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May 19, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Bad Ollie or Worse Ollie?

by Eric Seidman

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On May 9, Oliver Perez lasted just 3 1/3 innings against the Giants, issuing seven walks and surrendering four runs. Five days later, he was removed after a mere 3 2/3 innings when the Marlins tagged him for seven runs. A couple of days after that, the Mets were presented with a decision regarding the future of their high-priced yet ineffective left-hander. It had become clear that his spot in the starting rotation was hindering the overall performance of the team but ignoring his hefty $12 million salary is no small feat.

The Mets had to decide whether to try and send Perez to the minor leagues—he would have to accept the demotion—or to place him in the bullpen in an attempt to fix his mechanics while sustaining his presence on the major-league roster. After all, the National League is weak this year and, while their chances of making the playoffs are slim, the Mets could still vie for the wild card. With this in mind, they did have another option with Perez: cut ties altogether. Now, while I am not exactly endorsing that option, let's explore the possibility. But before getting into that, let’s take a step back and revisit what led to the present scenario, as well as their ultimate decision.

The Mets decided to send Perez to the pen, though their hand was essentially forced when it was learned he would not accept a demotion to the minors. When the decision was made, I ran a quick web search to find some articles on the topic, and stumbled upon this piece from early May, written by Brian Costa of The Star Ledger in Newark. I read most of the article without anything seeming strange, until a quote from Mets catcher Ramon Castro. At that point, I did a double take, scrolled to the top and discovered that I was reading an article from May of last year. Realistically, the same article could have been written with an updated year and quote from Henry Blanco, and no other changes, and still have applied to Perez’s current struggles. Case in point, this isn’t anything new, and the Mets were faced with a similar decision last season, “lucking out” when Perez had to go undergo knee surgery.

Perez might be healthy this year but he is in no way effective, and his performance is approaching the point of no return, if it isn’t already there. Sending him to the bullpen might sound like a viable solution on the surface, but when would he even pitch? Though Jerry Manuel has his own fair share of faults as a manager, I cannot imagine he would use Perez as a late-inning lefty, or that he would trust him in even the seventh inning, given his propensity for issuing walks. This would relegate Perez to mop-up duty, a role in which Raul Valdes could likely perform better. Pitching in low-leverage situations might help Perez's confidence… or he could turn a 10-3 lead into a four-run game with two runners on base and continue to get unmercifully booed. If there is a positive to be found in his bullpen role, it would be that low-leverage situations are better forums for tweaking mechanics or fixing problematic motions. There is less pressure and more wiggle room to allow a run or two in exchange for an improved throwing motion.

But is there anything to fix? While pitching coaches around the league might swear they can fix someone like Perez, control has constantly eluded him since he burst onto the scene as a hard-throwing 20 year old in 2002 with the Padres. His lowest career walk rate is 3.7 per nine innings, which came in 2004 with the Pirates, the only truly stellar season of his career. Here are his BB/9 rates for the other eight years of his career, in order: 4.8, 5.5, 6.1, 5.4, 4.0, 4.9, 7.9, 7.6. Yes, since signing his three-year deal for $36 million, Perez has walked over seven and a half batters per nine innings. How many pitchers have even done that once? Since 1974, just 39 pitchers have managed to walk that many batters while staying on the mound for at least 50 innings in a season. Should Perez reach that mark without reducing his rate, he would become just the third pitcher in the last four decades to post BB/9s above 7.0 in two or more seasons with the same innings pitched qualifier. The others: Mitch Williams (1986, 1987, 1992) and Bobby Witt (1986, 1987, 1991).

Perez has faced 487 batters since the beginning of last season, and he's walked 86. While an 8.1 K/9 is well above average, its value is severely discounted when stacked up against a 7.8 BB/9. Due to injuries and ineffectiveness, Perez has made just 21 starts over the last two seasons, producing a 6.52 ERA in 99 1/3 innings. Even though his walk rate over the last two years is historically terrible, it isn’t as though he had displayed solid control in the past. Most find it easy to conflate Perez with a pitcher like the Giants' Jonathan Sanchez, but he realistically hasn’t even approached that level of performance in three seasons. What would benefit Perez and the Mets the most would be a trip to the minor leagues to completely rework any mechanical flaws. If Perez has anything capable of being fixed, throwing in the fifth inning of a 12-2 blowout against the Astros is unlikely to do anything for anyone.

I didn’t comment much on the Perez signing at the time, other than to simply say it probably wasn’t an incredibly smart decision, and it makes little sense to wax poetic on the move now. He was signed, it didn’t make much sense at the time, and it looks disastrous while wearing hindsight goggles. No matter how you slice it, Perez represents a sunk cost, one that cannot be recovered. They could attempt to trade him, but the Mets would likely have to pay 96 percent of his remaining salary to even make a team glance in their direction. Since nothing of interest would be returned in a hypothetical deal, a trade would represent salary relief more than anything else.

One option that piqued my interest was cutting ties with Perez completely. Granted, he isn’t this bad, but Perez’s upside is a mid-4s ERA with a mid-4s BB/9. Numbers along those lines are acceptable for a fourth or fifth starter, but wouldn’t it make more sense to fill those slots with pitchers whose upside or potential surpasses those marks? I’ve long held that back-of-the-rotation spots should go to pitchers like Anibal Sanchez, who can dominate the opposition one night and get dominated the next, but who have the upside of a mid-rotation hurler.

This may have been true of Perez back in 2006 or 2007, but I find it terribly difficult to believe that a trip to the bullpen or a few skipped starts will do much of anything. A trip to the minors could work, but with that option off the table, I honestly might be more inclined to release him altogether. Pitchers who bring what Perez does to the table are put up with when under team control because it doesn’t cost much to give them chances to reach their potential, but when free agency rolls around, it’s silly to pay big bucks without being convinced of performance levels readily achievable.

If you were Mets general manager Omar Minaya, how would you handle Perez? Would you give him some more opportunities before making a decision? Or has he done enough to make you move in a different direction and spend $3 million on Jarrod Washburn for the rest of the season? Could the Mets conceivably make the playoffs with a better pitcher in the rotation?

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

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