Chris Perez knows all about pressure and expectations. Once looked upon as St. Louis’ closer of the future, the 24-year-old right-hander now holds that distinction in Cleveland, where he is caddying for the it’s-only-a-matter-of-time-before-he’s-gone Kerry Wood.
Originally selected by the Cardinals as the 42nd overall pick in the 2006 draft, Perez came to the Indians last summer in the deal that send Mark DeRosa westward. In 21 appearances out of the Tribe bullpen this year, the hard-throwing University of Miami product has a record of 0-2 with five saves and a 3.38 ERA.
David Laurila: You’re a short reliever. How much pressure comes with that job?
Chris Perez: There’s all kinds. There is the external pressure of fans, which depends on where you’re throwing. If you’re on the road, the fans are never nice to you as a closer, or as a set-up guy. The fans are right on top of our bullpens, usually, and the whole time you’re warming up it’s all, “Perez, you suck! You’re going to blow it!” and that kind of stuff. There’s that pressure, and then you’ve got the internal pressure of having to win the game for your team. As a closer or short-innings guy, you’re one of the last guys out there. If the starter goes seven or eight innings, and your team battles back in a tough game, and you blow it—that’s something you don’t want to feel. You put that pressure on yourself, not wanting to blow it for your teammates.
DL: When opposing fans yell, “Perez, you suck,” is that just like being cheered by the home fans, or does it bother you?
CP: For the most part, you just ignore it. You tune it out, because it’s just part of your job. And it happens everywhere; it happens almost every day. Even at home, people are yelling at you—maybe not telling you that you suck, but asking for balls or whatever. And sometimes it’s easier said than done, but you have to block it out. Sometimes what people say is really nasty, depending on where we’re playing. Some people do their research and really find stuff on you. Sometimes you can use that as motivation and other times I’ll yell back at them, if it’s really bad. Chicago has some bad fans at times. But at the same time it’s kind of their right, when they buy tickets, to voice their opinions.
DL: To what extent do players yell back at fans?
CP: It depends on the situation. Some fans are right there in your face and you can give it back to them, but some parks are better than others security-wise. I remember in my rookie year, I was warming up in Philadelphia, and with their bullpen there’s a railing where they all stand and they give it to you the whole game. It got bad, but they had security right around it and the people were gone right away. That makes it nice, but other times it is just one of those days. Everybody has bad days and it can be one of those days where you don’t want to yell at me, because I’ll give it right back to you.
DL: The media is often as critical as the fans. How do you handle that?
CP: The media can definitely put extra pressure on a closer. I think the way you really handle, and respond to… especially the home media. The guys you see every day can play a big role in how you’re portrayed as a person and as a player. It’s not a secret that the media has a big influence on the fans. They reach a lot of people every day and if you don’t have a relationship with certain guys… sometimes if you have a bad game and don’t face the media, which some guys do, they can kind of bury you. I’ll never do that. I’ll always face the media, whether it’s after a good outing or a bad outing, just so I can get out what I’m thinking and stuff like that. But, you know, if you blow one or two, they start putting that extra pressure on you, so that third outing is definitely important.
DL: You’ve been hit hard at times. Has doubt crept into your psyche at all?
CP: I think that every player, especially as a young guy, has those doubts, like “Do I really belong up here?” If you’ve made it to the major leagues, obviously you’ve had a good career somewhere in the minors, you’ve done something and been a good player, but until you’re up here and established, and have done it year in and year out, there are always those thoughts that creep in. What if I can’t get another person out? What if I have a terrible year and can’t get my ERA under 6.00? It’s just human.
This game is hard and only the very best are, quote unquote, machines and can do it year in and year out. That’s only a certain percentage of players and everybody else is battling just to stay up here It’s definitely… like you said, I’ve been hit hard, but all players, not just relievers, have to have a short memory. That’s the beauty of our game. We play so many of them, and you might lose one game, but you can come back and win the next two, and then you’ve had a good run at it. That’s a great opportunity that our sport provides us, that we can get back out there and get better.
DL: When you think back to bad outings, are there usually specific pitches you can point to and say, “This is what I did wrong”?
CP: I don’t know if it is specific pitches, but I can definitely remember outings and blowing games, and that type of thing. The most common denominator when I have a really, really bad outing, or blow a game, is that I walk guys. I put guys on base without them earning it and it comes back to bite me. I walk one or two and then give up a flare single or a double in the gap and maybe three runners score. Late in the game, that’s obviously not what you want.
At the end of the year, when I’m at home, I’ll think about one or two outings where, if I’d have just done this, if I’d have shaved off two or three runs from an outing, my numbers would be a lot closer to where I want them. That’s another thing in this sport—hindsight is always 20/20. It’s tough sometimes, but at the same time, you have to learn from it and try not to get beat by it again. I remember certain at-bats with hitters. Say I faced a hitter for the first time and he burned me on something that wasn’t my best pitch, or my best location; that goes into the memory bank. You learn from that and if you face him again in a similar situation, you don’t go there.
DL: A particular pitch may not have worked, yet the charts could show that it was the right pitch to attack that hitter with.
CP: People always talk about a pitcher and a catcher getting into the same rhythm, but you’re the one who makes the final decision, ultimately. I’ve had a pitching coach tell me that there is never a bad pitch, it’s always bad location, which makes sense. If you threw a fastball in, it doesn’t mean it was a bad pitch; maybe you just didn’t get it in quite far enough. So there’s always room to learn. They’re adjusting their game just like we’re adjusting our game. That’s the kind of cat-and-mouse that it is, especially with the unbalanced schedule we have now. We face the same teams 18 times a year and sometimes it seems like we only play the Twins, the White Sox and the Tigers. It’s good and bad, and you get to know the guys inside and out, and they know you. That’s when the fun happens, because there are no secrets. You make your adjustments, while they’re making theirs, and you try to beat them.
DL: As a short reliever, are you getting into a rhythm with the catcher?
CP: I think that the rhythm between pitchers and catchers is a lot more with the starters, because they’re out there for so long. Every game they’re throwing 100-110 pitches and trying to work through a lineup three or four times. That’s when you really have to get on the same page with the catcher. Late in the game, the rhythm gets kinds of choppy, because of the switches being made—bringing in the lefty to face the lefty, and then the righty. It’s choppy. As a starter, you try to establish that good rhythm, get your defense behind you, establish the strike zone and get the umpire calling strikes for you. If you have to sit up there and shake off every other pitch, you can’t get in that rhythm and I think that’s why having a good catcher is important. A good catcher knows what you like to throw.
DL: Is it hard going out to the mound not knowing how long you’ll be out there?
CP: Sometimes. As a middle reliever, that’s definitely a different adjustment, not knowing how long you’ll be in. As a closer, it’s easier to tell what you’re being asked to do that day. As a middle reliever, you could go in down by four, throw an inning, and your team comes back and they want you to throw another inning, or maybe they don’t. You just never know when your day is going to be up. But I guess that can kind of help you stay focused, pitch to pitch, because any one pitch might be your last. You might give up a homer or a double and the manager might bring in a lefty to face a lefty. It definitely keeps you on your toes as a reliever, not knowing how long you’re going to go.
DL: Do you see any reason that closers can’t pitch multiple innings, as they once did?
CP: It was before my time, so I don’t know exactly when that switch happened—from two or three innings to one inning—but I think that a pitcher’s body does what it is trained to do. They did it back then, so I don’t see why we couldn’t do it nowadays.
There would obviously have to be a little bit of an adjustment period. They’d have to run the bullpen differently because I don’t think too many guys could throw three days in a row, three innings each, and be effective. But I think it’s possible. Your body can do whatever you train it to do. Look at pitchers over in Japan; their starters throw bullpens almost every day, and they don’t have Tommy John problems over there, and that kind of stuff. It’s what you train your body to do and I think that there are guys now who could throw 150 pitches an outing and be fine. But with all the injuries nowadays, and whatnot… it’s just more injury prevention now than it was in the past.
DL: If you’re used to working one inning, is going back out for a second more of a challenge physically or mentally?
CP: If my arm is feeling fine, it would probably be from the neck up that was more of a problem. In the bullpen, pitchers are used to getting up to get warm, and then they’ll sit you down because they don’t want to use you, and then two innings later they’ll get you up again. So I don’t think the sitting down part is an issue. It’s more mental. If you’re used to one inning, or two batters, and you do your job and get out of the inning, some guys check out. They’re like, “All right, I’m done; my day is done,” but then the manager might say, “No, you have one more inning,” or “We want you to face the first two hitters,” or whatever. Then you have to pick it back up again, so I think it’s mostly from the neck up for guys going out there for two or three innings.
DL: Is there a limit to how many times the team will get you up throughout the course of a game?
CP: I don’t know if there is a specific limit. In the past, I know I’ve warmed up three, maybe four times, if we’re on the road and in extra innings. Maybe we’ll score a run in the top of the inning and I have to come in to close it out. So I’ve warmed up three or four times in a game, but I think most managers limit it to twice. They’ll get you up twice and if they don’t use you you’re down for the rest of the game.
DL: What is your normal warm-up routine in the bullpen?
CP: There are different situations. If it’s the eighth inning and I know that I’m going in for the ninth, I definitely warm up differently than if it’s sixth inning and they say I need to be ready for the next batter. When you don’t know that you’re going to go in, you have that adrenaline rush and you tend to warm up faster, and sometimes you think you’re warm before you are. I have a routine, I guess, for that. If they call down and say, “Can you be ready for the next batter?” I just throw as hard as I can and worry about location when I get out there. If they call down and say, “You have the next inning,” then I take my time. I loosen up, try to hit my spots, inside and outside with my fastball—establish that—and then work on my slider. By the time the third out is recorded, I should be ready to come in.
DL: Is there a set number of pitches you want to throw before coming into a game?
CP: No, it just depends on how I’m feeling that day. Earlier in the year, when you’re playing in a lot more cooler weather, sometimes it takes a little longer. You sit out there for seven or eight innings and you have to get your blood flowing. Sometimes in July it takes me five pitches and I feel like I’m ready. So it all depends on how I feel that day and what my workload has been.
DL: You came here from St. Louis, where Dave Duncan has a stellar reputation as a pitching coach. Does he work differently with relievers than he does with starters?
CP: He spends less time with the relievers, just because of the way the game is. The starters have bullpens in between their starts, and that sort of thing, so he runs the relievers differently in that he’s a little more hands-on with the starters. And most teams are, because they’re out there the most. If you’re a good starter, you’re pitching 200 innings a year, and a good reliever is pitching maybe 65-70.
With the relievers, he would mostly work with our mental game, like what we were thinking about when we came into a game. He’s really good at reading scouting reports on hitters and he’s really good at bringing up video and telling us how to use our strengths when we’re coming into a game. It will be things like, if you’re coming in with guys on base, here is where you’re getting your double play from, and that sort of thing.
With the starters is where he does more of his magic, because he’s more hands-on. They’ll throw their bullpen and he’s like, “Why don’t you try this?” It’s kind of hard for a reliever to work on stuff during the season, because we have to be ready every day. If we throw a 20-pitch bullpen, our arm is going to be hanging that night.
DL: Going back to your own game, in which ways are you a different pitcher today than you were 365 days ago?
CP: I’m more confident today. 365 days ago, I was just trying to stay up here. I was still with St. Louis and I was pitching not to get sent down instead of believing that I had a job. Now I know I’m not going anywhere and that I have a big role on the team; I don’t have to worry that if I have a bad outing, I might have to go see the manager after the game. I can have a bad outing and know that I’ll still be here tomorrow, so I can fix whatever was wrong and move on. So I have a lot more confidence in myself, and while I might not show it on the field, or even to my teammates, I know it internally. I’m a young guy with all my options left, so knowing that makes it a lot easier to sleep after a bad outing.