Baseball

Hello (Again) Cleveland: Oliver Pérez Returns

If you’re left-handed and can throw strikes, you have a chance to pitch forever. That appears to be Oliver Pérez’s plan. The 39-year-old southpaw agreed to a minor league deal with Cleveland last week, returning to the fold of the team for whom he’s pitched in the last three seasons. His contract includes an invitation to spring training, a clear path to being the bullpen’s top (and perhaps only) lefty, as well as appearance-based incentives.

Speaking from experience, if you want to catch casual baseball fans off guard, tell them that Pérez is still kicking around the majors. Particularly in New York, where he occasionally excited and often exasperated fans during his four-and-a-half year run with the Mets from 2006-10, the notion that he’s still plying his craft a decade and a half after his near-heroic effort in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS went for naught can get quite a reaction. “Get the —- out of here,” is the usual response.

It’s been quite a journey for Pérez, who debuted in the majors with the Padres in 2002, was traded to the Pirates in the Jason BayBrian Giles blockbuster about 14 months later, and spent a few seasons in Pittsburgh, most notably striking out 239 batters in 196 innings at age 22, a point at which the sky appeared to be the limit. Dealt to the Mets in the Xavier Nady deal in 2006 — seriously, his transaction log is a chance to Remember Some Guys — he generally pitched well before patellar tendinitis turned his three-year, $36 million return via free agency into a sub-replacement level disaster that culminated with his being released in March 2011 while being owed $12 million. Down but not out, he remade himself as a reliever, evolved into a respected elder statesman, and is now heading into his 10th major league season as a lefty specialist, and his 19th overall, the most by any Mexican-born player. In that second life, he spent time with the Mariners, Diamondbacks, Astros and Nationals — and additionally toiled for the Reds in spring training and the Yankees in exotic Scranton/Wilkes-Barre — before resurfacing in Cleveland in mid-2018.

Since then, Pérez has had his year-to-year ups and downs, but he’s been generally quite effective, pitching to a 2.67 ERA and 2.83 FIP in 91 innings while striking out 28.8% of hitters and holding batters to a .256 xwOBA, the majors’ fourth-lowest mark among lefties who’ve thrown at least 500 pitches in that span, behind only José Castillo, Josh Hader, and Aroldis Chapman.

In 2020, Pérez posted a 2.00 ERA and 3.14 FIP, while yielding a .269 xwOBA and wielding an outsized impact in Cleveland’s clubhouse. When Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac snuck out of the team’s hotel in Chicago in violation of COVID-19 health and safety protocols, Pérez reportedly threatened to opt out of playing the remainder of the season if the two pitchers weren’t disciplined, and other players felt similarly. The pair were quarantined and banished to the alternate site, with Clevinger subsequently traded.

Back to performance, it bears noting that half of Pérez’s six walks were of the intentional variety. As you might imagine given the advent of the three-batter minimum rule in 2020, all three intentional passes went to right-handed hitters, namely the Cubs’ Ian Happ, the Brewers’ Jedd Gyorko, and the Pirates’ Josh Bell. Even so, Pérez held the 41 righties he faced to a .260 wOBA (.229/.341/.286) in 2021, that while holding lefties to a .223 wOBA (.185/.258/.222) in 31 PA. Those are hardly sample sizes to hang a hat upon, and it’s worth noting that Pérez was lit up by righties in 2019 (.358 wOBA) but smothered them in ’18 (.138 wOBA). In terms of three-year performance, he stands out as one of only 13 left-handed relievers to hold batters of both hands to wOBAs below .300:

Lefty Relievers Effective Against Both Sides

Name Team IP ERA- FIP- WAR LHBF wOBA vs LH RHBF wOBA vs RH
Will Smith SFG/ATL 134.1 69 78 2.7 165 .195 364 .284
Josh Hader MIL 176.0 62 65 5.1 184 .211 489 .245
Aroldis Chapman NYY 120.0 54 50 4.2 126 .217 366 .252
Aaron Bummer CHW 108.2 60 66 2.3 164 .222 280 .283
Sean Doolittle WSN 112.2 73 81 2.4 131 .233 328 .289
Felipe Vazquez PIT 130.0 54 54 4.2 118 .235 414 .269
Matt Strahm SDP 101.2 64 87 1.2 161 .239 250 .286
Oliver Pérez CLE 91.0 57 64 2.0 191 .240 174 .267
Taylor Rogers MIN 157.1 63 60 4.5 195 .242 434 .278
Zack Britton BAL/NYY 121.0 52 82 1.5 137 .253 352 .255
Jose Alvarado TBR 102.2 78 72 2.2 149 .256 300 .285
Tony Sipp HOU/WSN 59.2 67 66 1.2 129 .260 114 .275
Tony Watson SFG 138.0 78 88 1.6 208 .297 357 .272

Relievers with .300 or lower wOBA against at least 100 left-handed and 100 right-handed batters since 2018.

Obviously Pérez is no Chapman or Hader, but at first glance, he’s not out of place in that group; in line with his xwOBA standing, his .253 wOBA overall during that three-year span ranks fifth among lefty relievers behind only Julio Urías (considering only his time out of the bullpen, not as a starter), Hader, Castillo, and Chapman. At the same time, he’s at an advantage relative to most of the others above because the majority of the batters he faced (52.3%) were lefties; Sipp (53.1%) is the only other one the group for whom that’s true, but from there the next highest rates are from Strahm (39.2%) and Bummer (36.9%), reflecting far less specialization. Greater exposure to righties might have taken a bite out of Pérez’s numbers.

Despite his solid performance in recent years, Pérez is yet another player whose earning power has taken a hit amid the game’s post-pandemic economics. After guaranteed salaries of $2.5 million in 2019 and then $2.75 million (before proration) last year, he had to settle for a minor league deal that will pay him $1.25 million if he’s in the majors, though he can get back to last year’s level if he maxes out his incentives: $150,000 for reaching 30 games pitched, $200,000 apiece for 35, 40, and 45 games pitched, and $250,000 apiece for 50, 55, and 60 games pitched. He averaged 61 appearances from 2013-19, never dipping below 50, and making 67 in ’19, which is to say that those incentives are attainable.

Pérez’s 2020 performance does carry some warning signs that justify Cleveland proceeding with more caution than before. His fastball velocity dipped nearly two miles per hour from 2019 to ’20, and he missed fewer bats. Pitch Info, Sports Info Solutions and Statcast differ greatly in terms of classifying his four-seamer and sinker, but going with Statcast’s version of the story, his sinker (which he threw 43.1% of the time in 2020, compared to 13.9% four-seamers) dipped from 91.8 mph to 90.0, and his slider from 78.5 mph to 76.1 mph. His swinging strike rate on the slider dropped from 17.9% to 9.1%, his overall swinging strike rate fell from 13.1% to 7.5%, and his strikeout rate plunged from 27.7% to 19.4%. Maybe it was the unusual circumstances of the season, maybe it was age, but all of that does offer some amount of concern.

The good news for Pérez is that his path to a roster spot is clear. With the rather shocking decline of closer Brad Hand’s option amid a massive payroll reduction (from $86 million to $53 million via RosterResource’s estimates), the Clevelanders are notably short of left-handed relief alternatives at their upper levels. With 23-year-old Logan Allen, who made all of three relief appearances for the club last year, likely to be the fifth starter, 24-year-old Kyle Nelson, who made one big league appearance last year, appears to be the next man below Pérez on the depth chart. Nelson entered last year as their 29th-ranked prospect but has totaled just 26 innings at Double-A and 12 at Triple-A from 2019, and on the team’s latest prospect list, he’s viewed more as organizational depth. As Eric Longehangen wrote recently, “Nelson will show you a 70-grade breaking ball once in a while but righty batters see the ball for a long time against him, even though he appears to hide it well. He only throws about 90 mph, and I think he’d need a third pitch to be more than a LOOGY.”

Below Nelson on the depth chart but more compelling is converted outfielder Anthony Gose, who debuted in the majors in 2012 and converted to pitching in ’17. Prior to the pandemic, he had made it as high as Double-A in both 2018 (with Texas) and ’19 (with Cleveland) but walked a combined 43 batters in 37.1 innings at that level while striking out 40. He’s made significant progress since then, as his winter league stats suggest; last winter in Puerto Rico, he struck out 13 and walked only three in 9.2 innings for Atenienses de Manati, and this year in the Dominican Republic, he struck out 10 and walked three (while allowing just five hits and one run in 10 innings for Toros del Este). Via Longenhagen, last spring before the shutdown, he was touching 100 mph with his fastball, showing a plus curveball, and had struck out nine batters in 5.2 Cactus League innings. Everybody loves a good position player-to-pitcher conversion, and this one could pan out, but Gose is a long way from supplanting Pérez.

Right now it appears that if Cleveland are going to upgrade on the venerable lefty, it will be with somebody from outside the organization in trade; with Justin Wilson and Tony Watson signing deals recently, the free agent cupboard is suddenly rather bare of anything resembling an impact lefty reliever. Thus it quite probably will be left to Pérez (sorry) to hold down the fort in an otherwise all-righty bullpen.

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