To say that Martin Perez’s start on Monday night is the most important of his young career is an understatement.
Perez has been both consistent and reliable during his time in the Rangers’ starting rotation this year, demonstrating an improved ability to make in-game adjustments compared to his time with the club in 2012. But with only 30 big-league starts under his belt, Perez is anything but a lock to send the Rangers to their fourth consecutive postseason berth.
However, in a season in which the Rangers have relied on a host of rookie pitchers, it seems appropriate that Perez will take the mound in Monday night’s win-or-go-home game. It will also be his first career start against the Rays, meaning the left-hander has the potential to take them by surprise. And with 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner David Price opposing him on the mound, he'll need to.
Here’s everything you need to know about Perez heading into the game.
Signed out of Venezuela in July 2007, Perez quickly emerged as a can’t-miss prospect with a strong showing as a 17-year-old in the Short Season Northwest League in 2008. He continued to open eyes the following year during his full-season debut at Low-A Hickory, registering a 2.31 ERA with 105 strikeouts in 93.2 innings. Perez’s overwhelming success against older hitters in the South Atlantic League led to an aggressive late-season bump to Double-A Frisco.
The promotion marked a turning point in the Perez’s career, as the left-hander struggled for the first time at Frisco. More significantly, he never truly returned to form upon reaching the high minors, as his overall development stagnated—and even regressed at times—in the face of advanced competition.
Spending most of the 2011 and 2012 seasons at Triple-A Round Rock, Perez registered a 4.89 ERA and allowed 194 hits in 176 total innings—though part of that is a result of pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Perhaps even more concerning was that he failed to miss bats with a hint of consistency after missing more than a bat per inning in the low minors, posting a 106/76 K/BB ratio during his time with Round Rock.
Despite the aforementioned signs that Perez, 21 at the time, had been rushed through the minor leagues, the Rangers kept him moving in 2012 with a promotion to the major leagues in late June. Appearing in six games (three starts), he held his own with a 4.05 ERA over 20 innings before returning to Triple-A in early August.
Perez returned to the major leagues when the rosters expanded in September and pitched well enough to warrant a spot in the starting rotation for the final two weeks of the season. However, he struggled in each outing, including two must-win games against Oakland in which he allowed nine earned runs on 12 hits in only 4.2 total innings.
Season in Review
Despite his struggles during the second half of the 2012 season, Perez was a strong candidate to break camp in the Rangers’ starting rotation heading into spring training. Unfortunately, the left-hander was smoked by a line drive on the left forearm during a start in early March and suffered a fractured ulna. The injury ultimately forced Perez to miss the remainder of spring training and resulted in a trip to the 15-day disabled list to open the 2013 season.
After missing 36 games, Perez returned to action in mid-May with a pair of rehab outings for Double-A Frisco. The left-hander was subsequently moved up to Triple-A Round Rock, where he registered a 3.32 ERA and 30/10 K/BB ratio in 43.1 innings spanning eight starts.
Having relied on several rookie starters such as Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm, the Rangers welcomed Perez back into the starting rotation in late May. In July, the left-hander’s first full month in the majors this season, Perez struggled to the tune of a 4.81 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 33.2 innings over six starts. However, as the calendar turned to August, the 22-year-old began to noticeably settle in.
Over his next five starts, Perez posted a stellar 5-0 record, 3.06 ERA and 26/11 K/BB ratio in 35.1 innings. He also notched the first complete game of his promising career on August 11, holding the Astros to one run on four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts. As a result of his success, Perez was named the AL Rookie of the Month for August.
Perez continued to pitch well into September, as the left-hander posted a 3.48 ERA and 21/9 K/BB ratio in 31 innings covering five starts. In his previous outing, the southpaw carved up the Astros for the second time this season, allowing three earned runs on six hits and a walk with eight strikeouts over seven impressive frames.
At 6’0”, 190 pounds, Perez has a clean and consistent delivery that involves little effort, as well as a fluid arm action. Though he struggled to repeat his release point and execute pitches while ascending the high minors en route to the major leagues, Perez has ironed out some of those issues this season.
In terms of his arsenal, Perez works in the low-90s with his two-seam fastball and turns it over late to generate sinking action to the arm side. However, due to his height and lack of plus velocity, the left-hander struggles at times to throw the pitch on a consistent downhill plane. When he’s been hit hard in the past, it’s usually been the result of his struggles to avoid to the top of the strike zone.
Perez’s secondary offering is a plus changeup that has been his bread and butter since he first jumped on the prospect radar in 2008. The 22-year-old demonstrates a genuine feel for the pitch, throwing it in the low-80s with depth and late fading action. He’s also shown the confidence to utilize it in a variety of counts and especially against right-handed hitters.
Perez will also add and subtract with his curveball, throwing in the low- to mid-70s with a consistent shape and late downer action. He’s also made significant progress developing and implementing a slider into his arsenal this season, as the pitch gives opposing hitters a different look and helps keep them off his fastball/changeup/curveball mix.
As previously mentioned, Perez’s overall effectiveness and ability to miss bats has seriously declined since reaching Double-A for the first time in 2009—a result of being rushed up the ladder. However, it’s important to keep in mind that he’s been one of the younger pitchers (and players) at every level throughout his career. So, it’s not surprising that Perez was roughed up between the high minors and major leagues over the past few years.
At the same time, Perez’s success as a 22-year-old rookie this season suggests that he’s catching up to the developmental curve. While he’s still been roughed up at times, the left-hander showcased a more consistent approach and feel for the strike zone. As a result, both his strikeout (6.0 K/9) and walk (2.6 BB/9) rates have trended in a favorable direction.
As is the case with most young pitchers, a majority of Perez’s struggles stem from his inability to pitch out of trouble when behind in the count. Basically, in counts that require a strike, Perez has a tendency to either catch too much of the plate or avoids the zone entirely. Therefore, in 30.1 innings he’s logged this season when behind in the count, the left-hander owns a 6.23 ERA with 46 hits allowed and 35 walks.
Perez will make his first career start against Tampa Bay on Monday, though he did face several of their hitters during a five-inning relief appearance at Tropicana Field in 2012. Among the Rays’ probable starters, Matt Joyce has faced Perez on three occasions, while Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Jose Molina have each logged a pair of at-bats against the southpaw. Collectively, the aforementioned players are 2-for-9 against Perez.
In order to be successful tonight, Perez will need to get ahead in the count and establish his fastball command early in the game. If he can navigate the strike zone with his heater against the Rays’ potent right-handed bats such as Evan Longoria and Wil Myers, Perez should have the chance to effectively utilize his secondary arsenal in subsequent trips through the order.
With 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner David Price starting for the Rays, Perez will undoubtedly be on a short leash and need to be at his best from the onset of the game. If he struggles during his first trip through the order, expect manager Ron Washington to give him an early hook, as neither team can afford to incur an early deficit given the do-or-die scenario.
Personally, I think Perez will hold his own for roughly five innings and pitch well enough to keep the Rangers in the game against Price. It may not be the cleanest or most efficient outing as he tends to work his way in and out of jams over a given start, but Perez should be able to effectively keep the Rays’ hitters off-balance with his deep arsenal and ability to change speeds.