The Mysterious Case of Oliver Perez

Oliver Perez is an enigma.

While many pitchers have displayed inconsistency, Perez’s highs and lows are remarkable, not just from game to game, but season to season.

There are endless theories for Perez’s problems, ranging from the mechanical to the psychological, and many prescriptions to solve them.

He showed encouraging signs Sunday against the Yankees, striking out eight and walking none over seven innings, but he’s been so inconsistent that it’s hard to know if it was meaningful progress or just another blip. The one thread running through Perez’s numbers appears to be a simple one—if he throws even a decent amount of strikes, he will be successful.

Perez has been mystifying for nearly five seasons now. In 2004, then with the Pirates, he posted an ERA+ of 145—the 142nd-best mark of any starting pitcher since 1980. But he did so at age 22—only three pitchers beat that mark at a younger age: Mark Prior, whose brilliant career has been derailed by injuries, Dwight Gooden, who lost his career to arm injuries and personal problems, and Bret Saberhagen, who went on to post a better-than-average ERA+ in 11 of his next 12 seasons. Even Prior and Gooden together posted another 11 such seasons.

But Perez followed his 2004 with a 5.85 ERA in 2005, good for an ERA+ of just 72. In 2006, he got even worse, putting up a 6.55 ERA for an ERA+ of 67. A pitcher who had electrified at age 22 got dealt to the Mets by age 24—and as a throw-in. It didn’t help that the Pirates tried to remake Perez’s motion completely—though they lacked any success in doing so with pitchers, they tried it with their finest prospect. The results were predictable.

Working with Rick Peterson, then the Mets’ pitching coach, Perez put up a terrific season in 2007, though his occasional hiccups were so extreme that it masked much of his success. Perez put up an ERA+ of 120, finishing in the National League’s top-10 in wins, strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings, and hits allowed. The Mets had reason to expect Perez would help to anchor the 2008 staff, although tellingly, they refrained from locking him up with a long-term contract, preferring to see him repeat his success, and risking losing the Scott Boras client to free agency after the season.

Coming into Sunday, their gamble had proven to be justified, with Perez posting a 5.65 ERA, walking 52 in 83 1/3 innings, and seeming to have lost some of the movement on his three pitches.

So how to reconcile the oft-cited bad Perez and the occasional really good Perez (which Perez insisted Sunday is “the real Perez”)? And what will it take for Perez to help the Mets in the second half of 2008?

For one thing – an obvious one — he needs to cut down on the walks. The interesting part of Perez’s talent is that he doesn’t need to display pinpoint control to succeed—in both of his successful seasons, he ranked in the National League’s top 10 in walks, averaging 3.7 walks per nine innings in 2004 and just over four walks per nine in 2007. But in 2005, 2006 and 2008 thus far, Perez averaged 6.1, 5.4, and 5.1 walks per nine innings. So while his necessary control is better than he’s had in 2008, it is still well shy of what most pitchers need.

His overall percentage of strikes also needs to improve, though over his past seven starts, that has already occurred. With Sunday’s stellar performance, which included 72 strikes in 106 pitches, Perez inched up to just under 60 percent of his season’s pitches for strikes. In his best season of 2004, that number stood at 64 percent, while hovering around 62 percent in 2005-2007. But in 2008, Perez posted a 64.2 percent strike rate in his last five starts.

Why is that important? Well, Perez’s control was so wild that he was actually inducing fewer fly balls, which, along with strikeouts, are key to his success. His career fly ball rate is at 52.4 percent of balls in play. In 2008 that number has dropped to 44.4 percent. But in his last five starts, Perez is at a 51.1 percent fly ball rate.

Not coincidentally, Perez’s ERA is at 3.59 over these last five starts.

Perez just needs to throw a minimal amount of strikes to be successful. And increasingly, as his career has gone on, he’s been able to do considerably better: Perez has had 10 zero-walk starts in his career, and seven of them have come since the start of the 2007 season, with one each on 2004, 2005 and 2006.

As long as he finds ways to add spectacular meltdowns to the mix, his team – and his team’s fans – won’t fully trust him. But if he can merely be decent, control-wise, he can be a huge help to the Mets in 2008.

The Mysterious Case of Oliver Perez