As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s closer: Chris Perez.
Background: The St. Louis Cardinals took Perez, now 26, out of the University of Miami in the sandwich round (No. 42 overall) of the 2006 MLB amateur draft, just three picks after the Indians took David Huff. He quickly began tearing minor-league hitters to shreds and appeared on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in both 2008 and 2009—high praise for a relief pitcher. He made his MLB debut in 2008 and came to Cleveland a year later in the deal that sent Mark DeRosa to the Cardinals.
Last year: Perez went 4-7 with a 3.32 ERA in 59.2 innings and earned 36 saves in 40 opportunities in his first full season as Cleveland’s closer. He was rewarded with an All-Star appearance for his efforts, but his context-neutral numbers suggest that he wasn’t as good as he looked—even the kindest DIPS stat put his true-talent ERA at 4.27, and xFIP put him all the way up to 5.01. Perez has a history of outperforming his peripherals, but even so a discrepancy that dramatic merits at least a little bit of skepticism.
Predictably, the uncertainty surrounding Perez’ true-talent level led to quite a bit of variance in estimating the value of his performance: Baseball-Reference put him at a very good 1.2 wins above replacement, while FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus pegged him as around replacement level.
Key factor: Whether or not Perez can continue to so dramatically defy his DIPS numbers is a big question, but even besides health (he’s working his way back after a bullpen session injury) there’s another factor that is of even greater importance: his strikeout rate. Before last season, Perez had a career K/9 rate of 9.5 and had never whiffed fewer than 8.7 batters per nine innings. But in 2011, his strikeout rate suddenly nosedived to just 5.9 K/9. That’s a huge drop. Perhaps a change this dramatic would be better off visualized graphically:
It wasn’t just a couple months distorting the data, either—only in June did he strike out more than seven batters per nine innings. His fastball velocity dipped a little bit in 2011, but crediting the change to a difference of about a mile an hour doesn’t seem like a satisfactory explanation. His missing more bats is especially important since his walk rate has consistently floated in the neighborhood of 4.0 BB/9.
2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs:
We’ve got quite the spread here, but let’s start where we get general agreement: Perez isn’t as good as he looked in 2010 (1.71 ERA), but he isn’t as bad as his DIPS numbers looked in 2011. His strikeout rate will rebound (at least to some extent), and his walk rate will again round to 4.0 BB/9.
But beyond that? We’ve got Bill James, who thinks Perez will be even better in 2012. We’ve got Steamer calling for him to give up a John Rocker-esque amount of baserunners. We’ve got RotoChamp, who foresees Perez holding hitters to a .243 BABIP…and yet will somehow underperform his peripherals. And there’s Marcel, whose systematic conservatism in projecting saves gives Perez just 19 saves in 64 appearances.
Best-case scenario: Perez is healthy for Opening Day and reminds everyone why he was once expected to join the pantheon of elite closers. Last year is a thing of the past and he goes back to striking out a batter an inning. He gives the Indians 70 frames with an ERA in the low 2.00’s en route to notching well over 40 saves.
Worst-case scenario: Perez isn’t ready for the start of the season and by the time he comes back Vinnie Pestano has already settled into the closer’s role. His strikeout woes continue and he flounders in as he fights for his job. The Indians, unable to afford instability in the back of the bullpen, tap Pestano for the ninth inning and relegate the scuffling Perez to set-up or middle relief duty.
Most likely scenario: It sounds like Perez’ rehab is going well, so barring a setback he shouldn’t miss too much time at the start of the season. He returns his strikeout rate to a respectable level, which helps to negate the inevitable luck-based regression and keeps his ERA from jumping too much higher than the mid-3.00’s. If last year is any indication Pestano would be a better choice to be the Tribe’s relief ace, but Perez’ experience will keep his job safe, at least for this year.