Nobody was happy to see Oliver Perez join the Indians. Nobody was upset either, it was just something that happened, yet another half-remembered name of a journeyman reliever that’s probably done something good in baseball at some point in his career. There might have been some hope, somewhere, that he’d be the out-of-nowhere guy for the 2018 Indians because hope is forever. His numbers don’t engender excitement – the career 4.45 ERA and 4.50 FIP, the 33.5 percent grounder rate – but hey, he’s gotten a lot of K’s in the past. This year he’s having a great start for the Indians. He’s also diverged from his own past.
Perez has been a pretty typical archetype of reliever in the past, mostly a fastball/slider guy who also dabbled in sinkers when those became in vogue at the turn of the decade. But it was always fastball first, and figure it out afterward. Since 2015 though, he’s flipped the script, throwing a plurality of sliders each season. This year it’s taken yet another leap, as he’s throwing 47.5 percent sliders, comfortably a career high:
Slider use is up across baseball, especially among relievers. A bullpen arm throws a slider 19.1 percent of the time this year and 19.5 percent last year after rising steadily from the 17.7 mark hit in 2010. It seems to come in ebbs and flows though, seeing as in 2006 relievers also threw it 19.5 percente of the time. So maybe it’s cyclical. Fastball use is down too, and has fallen each season since pitch tracking began in 2002 from 66.8 that year down to 57.7 percent this year. So Perez is certainly following the trends, which is good. Slider are easier to hit than fastballs, and he’s trying to avoid being hit. He may have found something in his slider recently too. He’s getting more vertical break out of it than he ever has:
It’s not a huge change, and those variance bars on the graph are a bit wide for comfort, but the fact he’s getting any downward break at all is heartening. Those flat, Frisbee-like sliders can’t fool a hitter nearly as well. It could be part of what’s allowing the 50 percent ground ball rate on sliders he’s allowing, the lowest mark since his rookie year in 2007 and eight points better than his third best mark in 2008. More importantly, he’s allowing a line drive off the slider only 12.5 percent of the time, again a career low:
So there’s something here. What it is, we aren’t sure yet. He’s only thrown 94 total pitches this year, only appeared in eight games. We’re plainly dealing in a sample size issue. So we’ll have to wait and see. His whiff rate on his slider is his second lowest rate at 13.3 percent, topped (bottomed?) only by last year. And he’s been very lucky against righties, forcing a mere .125 BABIP against them. So there’s lots of moving parts. But the movement of the slider, and the success he’s had with it, that’s something to be hopeful for. The Indians shouldn’t have to rely on Oliver Perez down the stretch because that’s a worrisome sentence to even contemplate. A move is assumed, so his becoming some kind of fourth best reliever sounds perfect. This new approach for him is heartening though, and if it leads to success we better get used to him. Which is fine.