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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

Related Content:  Martin Perez

23 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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amazin_mess

Good stuff. But a question lingers....is the head brought to you on a silver platter by Patricia?

Jun 21, 2012 03:42 AM
rating: 2
 
amazin_mess

LOL...really

Jun 21, 2012 08:20 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Given my current situation, I should probably give Patricia a shout. Nothing holding me back now, except for maybe reality. Not the biggest obstacle.

Jun 21, 2012 08:22 AM
 
fawcettb

Terrific, intelligent piece. I love it when you concentrate.

Jun 21, 2012 04:45 AM
rating: 6
 
tmangell

I think "head" is the apropos word in this case. Does the Rangers organization have a sports psychologist that can work with Perez? If so, are they already doing so?

Also, with young non-native-born Latino prospects, I wonder if there's more of a reluctance to want to consult with a sports psychologist, compared to young Anglo or Hispanic-American prospects.

Finally, Professor, another talent of yours emerges: conducting interviews in Spanish! Seriously, good job, Jason.

Jun 21, 2012 05:12 AM
rating: 0
 
OonBoon


Maybe a comp to another Perez is more apt: Oliver

Jun 21, 2012 06:00 AM
rating: 2
 
adrock

This is genius: "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."

I hope you don't mind, but I will be copying and pasting a large excerpt of this article, and sending it to friends who love Britpop and baseball. Perhaps they'll sign up.

Jun 21, 2012 06:23 AM
rating: 3
 
djbrown

wasn't the early knock on Jered Weaver that things could spiral out of control at the drop of a hat, and his mound demeanor was often questioned when things started to fall apart?

Jun 21, 2012 06:30 AM
rating: 0
 
LynchMob

I saw a Jered Weaver start in the High-A California League ... and he totally spiral'd out of control ... it was bizarre and unforgetable to watch, given his pedigree ...

Jun 21, 2012 12:28 PM
rating: 0
 
dantroy

We can always hope he blooms late like Pulp did. Though, most don't, of course, which is the well-taken point if this new series of articles. Nice work, and keep up the pop culture references.

Jun 21, 2012 06:32 AM
rating: 1
 
stoltzs2s

I feel like Perez could have an Edwin Jackson-type career. Obviously, he was pushed quickly to the upper minors much like Jackson and has kind of floundered since being put on that big stage. Looking at pitchers with that kind of path, it seems that many eventually get it together, but take a lot of time to do so. Perez strikes me as a strong possibility to do the same--he could eventually be the 2/3, but he might go through three organizations before it happens. The pitching version of Cameron Maybin, if you will.

Jun 21, 2012 06:54 AM
rating: 2
 
jarjets89

Great start to the new series. And of equal importance, thanks for introducing me to Pulp

Jun 21, 2012 08:42 AM
rating: 0
 
Peter Ellwood

I second this. Never heard Pulp before, and read the second half of the article listening to Common People. It was quite the experience.

Jun 21, 2012 09:27 AM
rating: 0
 
Kyle Matte

I will push the Travis Snider meatwagon a second time.

Jun 21, 2012 08:59 AM
rating: 3
 
SaberTJ

Really liked this. Looking forward to more.

Jun 21, 2012 10:19 AM
rating: 0
 
David Jackson

That photo of Martin Perez doesn't look in any way like a 21-year-old person. If is stuff is down, maybe it's just the miles.

Jun 21, 2012 11:43 AM
rating: -2
 
NoHRTyner

Have you heard William Shatner's version of "Common People"? Not as good as the original but still worth hearing if just for the contributions of Joe Jackson (the musician, not the left fielder).

Jun 21, 2012 11:54 AM
rating: 3
 
mdangelfan

"and starring alongside Jennifer Aniston in a clever yet playful RomCom by the time he was 25."

Sure. She's right about the age to play his mom.

Jun 21, 2012 12:18 PM
rating: 0
 
marctacoma

Astute observation about "Common People."

It's just one game, but man, Perez looked awful in Tacoma. I mean, you can't say anything after one game, but I'm having a hard time believing this: "The stuff isn’t gone, and that should be the most encouraging thing."

Given his splits both this year and last, do you think the Rangers move him to the pen?

Jun 21, 2012 15:23 PM
rating: 0
 
pobothecat

Do teams give players --- pitchers in particular --- IQ tests of any kind? A baseball Wonderlic?

Because, the more baseball I watch, the more I suspect that what separates pitchers of same-shelf ability is their smarts --- analytical skills, risk-reward thinking, the capacity for in-game insight.

I rarely hear of "smarts" on the scouting checklist. Yet, clearly, much of what separated Maddux, Palmer, Seaver, Sutton, Schilling and Hershiser from comparably able arms was intelligence.

The Bell Curve being what it is, isn't it therefore true that what impedes some --- not all, some --- very gifted throwers is their inability to outsmart, well, anyone?

Better decision-making can be learned. My question, Jason, is, how often is this addressed by teams. And how often is it addressed effectively?

Jun 21, 2012 21:46 PM
rating: 3
 
JoshT

He looked good last night in Des Moines. Maybe not as an ace (only struck out for and his defense helped him out) but he certainly looked like a major league starter.

Jun 22, 2012 12:00 PM
rating: 0
 
samhell

Perez is an interesting case to me. He had advanced secondary pitches at an early age that tends to make young pitchers dominant in the low minors but he had the velocity of a top prospect. For it to all fall apart is perplexing. Its not like he went through a huge growth spurt that threw off his mechanics. Skipping A+ ball was a disconcerting developmental decision but I think any ill effects of that decision should have wore off by now. As a Rangers fan, I hope he figures it out.

Jun 25, 2012 05:05 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

I wonder if Martin's mechanical problems are related to his fitness. Has Perez been sticking to his workout regiment? What about his diet? Has he been maintaining or increasing his strength through his progression in the minors? One might think he's 22, how can that be a problem. But your flexibility and conditioning as a 17 year old compared to a 22 year old can be vastly different.

Is Martin has lost some strength and endurance/conditioning that could very well contribute to his mechanical issues. Perez could be seen as tinkering because repeating his delivery might be more physically demanding than what it was when he was younger.

Jun 26, 2012 18:38 PM
rating: 0
 
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