Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Quite A Few Walks In The Park
By Ben Valentine

Originally, I had planned on doing a two part look at Zack Greinke and Jeremy Bonderman. However, a couple of people I talked to about this suggested that I also take a peek at the Pirates’ Oliver Perez, since he had been so downright awful this year. So, since I, like the rest of baseball, was high on Perez to start the season, I figured why not? For a quick refresher, let’s take a look at the season which made Perez a high draft pick in many fantasy leagues.

2004: 12-10, 2.99 ERA, 196 IP, 145 H, 81 BB, 239 Ks, 22 Hrs, .207 Opp BA, 1.15 WHIP, 10.97 K/9, 2.95 K/BB, 1.01 Hr/9, 3.72 BB/9, .74 G/F

Those numbers are pretty damn good overall. There are certainly some red flags, like the horrific walks per nine, the home runs and the ground ball/flyball ratio. In fact, these are similar to what Zack Greinke has done this year. However, unlike Greinke, Perez had dominating stuff, shown by his unreal strikeout numbers. Walking nearly four batters a game is a sure means for trouble, unless batters are missing your pitches a great deal. Still, Perez was somewhat lucky last year. The .207 Opp BA would be hard to repeat. However if he continued to improve on his control, then it would not matter. Being that Perez was just 23 coming into the season, people were optimistic. Then this happened:

2005: 6-5, 6.05 ERA, 89.1 IP, 91 H, 55 BB, 86 Ks, 22 Hrs, .270 Opp BA, 1.63 WHIP, 8.96 K/9, 1.56 K/BB, 2.22 Hrs/9, 5.54 BB/9, .62 G/F

And you thought Greinke’s year was bad. Perez is walking five and a half batters per nine while giving up an average of two homers per nine innings! That’s going to spell disaster when your WHIP is a miserable 1.63. His K’s are down this year, but that isn’t his problem. It’s the walks and home runs. The Opp BA also rose, but that was to be expected, especially when he’s falling behind hitters so much. So what happened?

Perez has always been a pitcher with control issues. When he was traded to the Pirates in the Brian Giles deal, that was his biggest knock. Like many young power pitchers, he could not always locate his stuff. In 2004, he certainly improved his command, though it was nothing to write home about. His strikeouts totals and Opp BA were so good however, it didn’t matter. So I checked back to 2003, to see what Perez’s numbers looked like. I was in for somewhat of a surprise.

2003: 4-10, 5.47 ERA, 127.2 IP, 129 H, 77 BB, 141 Ks, 22 Hrs, .263 Opp BA, 1.61 WHIP, 10.02 K/9, 1.83 K/BB, 1.55 Hrs/9, 5.42 BB/9, .93 G/F

Those numbers look familiar? They should. Outside of the ground ball/fly ball ratio and strikeouts, they’re pretty much the same as 2005. Perez has literally taken a step backwards exactly one season in every sense of the word. That is distressing for fantasy owners who are looking for some reliability and consistency from the Pirates’ lefty. However, for Pirates themselves, it isn’t as big a deal. Perez’s problem isn’t his stuff or his arm; which is always the real fear. He just still hasn’t learned location.

So why the step back? This is a guy who put himself out six weeks when he broke his toe kicking a laundry basket out of frustration. Do you need to ask? He’s immature. That and realistically, his control never has been very good. Even in his breakout 2004, he was walking nearly four batters per nine innings. That’s not the sign of a guy who has real command over his pitches. In my opinion, this isn’t as mystifying as Greinke’s sudden inability to find the strike zone, or even Jeremy Bonderman’s. He’s a guy who never completely got over his biggest flaw. He showed improvement and then slipped back. He’ll have to take a step forward again. The good news is he can’t get much worse.

Eventually I believe Perez will mature enough to learn what he needs to gain the necessary control to become a true ace. My guess is he posts an ERA in the 4.00’s next year while dropping his walk rate down under five batters per nine. With his stuff, that should be enough to offset the loads of home runs he surrenders and get his ERA back to the realm of respectability. If he improves his control, then the Opp BA should also drop as hitters won’t see as many of the favorable counts they no doubt get against him now.

Why the confidence in Perez? Unlike both Bonderman and Greinke, he’s done it on this level. He just needs to find a level of consistency which will come with age. It took Randy Johnson years before he became a great pitcher. Perez is just 24. If he’s still struggling at 27, then it’s time to get worried. Honestly, you have greater patience with guys who strike out a batter an inning. That means Perez might just get till he’s 30 to figure it out.

Most importantly I think the look at these three pitchers have shown just how important control is for a young major league starter. With all three, the tell tale sign of their struggles wasn’t really strikeouts, or opponents’ batting average, or home runs allowed. Whether they had overpowering stuff or just solid stuff didn’t matter. When the walks went up, so did their ERAs. And whether or not they become the big time pitchers they were billed to be is entirely dependent on those free passes coming down.

-Update: Monday night Bonderman returned to mound and was pounded, surrendering seven runs off eleven hits in 4.2 innings. He didn’t walk a batter (ironically) and struck out three. Considering he got bombed by the Royals of all teams, I’d say the elbow has become an issue. There’s no reason for the Tigers to send him back out there. Tommy John surgery might be inevitable, but I’d imagine the only chance for it to be avoided is if he gets solid rest. What do the Tigers have to gain by throwing him out there these next two weeks? He shouldn’t have pitched tonight. Shut him down for the year already.

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