Meet this year’s late-blooming ASG candidate

Here’s how Rangers’ Pérez has blossomed at age 31

June 27th, 2022

This offseason, the Rangers took a flier on left-hander Martín Pérez -- a familiar face for the franchise -- in the offseason, giving him a one-year $4 million contract, figuring he could eat innings for a Texas rotation in need of depth.

Pérez, who turned 31 in April, has done that and much more. The veteran is having the best year of his career by far and looks likely to be headed for this year's All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium.

As of Sunday, Pérez ranks second in the American League in ERA (1.96) among qualified starters behind Rays starter Shane McClanahan. After allowing 19 home runs last year with the Red Sox, Pérez will take the mound Monday against the Royals having allowed just two so far this season in 87 1/3 innings — good for a minuscule 0.21 HR/9, which is tops among qualifiers. His strikeout rate (20.1%) and walk rate (5.9%) are both the best of his career.

After 11 years as a big leaguer, Pérez is still tinkering. He has become one of the best pitchers in baseball this year by mixing up his approach but doubling down on what has kept him in the big leagues for more than a decade.

Living on the edge

Without overpowering stuff, Pérez has long depended on hitting his spots to be successful. But this year, he has taken pitching to the corners to another level.

Pérez’s current edge percentage (50.7%), pitches that cross the plate within one baseball's width of the edge of the strike zone, would be the highest among a qualified pitcher during the Statcast era. That figure is a full two percentage points higher than the next qualified pitcher this season.

The league is hitting .220 with a .280 expected wOBA in 2022 against pitches on the black, and Pérez has been even better than that, holding hitters to a .199 batting average and a .249 xwOBA on edge zone pitches through Sunday.

Add in the fact that he has one of the best framers in baseball behind the plate in Jonah Heim, who has helped 55.5% of Pérez's non-swing pitches in the Edge Zone to be called strikes, the third-best rate among qualified starting pitchers this season. He’s tied for second in baseball with three Pitcher Framing runs behind A’s starter Paul Blackburn. His pinpoint command and Heim’s excellent receiving skills have Pérez second in the Majors with 37 strikeouts looking.

Improved changeup

After having his changeup smacked around last season (.314 batting average and .500 slugging percentage allowed), Pérez has been dominating hitters with the pitch in 2022. It is nearly identical velocity- and movement-wise, but he’s putting it in much better spots. And results have followed.

Before this season, and especially last year, Pérez was catching way too much of the strike zone with his only off-speed pitch. Coming into 2022, 17.6% of Pérez’s changeups caught the “heart” zone, which is the middle part of the strike zone. Opposing batters didn’t miss, hitting .362 with 20 home runs over the past seven seasons combined. It got even worse last year when he threw nearly one out of every five changeups (19.7%) in the heart of the plate while allowing five home runs, a .417 batting average and an .831 slugging percentage.

But this year, Pérez has made noticeable strides with his changeup location. The middle-middle ones that cost him all those runs in previous seasons have all but disappeared. He’s thrown the pitch in the heart of the zone just 9.1% of the time, the second-lowest rate among 44 pitchers with at least 200 changeups thrown this season.

Pérez is also going out of the zone more with the pitch. This season, he’s thrown his changeup in the zone just 31.5% of the time – the lowest rate of his career. As recently as 2020, Pérez threw the pitch in the strike zone more than half the time (52.3%).

Hitters have chased as a result. Pérez has gotten batters to go out of the zone for his changeup almost a third of the time (30.3%), well above his career rate coming into this season (21.1%).

Just take a look at his pitch chart. Pérez is pounding the low-outside corner — and just off of it — to right-handers with, and rarely missing out over the plate.

Pérez’s changeup control has led to weaker contact and more ground balls, a recipe for success for the pitch-to-contact hurler. His hard-hit rate against the change has dropped from 40.2% last year to 26.6% this season. At the same time, his ground-ball rate on that pitch has jumped to 59.5% from 49.5% last season. Batters are hitting .211 against his changeup this season, including just two barrels, despite throwing it more than a quarter of the time.

Bad contact

Speaking of weak contact, Pérez is inducing a ton of it with more than just his change.

He’s been one of the best in baseball in avoiding sweet-spot contact (launch angle of 8-32 degrees, which translates to a lot of fly balls and line drives). Pérez’s sweet-spot percentage has dropped from 40.3% of batted balls to 28.2%, one of the largest drops in baseball. He ranks fifth among qualified pitchers in avoiding the sweet spot behind ace-like talents in Framber Valdez, Sandy Alcantara, Logan Webb and Gerrit Cole.

This has, in turn, led to a huge drop-off in barrels despite having a hard-hit rate slightly above his career average. He’s allowed just eight barrels – good for a 3.1% barrel rate, which is the best of his career.

Pérez’s minuscule barrel rate means that even when batters have been lucky enough to get a hit off him, it hasn’t done much damage. A mere 23% of hits Pérez has allowed this year have gone for extra bases, tied for the fourth-lowest rate in baseball behind Yu Darvish, Max Fried and Kyle Wright.

The biggest reason Pérez’s ERA sits below 2.00 is in large part due to the fact that he’s only allowed two home runs. His 0.21 HR/9 is the best in baseball among those with at least 40 innings pitched.

Those numbers scream lucky, and Pérez’s "expected" home run mark (3.8) suggests he’s been a bit fortunate. But even if the left-hander allowed two additional home runs this year, as his xHR says he deserves, Pérez’s HR/9 would rise to just 0.41, dropping him to sixth among qualifiers instead of first.

While his changeup has helped, the re-emergence of his sinker – his preferred pitch during his first stint in Texas — has driven the bulk of his batted ball improvements.

After moving away from his sinker in favor of his cutter over the last few years, it's back to being his go-to pitch. Pérez is throwing it 36.1 percent of the time, his highest rate since 2018. Hitters are pounding the pitch into the dirt (62.0% GB rate).

The pitch has seemingly allowed him to turn what last year would’ve been line drives into topped ground balls. Batters are “topping” the ball 40.2% of the time against him, good for seventh in baseball and his highest rate since 2016 while his line drive rate has dropped from 27.5 in 2021 to 20.1 this year.

It’s not often that a 31-year-old pitcher goes from posting a nearly 5.00 ERA to contending for a Cy Young a year later. After signing with the Rangers in 2007, coming up through the franchise’s system, and finally making his debut in 2012, it’s only fitting that he should make his first All-Star with Texas. Who knows? A couple more strong starts mixed in with a few tough ones for the other AL frontrunners, and Pérez may be taking the mound in the bottom of the first inning in Los Angeles as the American League’s starting pitcher.