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The Sad Story of Rafael Perez

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There's been a lot of moaning about Raffy Perez lately. This is not unanticipated. Perez has followed up on a season in which he was clearly one of the very worst regularly used pitchers in baseball, as evidenced by this chart that lists the pitchers that posted ERAs over 6.50 while appearing in 40 games, with a start to the 2010 season that again places him among the very worst pitchers in baseball. What happened here?

Was Perez Ever All That Special?

Raffy was always a weird player. He began his career as a good not great starting pitching prospect that the Indians started to try out in varying roles as he moved up the ladder. Still, the guy was starting a lot of games, not to all that great effect, and although he got his feet wet in the big league bullpen in 2006, he was still in the AAA rotation at the outset of the 2007 season. When he came up to the big league club in May he had appeared only once out of the Buffalo bullpen and had started 7 games. It's easy to mythologize this in retrospect but Perez was not the equivalent of, say, Chris Perez. He was not even the equivalent of Jess Todd. I don't mean any disrespect to Perez but, frankly, it would be more like Zach Jackson suddenly becoming a lights-out reliever in 2008. There was no track record for Perez as a high-leverage bullpen option that I can see and as a starter he was not a guy who showed the ability to strike batters out. 

So, he came up as a long man to shove at the backend of the bullpen and, almost instantly, he became an absolute stud. He was really special over a 60-odd inning span in 2007 becoming, without question, one of the best relievers in baseball. He looked so good that his odd pedigree became a total footnote and it took two years of absolute incompetence for me to even go back and realize how unlikely the Raffy P. creation story was. Chalk it up to the magic of 2007.

All that history is just a meandering way of avoiding droning over the numbers which make it clear that Perez, while he may have been somewhat lucky (.248 BABIP against, 84% of men LOB), was obviously very special at some point. He dominated the heart of opponent's lineups regularly.

Did 2008 Perez = 2007 Perez?

During the death march of 2008, Perez was one of the few bright spots. Although he didn't dominate as he had in 2007 (that was a once in a lifetime run of success), his peripherals stayed extremely strong and he certainly seemed like a reliable bullpen arm, someone that compared favorably to Betancourt during his 2003-2007 run with the Tribe. And, even if you dig, he looks like the same guy: still throwing half fastballs, half sliders. The slider, always Raffy's bread and butter, remained one of the best pitches anywhere, worth 13 runs more than your average slider according to FanGraphs if you like to consider your pitches that way.

The big difference in his 2008 and 2007 seasons is the innings jump, from 60 to 76. He didn't really appear worse for wear: he had a terrible September and October but that seemed BABIP driven and he struck out 10 while walking only 1. In other words, there didn't appear to be any cause for concern with Perez entering 2009 and, indeed, most counted him as the most reliable member of the Indians' bullpen that year.

What Happened Numbers-Wise?

Again, hardly seems worth dicing the numbers. The answer is: everything. Strikeouts plummeted, walks climbed, H/9 skyrocketed. According to FanGraphs, he started going away from the slider, seeing a 60-40 mix with the fastball, and the slider also climbed 2 MPH in velocity. Essentially, Perez just got bad: he had the ultimate pitcher's secret sauce of K:BB and that number became worse than pedestrian. So, numbers-wise, details-wise, there's not a lot that interests me here. It's just a terrific couple of years followed by an abysmal couple of years. Perez used to be good at nearly everything and now he's very bad at nearly everything. That's what happened, exactly.

Does This Ever Happen To Anyone But Us?

I've never felt the angst that others do about Raffy. This is one instance where I don't feel "Why us?!?" but instead just shrug my shoulders. I don't think Perez is all that unique in the context of baseball at large: many relievers, young and old, go from great to bad in short periods of time. Perez existed in some pretty elite company but it's not a club that you're not allowed to leave. He comps decently to Guillermo Mota, JJ Putz, and, especially, Brad Lidge. Relievers' inherent volatility is well-trod territory:   part of it's the nature of the work and part of it's the nature of the kind of pitcher that gets pulled into the job. By the former, I mean that relievers are constantly either benefiting from or being snakebit by the size of their samples. A reliever can have  a horrible multi-year stretch because he loses his release point for a number of  innings that would be a blip for a starter. What I mean by the type of pitchers that become relievers can be best expressed through the lens of Rafael Perez.

Relievers are rarely truly elite pitchers from the time they arrive in the minors. They are, usually, pitchers that have failed as starters and then demonstrated that they have a repertoire that, though limited, can be combined with moxie to get outs in the late innings. This is Perez to a T and Perez is already well over his expected value to the major league club if you consider what his minor league track record forecasted.

Additionally, we should also consider that relievers are often artists with a pitch that they did not find as effective as a starter. When you only have to throw a handful sliders or splitters in an appearance, as opposed to a whole start's worth, you can throw them in a way that you wouldn't otherwise. Perez's slider was not an instrument of doom when he was a starter. It became one for two years as a reliever and, now, it's not again. Doesn't it seem likely that what ever he suddenly started doing in those two years to become so dominant has caught up with him? His minor league inning totals don't matter because he became an entirely different pitcher when he became a reliever.

In other words, be thankful for what you once had. His track record didn't even promise you that.