Martín Pérez has been around Major League Baseball for quite a while now. In fact, you’d be forgiven for not realizing he’s just 31 years old given he’s been pitching at the major league level since 2012 (I’m mostly saying that because I was also surprised at this).
And for most of that career, Pérez has been…not great. Since he started pitching in 2012, Pérez has had only one season in which he posted an ERA under 4.30, and that was 2013 when he posted a 3.62 ERA over 20 starts and 124.1 innings.
But this year, Pérez has been the exact opposite of what he’s been in the past. In fact, he’s not just been good, he’s been really good. As of this writing, Pérez has started eight games, thrown 49.1 innings, and has posted a 1.64 ERA, 2.41 FIP, and a 1.01 WHIP (albeit with a 19.9% strikeout rate).
If you’re skeptical about a 31-year-old pitcher who hasn’t been good in nearly a decade suddenly having the fifth-best ERA in baseball, welcome to the club. So is Martín Pérez actually this good?
Let’s find out.
Déjà Vu All Over Again?
I’ve been writing about baseball for a bit now, and I’ve done a good handful of pitcher analyses, trying to figure out whether a pitcher who’s suddenly good is actually good.
When something like what Pérez is doing happens, there’s always a reason for it, and most commonly, that reason is something has changed in their repertoire—they’ve added a new pitch, they’ve tweaked one or two of their existing pitches, or they’ve changed their pitch usage.
Funnily enough, back in 2019, Pérez added a new pitch to his repertoire, a cutter—and that cutter was really good. In fact, it was his primary pitch in 2019, it was the best cutter in baseball by pVAL, and I even wrote a whole article about it.
Now if you read the intro to that article, you’ll be reading something a bit familiar, because, in the second paragraph I talk about how in early May of 2019, Pérez was posting a great ERA with a solid FIP and I was wondering if it was legit.
The answer ended up being no, it was not legit. While Pérez’s cutter was excellent in 2019, one pitch does not a great pitcher make, and Pérez ended the year with a 5.12 ERA through 165.1 innings.
So if this is all sort of feeling a bit like déjà vu, I get it. But the thing is, Pérez has made some changes—not adding a pitch or changing a pitch, but instead adjusting his pitch sequencing and location.
Location Location Location (And Also Pitch Sequencing)
Pérez’s cutter remained pretty good in 2020, but by 2021, that cutter was really bad. It was no longer a swing-and-miss pitch like it was in 2019 and hitters were teeing off on it, with a .422 wOBA and .239 ISO against the pitch.
So what’s Pérez done this year? He’s tweaked his pitch usage.
Pérez went from using his cutter around 30% of the time in 2019 and 2020 and 28.8% of the time in 2021 to 21% of the time so far this year. And instead, he’s utilizing his sinker a lot more. Here’s a look at the pitch:
Pérez’s sinker was a decent weak-contact pitch last year, posting a .299 wOBA and .111 ISO against, and it’s been even better this year, posting roughly the same wOBA against (.303 so far) but a much better ISO against (.043), meaning that, while hitters are still making contact with it, it’s almost all weak contact. In total, hitters are slashing .271/.346/.314 against the pitch.
Part of why it’s working so well is how well Pérez is locating the pitch. Take a look at where he located the sinker in 2021 (left) compared to where he’s been locating it this year (right):
He is very consistently locating that sinker right on the edge of the strike zone, which is great because that leads to more swings and misses (it’s had a modest jump from a 3.8% swinging-strike rate in 2021 to a 6.9% rate this year) and, more importantly, it leads to more weak contact.
While the sinker has been solid for Pérez this year, the real money has been coming from his changeup:
Pérez has always had a pretty solid changeup, but this year, it’s been excellent, posting a 54.5% chase rate, 40.4% zone rate, and a 20.5% swinging-strike rate (yep, that’s a money pitch) alongside a .131 wOBA and .039 ISO against.
Again, the pitch itself isn’t all that different, but Pérez is doing a phenomenal job of locating it. Here’s another location comparison, with 2021 on the left and 2022 on the right:
I mean, I don’t know if you could do a better job of locating a changeup. That’s basically as close to perfection as you can get.
Now, if your next question is “so is his cutter location better too?” the answer is actually no! Pérez has been locating his cutter sort of all over the strike zone:
I wouldn’t say I love that location, especially how over-the-middle it is, but the cutter is working regardless, posting a .189 wOBA and .061 ISO against (likely because it’s playing off of his sinker and changeup as a secondary offering rather than his primary offering).
So…Is He Really This Good?
The answer to that question is a bit complicated.
I love the command Pérez has had, and all that great command has led to loads of weak contact. Take a look at hitters’ average launch angle against Pérez last year (on the left) compared to this year (on the right):
Last year, it was a lot of balls being launched at ideal angles. So far this year, it’s been a whole bunch of balls on the ground. Unsurprisingly, Pérez has seen his groundball rate shoot up from 43.6% last year to 55.8% this year, the highest it’s been in his career since 2015 when it was 59.9%.
Pérez isn’t striking people out. He’s never been a big strikeout guy, but a 19.9% strikeout rate is pretty paltry and also fairly in line with what Pérez has been doing his whole career.
That said, Pérez also isn’t walking people, posting a career-best 6.3% walk rate so far this year, which again speaks to his improved command.
But being a low-strikeout command-focused contact pitcher can be dicey. So far this year, Pérez has yet to give up a home run, and obviously, that’s not going to continue. Last year, Pérez had a 16.1% HR/FB rate and has posted a HR/FB rate of at least 12.5% in every season since 2017, so it stands to reason he’ll have a HR/FB rate in that ballpark. However, if this excellent command keeps up, I could see his HR/FB rate being a bit more muted than normal.
The type of pitcher Pérez seems to be also has pretty limited fantasy value. Sure, a low ERA is valuable—that’s always valuable in fantasy—but you need strikeouts too, and Pérez is not going to give you that. Sure, his changeup looks great, it’s been an excellent swing-and-miss pitch, but that pitch alone isn’t going to crank up Pérez’s strikeout numbers suddenly. I mean, it’s working that way relative to Pérez’s past, as his 19.9% strikeout rate is a career-best so far. But in comparison to the rest of the league, a strikeout rate under 20% is pretty uninspiring.
Nick has been calling Pérez a Vargas Rule so far this year, meaning he’s a guy who’s suddenly being good and you should just keep starting him until he gives you a reason to bench him. I think as of now, that’s exactly what Pérez is.
Pérez will have value, but do I expect him to be this good? No, I don’t. I’m really concerned some of the luck he’s been having (you know, like not giving up any home runs) is going to come back to bite him soon.
That being said, Pérez is clearly doing something different here, and he’s doing something really good. He’s commanding his pitches really well and it’s working. If he can consistently keep that command up (and that’s no easy task), I could still see him being a decent fantasy asset.
As of now, Pérez’s SIERA is sitting at 3.65. If he keeps up this great command, I could see his ERA regressing to something like that, which in all honesty, is still pretty good.
So what should you do with Pérez? If he’s available, pick him up and keep starting him. But just know there are likely rougher days ahead. And if you can find someone in your league who thinks Pérez is suddenly an ace, sell on him as fast as you can.
Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire