April 4, 2016
The Buyer's Guide
At the back end of fantasy drafts, or on the waiver wire, we’re always trying to identify under-the-radar talents who could blossom into legitimate assets. We’ve often targeted guys like Jerad Eickhoff or Matt Shoemaker in recent years—guys with attractive stat lines who have traditionally been overlooked due to their lack of prospect pedigree. That’s the core precept of the sabermetric movement, too, right? Use numbers to identify diamonds in the rough, to cut through the narrative and profit.
In most fantasy leagues, I’ve come to believe the place to truly exploit the market isn’t by looking at FIP, BABIP, ISO, cFIP, average batted-ball velocity, or even DRA. That’s rather commonplace these days. The way to cut against the grain is to identify which players have a chance to breakout despite what the numbers show. In other words, savvy fantasy owners are willing to look past statistics (well, as much as one can) to see a useful skill set that could bring about improved results.
Martin Perez is an afterthought in most leagues. He was the 137th-overall starting pitcher drafted in the average fantasy draft. The lefty owns a career 15.3 percent strikeout rate and a 7.6 percent walk rate. He also has an unspectacular career 4.22 ERA. That’s pretty much what Jon Niese did a year ago, which isn’t a ringing endorsement despite the fact that Perez was going 31 pitchers after Niese in drafts this winter.
The 24-year-old hurler has frustrated fans for years. Baseball Prospectus ranked Perez as one of the best prospects in the Rangers’ system for what seems like forever, and throughout that time, his on-the-field results rarely matched the scouting hype. He had a 5.96 ERA in Double-A in 2010, bounced back with a solid 3.16 ERA in Double-A the next season before being promoted mid-year and imploding with a 6.43 ERA in Triple-A. It got worse in 2012. Perez threw 127 innings in Triple-A, only striking out 4.89 batters per nine innings and posting a mediocre 4.25 ERA. Still, BP called him the third-best prospect in a loaded Rangers system the next winter.
There have always been excuses. Perez was always young for his level. He flashed big-league stuff in his early twenties and would surely find consistency as he aged. The strikeouts have strangely been absent, but he’s still 24 years old and has struggled with injuries over the last two seasons. Critics just need to exercise a bit of patience and let the youngster grow up at the major-league level.
Fantasy owners aren’t known for their patience; however, it makes sense that they need to see positive results before they’re willing to invest. The down side is too significant at the moment. Perez compiled a 4.46 ERA a year ago with a 14.2 percent strikeout rate. That just doesn’t play well, even in AL-only leagues. Even if one takes a more optimistic point of view, the best-case scenario is that he becomes a ground-ball specialist, a pitcher who can post decent ERAs with low strikeout totals and a below-average WHIP. His entire profile depends on his ERA and win totals being really good.
That is, of course, unless one wants to lean on the old scouting reports and speculate that his strikeout totals could increase this year. While his 7.5 percent swinging-strike rate doesn’t hint at it, there’s actually a decent argument for why Perez could take a step forward and be a fantasy-relevant mid-rotation starter in 2016.
Consider this: Perez has been lethal against left-handed batters since he fully committed to a cutter (which actually classifies as a slider) in 2014 that he previously didn’t trust too much. Lefties only hit .206/.279/.258 with a 27.5 percent strikeout rate in 2015. The year prior, they hit .250/.289/.419 with a 26.1 percent strikeout rate. The issue has been that Perez can’t handle right-handed pitching. His batting average against has been way worse, his strikeout rate much lower, and his walk rate higher in each of the last two seasons. That’s normally a trifecta of sadness.
In his only year in which he’s thrown 100-plus big-league innings, though, righties only hit .259/.312/.406 with a 15.8 percent strikeout rate and a 6.8 percent walk rate. Not too dissimilar from his performance against lefties that year—before he fully committed to his slider and found much more success versus them. So, it seems that we do have a track record of “success,” however loosely one wishes to define that term. At the very least, it’s evidence that he can do better than he has the last couple of years, and that 2013 performance only relied on a .286 BABIP versus righties. Not screaming for regression in any major sense.
The other big thing is that Perez’s best pitch has always been his changeup. Here are his whiff rates on that changeup:
Those aren’t dominating whiff rates by any stretch, but the table does illustrate two important points: (1) his changeup is where he has historically gotten the majority of his swings and misses; and (2) his largest sample size, the 2013 season, coincided with his best-performing changeup.
This makes me wonder if the previous two seasons aren’t just small-sample-size issues. Of course, we could make the exact same argument about 2013—as we don’t want to make sweeping judgments on 124 1/3 innings of work—but it’s interesting that his largest sample is the one that best matches his historical scouting reports. If his new sinker-slider combination continues to bring success against lefties and he can replicate his performance against righties that he had in 2013, or in other words, if he can generate swings-and-misses with his changeup like he did in 2013, we’re suddenly looking at a solid fantasy starter.
We’re certainly talking about a lot of “ifs” at this point. But that’s always going to be the case at the end of drafts or when scouring the waiver wire. All we can do is identify the building blocks for future success, which do seem to be present if we focus on the minor-league scouting reports and sift through his major-league statistics to really isolate his splits and his individual pitches.
Perhaps we’ve already seen some evidence of future performance. His 5.40 ERA in spring training means little, but he did strike out 14 batters in just 13 1/3 innings, while only walking a pair. Before rolling your eyes too hard, though, we should perhaps consider the fact that he’s never struck out a batter per inning in spring training, nor has he ever finished with fewer walks than strikeouts. Until this year.
That smacks of confirmation bias, to be sure, but when you’re looking at a former top prospect with time on his side, you’re looking for signs that improved performance is just around the corner. He always lacked a true third pitch to go with his fastball-changeup combination; the slider seems to be that offering. He has recently struggled against righties; his plus-changeup and his previous success in 2013 indicates that the quality performance is in there somewhere. He hasn’t been able to strikeout enough batters to be fantasy-relevant; his changeup generated a lot of whiffs in his largest previous sample size and he’s struck out a healthy number of lefties the last two years and he punched out more than a batter per inning this spring.
Fantasy owners combing over the waiver wire or dynasty owners trying to buy low on an appreciable asset should be looking for the pieces. Perez’s history of having a plus changeup should give him a chance to combine that with an already-successful sinker-slider combination versus lefties in 2016. Perhaps the true moneyball these days is ignoring the fact that cFIP and DRA don’t care for Perez and focusing on minor-league scouting reports and what could be.
Buyer’s Advice: BUY
If you’re in position to take a shot in the dark this year, Perez seems to be a solid gamble without much of a price tag, if any at all. Dynasty owners may have to pay a bit more due to his young age and his prospect pedigree, but there’s no way that price tag stays low if he strings together two or three quality starts in April. The southpaw will benefit from a potent lineup in Texas and could tally double-digit wins, too, which would just be icing on the cake.
And if it’s just more of the same, an ERA around 4.00 and Mike-Leake-level strikeout rates, it won’t be difficult to toss him back into the waiver waters. These moderate-reward gambles for which few people even bother to look due to recent non-success are my favorite ones to take in deeper leagues, as long as the investment is minuscule. They’re the ones that make you look like a genius in June or July.