Towards the end of the season it was clear that Chris Perez lacked the confidence to continue his duties as the Indians closer. I’ve defended Perez in the past, but after those meltdowns he was the last guy I wanted on the mound in a tight situation in October.
Now Perez, who was paid just over $7M for his services last season, is arbitration eligible. If brought back, he’ll be overpaid. And for that reason, his days in Cleveland are probably over.
But what if they decide to bring him back?
99% of Tribe fans will groan at the mere thought of Perez in a Tribe uniform in 2014 but just for the sake of argument, let’s say it happens. Is there any reason to think he could handle the job?
Let’s take a look at a few reasons to believe in a Chris Perez revival…
He’s not a swing-and-miss guy… but he does fool hitters
Among pitchers who threw at least 400 9th-inning fastballs this season, Chris Perez’s 13.6 swing-and-miss rate ranked dead last. By comparison, Aroldis Chapman (no surprise here) led the league with 36.1 percent.
But while Perez doesn’t frequently blow the ball past anyone, his fastball does seem to be fooling hitters. Perez led that same group of closers with a called-strike rate of 43.4 percent with his fastball.
Initially I wondered if that may be an inflated number due to Perez falling behind in the count and, to an extent, that may be a contributing factor. However, Perez’s called-strike rate ranked 13th out of 33 qualifying closers in pitcher’s counts, and 5th in two-strike counts.
The home runs may be a fluke
Perez gave up 10 9th-inning home runs this season, second to only the Padres’ Huston Street. Obviously that’s a concerning number for a closer, and one that led to much frustration this season.
But there are extremely good reasons to believe that number will dramatically decrease in 2014.
Among pitchers who threw at least 500 pitches in the 9th inning this season, Perez had the fourth lowest fly ball percentage at just 29.4 percent. By comparison, Street’s fly ball rate was a disturbing 48.3 percent. Overall, 21.7 percent of the fly balls Perez allowed in the 9th inning left the yard – an almost unfathomable 404 percent increase from his career rate entering this season.
So how confident can we be that Perez’s home runs total will drop back down next season? Assuming everything else stays the same, it’s nearly guaranteed.
Take Ervin Santana as a great example. In 2012, Santana led the majors with 39 home runs allowed and a home run to fly ball ratio of 14.8 percent. In 2013, despite throwing nearly 30 more innings, Santana allowed 13 fewer home runs – all thanks to a home run to fly ball ratio that regressed back toward the league average at 8.6 percent.
Small sample size KILLS closers
Take a look at these basic 9th inning opponents stats for two closers this past season .
Closer #1 – .273 Opp BA, .349 Opp On-Base %
Closer #2 – .280 Opp BA, .344 Opp On-Base %
One of these closers is Chris Perez. He was booed off the field multiple times by the hometown fans and eventually relieved of his duties.
The other is Orioles’ closer Jim Johnson. He saved 50 games with a sub-3.00 ERA and will get a nice contract on the free agent market this offseason.
What’s the difference?
It all boils down to some bad luck and a really small sample size. Perez allowed 46 fly balls in the 9th inning this past season. Johnson allowed 42. 10 of those fly balls left the yard against Perez. Only 5 left the yard for Johnson.
If Perez had the same fly ball to home run ratio as Johnson (11.9, which is still above the league average and more than double Perez’s career average) he would have allowed just five home runs.
So let’s play a game of what if… we’ll take those five home runs out of Perez’s stats and turn them into fly ball outs. This drops Perez’s opponents slugging percentage for the season from .507 down to .413. And if we assume each of those home runs were solo shots, his ERA drops from 4.33 to 3.50.
So should we bring back Perez?
Based purely on the money factor, I vote no. But he’s not nearly as bad as he looked at the end of the season and he will likely excel in the role of closer for someone again in the future. I know many old school fans refuse to believe in bad luck, but the stats don’t lie in this case. Perez isn’t Mariano Rivera, but he also isn’t the train wreck he appeared to be in September.