I'll start this off by saying that I realize everything I'm about to say is based on an extremely small sample size. Keep that in mind while reading. Nonetheless, I'm going to give it a stab.
In yesterday afternoon's game against the Los Angeles Angels, Martin Perez made his second start of the 2016 season; a game that ended up being a 3-1 Rangers loss. Other than Nomar Mazara's stellar debut, there was never really a lot to be excited about, so while it feels a bit hackneyed to be singling out a pitcher on a day the offense failed to score more than 1 run, that's exactly what I'm doing.
Martin Perez is now in his age-25 season. In other words, he's no longer that shiny prospect that we all couldn't wait to see arrive on the big league scene. Even though it feels like he's been around for ages, it's still hard to believe that Perez has already been a Major League pitcher for the better part of four seasons. Of course, there was some time lost to injury, but that notwithstanding, he's been around awhile.
As such, there were expectations among many -- myself included -- that two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Martin Perez could be poised for a breakout season. After all, he seemed to really come on strong toward the end of the 2015 season, so I think it's fair to say that there was a very real expectation that the trend would continue.
And yet, as I sat and watched yesterday's start by Perez, I couldn't help but wonder if he's regressed. It was troubling, really: On one hand, you had Jered Weaver dealing for the Angels. He was sitting in the low-80's with a fastball that it simply felt like hitters should have been teeing off on. Then you had Martin Perez, who appeared to be nibbling the corners, afraid to really go after hitters. It was an interested baseball dichotomy.
Now, I've already had it pointed out to me that from a results-oriented standpoint, Perez has been just fine. His 3.65 ERA looks good enough on paper, he's only given up 5 earned runs in 2 starts, and it could be a whole lot worse.
And that's what worries me: It could be a whole lot worse. If things don't change, it will get a whole lot worse.
Against the Angels, Perez went 6.1 innings and didn't record a single strikeout. At the same time, he walked 5 and had a HBP. For the season, that gives him 9 walks, 3 strikeouts, and 2 hit batsmen. To his credit, Perez isn't giving up a ton of home runs, and for the most part, he's inducing ground balls.
This is where predictive measures and results split down two completely separate paths. As I've already mentioned, Perez has an ERA of 3.65 after two starts. However, his FIP is 6.59 and his xFIP is 6.77. The ground ball rate of 58.3% likely has a lot to do with that, as well as a BABIP of .216.
When a pitcher's peripherals looks so bad, but the actual results don't, that's how we end up with a pitcher that has an ERA and FIP/xFIP so vastly different from one another. And that's where Martin Perez finds himself right now. If the current trend continues, there are going to be games where those ground balls start finding more holes. More runs are going to score. The results won't look so great.
There is good news, however. From a peripherals standpoint, the current 2016 sample size isn't really large enough to draw any conclusions from. Yes, a BB/9 of 6.57 and K/9 of 2.19 look downright awful, but if we trust this handy chart from Baseball Prospectus, we can see that walk rate doesn't stabilize until closer to 170 batters faced and strikeout rate doesn't stabilize until closer to 70 batters faced. To this point, Martin Perez has faced 52 batters.
While the strikeout rate is probably never going to be much higher than 6-7 per 9 innings, there's at least some hope that Perez can get the walks down closer to a 2.5 per 9 innings. Still not fantastic, but being a ground ball pitcher is something that's certainly viable.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of Perez's struggles lies in what we're not seeing; that is, the absence of swinging strikes. In the start against the Angels, Perez only managed to induce 5 swinging strikes. Only 2 were on his changeup.
For years, I've seen Perez compared -- perhaps a bit prematurely and unfairly -- to Johan Santana due to his changeup. For Martin Perez to be the most successful version of himself, he needs his changeup to be his strongest pitch. And for that to happen, he's going to need to attack the zone more consistently with his fastball. There's not much incentive for a hitter to swing at a low changeup when he's only seeing fastballs that miss their intended target.
The season is still insanely young, especially when it comes to evaluating pitchers. Nonetheless, it will be worth keeping an eye on Martin Perez over his next few starts to see if he can get some things ironed out. If so, he can still have the breakout year many of us thought we'd see from him. If not, however, Perez could find himself on the short end of some pretty bad outings, and likely sooner rather than later.
It isn't time to panic just yet. With that said, Martin Perez simply has to be better for the rotation -- and by extension, the bullpen -- to succeed on a more consistent basis.