What if I told you that in 2020, one of the most useful pitchers on the Cleveland Indians was nearly 40 years old, a failed starter, and could barely break 90 miles an hour with his fastball? A guy without some kind of age- and physics-pitch, just a dude who, at first glance, should be mediocre at best and downright bad at worst? Wouldn’t you think that “effective” was just a euphemism for “least bad”? That would be an understandable reaction. But no, instead, Oliver Pérez was pretty damn good this year. With how new rules changed the way pitchers had to manage batters, he was as vital to the success of the relief corps as anyone
With the new three-batter minimum, the world of the LOOGY (or in some pitchers’ cases, ROOGY) is swiftly coming to an end. Not too many teams roll four or five lefties in a row, and if they do, they’re able to platoon, especially in 2020. Between the new rule and the expanded rosters because of COVID, a relief pitcher needed to make hay against whoever they had to face. Brought to the team a couple years ago as a specialist for the most part though, Pérez found himself facing more righties than lefties, 41 to 31, for the first time since 2014. For an elder statesman like Pérez, that’s pretty impressive, especially with the numbers he put up.
I didn’t expect him to be terrible, but the level of effectiveness was downright astounding, combined with the comparative heavy workload. Despite being almost twice the age of some of his bullpen-mates, Pérez faced 72 batters, tied for fourth most among Tribe relievers. he went and posted a 2.00 ERA, allowed just 13 hits, and at 26.7%, had the third lowest hard-hit rate (batted balls greater than 95 mph) on the team. That’s pretty impressive for a greybeard in a game that’s all velocity, all the time these days.
One neat little quirk, Perez faced 72 batters in the most home run-happy era in baseball, 12 times in a high leverage situation, and didn’t allow single home run. That includes facing the Twins and Cubs for 29 of those 72 PA’s, which means big swings and short fences, respectively. I think that alone deserves some recognition. The guy looks like he’s throwing batting practice, but hey, it works. You can’t expect him to double (or more) his workload and keep that up, but for 60 games at least, he was a rock in the bullpen, about as lockdown as the Tribe could hope for.
To be clear, there’s certainly room for regression here. He only struck out 19.4% of batters, a career low by a large margin. In a year where the average batter struck out 23.4% of the time, in an era where the strikeout is an expectation of relief pitching, that’s not a good sign. Combine that with the 8.3% walk rate, his highest mark in four years, and you have to wonder what kind of razors’ edge Pérez is dancing on. His FIP was a full run and change higher than the ERA at 3.14, and his expected ERA was 3.26. Not dreadful by any means, but still, that’s a lot of wiggle room in the wrong direction.
For all his failings, for all those swords of Damocles hanging over his greying head, he was effective this year, and I guess was able to tap into his experience as a starter all those years ago with the Mets to expertly manage facing both lefties and righties effectively. It feels like Perez has been pitching for my entire life, or at least as long as I’ve been cognizant of baseball. I still remember living in New England and listening to Mets fans complain about him on WFAN. These are indelible memories for me, but he’s proven those to be wrong these last few years.
Regardless of who you are, superstar or journeyman, specialist, or jack-of-all-trades, usually age does catch up to you. It’s going to get him too, and his exit from the game will be quiet and understandable. Until that time, though, having an old dude do this is kind of fun to see. Hopefully, we get another year out of him.