Twins have plan to get Perez back on track

Lefty eager to work in spring camp after disappointing 2018 season

February 18th, 2019

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- New pitching coach Wes Johnson and assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner were on their first day of the job together when Twins general manager Thad Levine walked by and asked if they had any reason to believe free-agent left-hander could rebound from a difficult 2018.

Johnson, Hefner and pitching analyst Josh Kalk quickly pinpointed some mechanical and pitch usage inefficiencies in Perez's film and data. They put together a quick report, and soon, Johnson and Hefner were on the phone with the southpaw to make their pitch.

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Perez was sold.

"They know how to put me on the way that I was before," Perez said. "I need that. I've got good pitches, I like to compete, I like to win, and I just need that little push. That was a big thing for me. That's why I signed here."

The 27-year-old, who signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract with a club option for a second year with the Twins, is coming off a career-worst 2018 in which he went 2-7 with a 6.22 ERA following an early injury. After having been a starter for his entire career, he was moved to the Rangers' bullpen at the end of the season, where he did experience more success with a 3.24 ERA after Aug. 31.

But Perez still sees himself as a starter. And so do the Twins.

"I had a couple of teams that wanted me to sign," Perez said. "They told me, 'We've got something for you,' but I think it was for the bullpen. I'm still young, and I have a chance to start in the big leagues. It's because I want to show people that I'm ready. For me, for my family, for the team to give me a chance to pitch, it was Minnesota."

In evaluating Perez's mechanics, the Twins felt the way he used his lower half, especially his back leg, in coming off the mound, wasn't the most conducive to his particular motion. The club feels that by cleaning that up, it can potentially add sharpness to Perez's breaking ball and boost his velocity.

Though the Twins had more of an extended discussion about Perez's secondary pitches, it clearly stood out to them that he could have more success by changing the usage of his fastball.

"He was using it improperly for his mechanics and for the way that his ball spins in space," Hefner said. "He can utilize different parts of the zone and be more effective."

Based on their evaluation, the Twins are optimistic that Perez can return to the form that pushed him to a 4.37 ERA and a sixth-place finish in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting from 2013-17.

Moreover, it has become clear in the opening days of Spring Training that Perez's influence on the Twins will extend far beyond the mound. Even at the relatively young age of 27, he said that he's never been afraid to be a vocal presence for younger teammates. Several mornings in the clubhouse, Perez has pulled up a chair to hold court around younger players' lockers, with and often seen in Perez's orbit.

"[I know] all the Latin guys and a couple white guys, too," Perez said with a laugh. "I like to have friends, I'm not scared to speak, I'm not scared to say my name to my new teammates."

When the Rangers signed out of Japan in 2012, Levine felt that Perez -- in his early 20s at the time -- took a leading role in helping Darvish acclimate to life and baseball in the United States. When Darvish underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015, it was Perez that the Rangers approached to help explain to Darvish that they wanted him to take two additional months of recovery. The pair maintain a close friendship.

"I think he was smart enough to recognize he could help Yu, but also open enough to understand that Yu could help him," Levine said. "That was, four, five years ago now, and he's 27 now. He was exhibiting signs of leadership and confidence, and collaboration really early in his career."

Those early signs of leadership and maturity gave Levine early confidence that the Twins' plan for Perez would be well-received. As a whole, Levine is encouraged by the success in approaching Perez in free agency with a concrete plan and hopes that the Twins can continue to draw on their pitching minds for future negotiations.

"I think we feel we're much better positioned today to make these types of presentations to free agents as we were last year or two years ago," Levine said. "I hope this is the new normal for us."