It’s open season on Mets starter Oliver Perez.
Billy Wagner ripped him for failing to compete, after Perez gave up five walks and seven runs in 1 2/3 innings on April 30. Earlier, Willie Randolph had criticized Perez for failing to go deep into games, even though Randolph twice removed Perez in the sixth inning when Perez had yet to allow a run. After his recent poor outing, the New York Post led with, “The Mets are running out of patience with the maddeningly consistent Oliver Perez.”
OK, so now what?
Unless the Mets think they’re going to sign a free agent this winter to replace Perez in the rotation — one who is coming off of a season in the National League top ten in ERA and strikeouts, who averaged better than six innings per start, who has electric stuff, and is not yet 27 years old, they’d better figure out a way to fix the problem rather than whining about it. Because by every reasonable measure, Perez is everything his critics say he isn’t—and an option the Mets can ill-afford to lose when he hits free agency after the season.
Perez’s potential has, in this case, been his curse. He has the makings of a number-one starter—and anytime he falls short of that, there has been a laser-beam focus on what he can’t do, rather than what he can do.
Take Perez’s supposed penchant for blowups. Such a problem would normally show up in the form of an inability to pitch deep into games. But Perez averaged 6.1 innings per start last season—a higher mark than teammate John Maine or any Mets pitcher. League-wide, he ranked fifteenth last year, with only number-one or number-two starters on any other team ahead of him.
And only once last year did he fail to pitch at least three innings—it isn’t as if he threw a bunch of complete games, averaged out by one-inning stints. Maine also failed to go three innings once last year. Tom Glavine did it twice—once on the last day of the season.
Sometimes, pitchers simply don’t have it.
As for Perez’s failure to go deep into games so far this season, it is true he hasn’t pitched six full innings in five of his first six starts. But in three of them, Perez worked 5 2/3. Twice, he hadn’t given up a run. On the third occasion, he’d retired his last two batters faced. And his pitch counts in the three games were 94, 108 and 100—asking for at least one more out would not have overstretched him, considering he threw more than 110 pitches 11 times last season, with a high of 122. But Randolph, not Perez, ended his outing each time.
Perez has also suffered for the sins of others. While his ERA of 3.56 ranked ninth in the National League last year, it has been pointed out that Perez led the league in unearned runs. The implication is that Perez is truly a bad pitcher, once all of his run-allowing is accounted for.
But while Perez allowed a league-high 20 unearned runs last season, the reason is not that Perez has some flaw that only asserts itself after an error is committed. Rather, the Mets committed many more errors with Perez on the mound than any other starter.
Since the start of the 2007 season, the team has committed 31 errors in Oliver Perez’s 35 starts. By contrast, New York committed just 16 errors in John Maine’s 38 starts over than same period. For Glavine, New York had 18 errors in 31 starts.
Of course, critics will be quick to point out that Perez’s wildness—he averaged 4 walks per nine innings last season—might be responsible for the errors. Yet Maine averaged better than 3.5 walks per nine innings last year. It stretches plausibility to maintain that the Mets lose their ability to field due to one extra walk every 18 innings.
And Perez has not had this problem throughout his career, though his wildness was far worse prior to 2007. In his career, 90.1 percent of Perez’s runs allowed have been earned runs, including 2007. The proven veteran and Hall of Famer Tom Glavine checks in at 91.1 percent; Pedro Martinez, arguably the finest pitcher of his era, is at 90.7 percent.
The most inexplicable part of the public flaying of Perez by Randolph and Wagner is the Mets need Perez, both this season and beyond. This year, a Perez who merely repeats his 2007 would give New York a third starter far better than those possessed by division rivals Atlanta or Philadelphia, along with nearly every team in the National League.
And with Perez set to hit the free agent market, plenty of pitching-starved teams will recognize that not only does he have the potential to be far better than his career so far—don’t forget, he is only in Year Two of a completely reconstructed pitching motion—but that 2007, which might well be his floor, already placed him among the league’s better pitchers.
For an organization bereft of major-league-ready alternatives, the loss would be staggering.