect Handbook)

So What Happened?
First of all, its not like Perez is a 26-year-old soft-tosser in Triple-A. This is still a very legit prospect. I think the ceiling has changed, but I also think the advanced and rapid development of his skills created a projection that was unrealistic. When he was showing three plus potential offerings at age 18 and mowing down full-season hitters, it wasn’t hard to get intoxicated on his future, especially if he continued to take steps forward at the same rate. He was on track to be in the majors by age 20, pitching atop the Ranger rotation by 22, and starring alongside Jennifer Aniston in a clever yet playful RomCom by the time he was 25. He was set up for stardom, and failure wasn’t in the equation.

Perez’s stuff is depressed at present, and his command has been shaky for several seasons, and it's not possible for someone in my position to sit here and tell you exactly what has been going wrong for the young lefty. I’m not a member of the Rangers developmental team, and despite being around the kid since he signed, I can’t tell you what’s going on in his head. I think the problems are more mental than physical, but I’m not trying to play internet psychologist. Perez had the mental fortitude to make his stateside debut in the Northwest League as a 17-year-old, so I want to be careful with the critique, because it’s obvious that his makeup played a role in that decision. My concerns go back to his initial struggles in Double-A, when he would sabotage his performance by having a long memory, allowing small hurdles to grow in size and stature. This has continued over the years, where early struggles turn into complete implosions, and the fortitude you want to see in a frontline starter doesn’t appear to be present.

It needs to be noted that every player/person deals with adversity differently, and suspect demeanor on a mound can be easily misinterpreted. I’ve heard from numerous sources that Perez just doesn’t “look right” on the mound, that his focus seems off, or his intensity will ebb and flow and the results are noticeable. This runs counter to the pitcher I know as a person, and the pitcher we all saw early on in his career; as a teenager, Perez was a man among boys, despite the fact that the boys in question were men many years his senior. He attacked hitters with his stuff, he trusted his ability, he looked smooth and easy in his movements, and he was always in control of his craft. That Perez was sitting 92-96 mph with his four-seamer, showing a tight, vertical curve, and a monster changeup, and he could beat you with any pitch in the kitty in any situation. The package was legit.

The stuff isn’t gone, and that should be the most encouraging thing. The stuff is down at the present, and the culprit could be the mind over the mechanics, which is something impossible for me to accurately diagnose or recommend a solution for. I asked around trying to get a mechanical breakdown of his recent struggles, and the info poured in: Perez is losing his release points, he is altering his stride length, he isn’t maintaining a good line to the plate, and he is tinkering with his offerings more than he used to. But every source also indicated that it would make more sense if the problems originated in his head, that he is either over-thinking or under-thinking, and that his rhythm is just a mess. “The Kid just looks lost half of the time; like he is ready to fall apart at any given moment.”

Here’s the point: Perez might not be the frontline starter that he projected to be as a teenager, and that is true regardless if the stuff returns to its full glory. To be a true frontline starter, a pitcher needs to possess the arsenal, the command, the approach, and the fortitude to handle the rigors of facing major league hitters in major league situations. They need to make adjustments and they rebound from failure by taking a step forward and not a step back. Frontline starters are very rare creatures, as prospects can share some of the characteristics, but the complete package is only found in a select few. Perez flashed these profound characteristics early in his career, as many young arms do, but as he climbed the corporate ladder, the illusionary characteristics left him exposed to the reality of his skillset. What remains is a talented left-handed arm that has the stuff to find success at the major league level, but the inconsistencies to provide more frustration than fortune. In my opinion, Perez fits the model of a three/four starter now, the kind with the arsenal to pitch higher in the rotation but with too many missing ingredients to find sustainable production at that level.

Only a three/four starter? I need more. Bring me the head of Martin Perez!

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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