>2010 Preview: Oliver Perez

>Welcome to the first edition of the Mets 2010 season previews. Yeah, I know, it’s still January. But soon it will be February, then March, and suddenly it’s opening day, and then before you know it, it’s mid-June and the Mets have been mathematically eliminated – so up until then, I’ll be mixing in some looks at various Mets players and maybe some other teams around the league. Some of them will be more stats-heavy stuff, some won’t be so stats-heavy, and some will be . . . well, whatever this is.

So here’s the first preview, of Ollie Perez:

Full Name: Oliver Martinez Perez

Anagram of his name I used some website to create: Per Zero Evil

Career Line: 58-64, 4.54 ERA

2010 CHONE projection: 6-8, 4.85 ERA

If he were a Muppet, he would be: Lew Zealand. Not sure why, but it feels right with the thrown fish and everything. In a related note, the Muppet wiki is excessively detailed.

Suggested at-bat song for 2010: “Out of Control” – U2

***

During a game in the summer of 2008, Oliver Perez sits next to John Maine on the bench in the Mets’ dugout. Perez has a baseball with a partially torn cover. He mumbles something to Maine and pretends to eat the ball like an apple.

Oliver Perez baffles.

He skips over the foul line every time he crosses it, whether he’s exiting the game up 3-1 in the eighth or down 6-0 in the first. Some leaps are more jovial than others, but he has always made the jump since he was playing Little League in Mexico. It’s his own baseball superstition; every player seems to have at least one. Perez goes about in his own mismatched way. He wears his blue or black socks high. He sometimes sports a mohawk, sometimes sideburns that sharply point towards his mouth, now just a full beard. He has the awkward build of a teenager who still hasn’t quite filled out the right way – he’s got shins that look bowed and a perpetual slouch in his shoulders. Like a surprising number of pitchers, you don’t look at Oliver and immediately think “professional athlete.” But he is – his legs look surprisingly strong, and his long arms contribute to both his lanky appearance and his pitching abilities.

Still, he often looks out of place, like he’s just a visitor. In the past, Ollie would get this lost stare when he was being interviewed, occasionally seeming surprised that reporters are asking him questions about the game he just pitched. His answers rarely match up with the questions he is asked – maybe because of the language barrier, maybe because he’s perpetually zoned out. It’s like he’s never thinking about what happened before or what’s going to happen after, but instead simultaneously about the present and nothing at all. There’s no planning when he’s on the mound. He can never explain why he does what he does, why he dropped down to sidearm, why he threw a 60 MPH slider – it’s not improvisation, like in traditional jazz, because that requires even tiny amounts of planning ahead. The traditional jazz musician knows the chords changes and which scales fit over them, and has a loose idea about what licks he’s going to play. Ollie is more like free jazz, like the horns in Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” – which sounds like a horn section falling down a flight of stairs. He has no idea what he’s going to do next. Oliver Perez pitches and exists in the right now. Oliver Perez just is.

July 25th, 2008: Oliver Perez pitches 7.2 innings against the Phillies, allowing one run, striking out twelve, and issuing just one walk, an intentional pass to Pat Burrell. The Mets win 3-1 and take control of first place in the National League East for the first time in months. Perez pitches to a 0.35 ERA against the Phillies in 2008, allowing a lone run over his four starts, striking out 27 batters. The supposed legend of “big game Ollie” grows.

Oliver Perez baffles.

Oliver Perez has the “stuff” to baffles hitters, that mythical pitching “stuff” which can make a batter swing out of his shoes on one pitch and swing right back into them the next. Stuff so good it can only be described pejoratively: nasty stuff, filthy stuff, devastating stuff. Most pitcher’s “stuff” comes and goes from game to game, month to month, or within a single start. But not for Oliver Perez – he seemingly always has his “stuff”, the rising low-nineties fastball and a sweeping slider which always seems to break just an inch out of the batter’s reach. He can’t always harness it, but if he’s healthy, the “stuff” is there for him.

And Oliver Perez’s stuff, that elusive stuff, is among the hardest ever to hit – he is seventh all time in strikeouts per nine innings pitched, sandwiched right in between fellow lefties Sandy Koufax and Johan Santana. In his best season, 2004, he struck out 11 batters per nine innings, the record in a single season for a left hander not named Randy Johnson. He has struck out 457 batters in 473.2 innings as a Met, meaning that 22% of the total batters he faced failed to solve him enough to even put the ball into play. You watch the wiffleball slider break and never stop breaking, and you understand why. All you can do is smile, shake your head, and mutter to yourself, “that’s just not fair.”

April 9, 2009: Oliver Perez, freshly signed to a 3 year, $36 million dollar contract in the offseason, makes his first start of the season in Cincinnati. He struggles to make it through just 4.1 innings, throwing exactly 100 pitches, walking five, striking out 7, and allowing 8 runs. The Mets lose 8-6. Less than a week later, Perez is loudly booed during the introductions at the Mets’ Citi Field home opener.

Oliver Perez baffles.

He struggles inordinately to put the ball here he needs to. Rick Peterson tried to stress keeping a consistent release point. Dan Warthen tries to stress maintaining a consistent windup – the bow towards home, a slide step to the far left of the rubber, then a big leg kick, a pause for a beat, and the explosive delivery across his body in a 3/4 arm slot. But his pitches are like Carmen San Diego, somehow winding up in a different location each time. Pitches called for inside are thrown a foot outside, pitches called for outside end up at the backstop, sliders are hung over the plate or buried in the dirt. Brian Schneider would too often have to just set up in the middle of the plate and hope for the pitch to be close. During August of 2008, Ollie could be relied on to throw at least one eephus a game, a sweeping mid-sixties breaking ball, often sidearm and always for a ball. Just because. Dan Warthen could only shake his head. The catcher always looks suprised.

Perez has walked 5.0 batters per nine innings pitched in his career, and has finished in the top ten for walks every year he has qualified, leading the league in 2008. His “index of self destructive acts”, a Bill James statistic that measures the total number of hit batters, wild pitches, balks, and pitcher errors per nine innings, is 0.85 – most of that is from hit batsman and wild pitches. Pitchers with excellent control sit in the .20-.30 range, while the especially wild average between .80 and above. The numbers confirm that Ollie is indeed as wild and self-destructive as he seems. Oliver Perez instability is the biggest obstacle to his own success.

June 16th, 2002: Oliver Perez’s pitches in his first Major League start. Just shy of 21, he is the youngest player in the Major Leagues. He strikes out the first two Mariners he faces, both swinging, and retires the side 1-2-3. However, in his second inning of work, he walks two batters and throws a wild pitch. He recovers to strike out the final two batters of the inning.

Fast forward to January 25, 2010. Oliver Perez, present at the Mets optional mini-camp, claims to be in the best shape of his life. Reports say that his English is much improved, that he is engaging with members of the media. He seems older and more mature, though maybe that’s just the beard. He states that he is ready for 2010, that he’s fired up.

Then, playing long toss with Johan Santana, Perez clears the outfield fence twice on wild overthrows.

Oliver Perez baffles.

He has always baffled everyone. You, me, pitching coaches, managers, hitters, fantasy baseball owners, real baseball owners, his agent, himself. Everyone. He had a brilliant 2004, needed to be sent back to the minors in 2006, and then got it together again for the NLCS. Any predictions about Perez are useless. No one knows what he’s going to do.

He defies prediction. Ollie does have that elusive, quicksilvery, no-hitter stuff every time he takes the mound, but no one has found a way for him to lasso it. The batter has no idea where the pitch is going, but neither does Ollie – he’s just one more passenger along for the ride. It’s always been like this, from his first major league start all the way through this past week. He swerves wildly between brilliant and frustrating from batter to batter, inning to inning, game to game, season to season. He’s maddening to everyone, himself included – he is capable of domination seemingly without any control, so if he could just figure it out . . . but with the slouch and the chewing gum, he appears an apathetic teenager. Like he’s not focused. Like he doesn’t care.

But I don’t think that’s it. He broke his toe in 2005 kicking a laundry cart after a loss. He cares, at the very least because it’s his job. I think it’s that Perez is always tuned into nothing other than right now. He’s the pitching equivalent of a goldfish – he’s got a six-second memory. He never repeats his pitching motion because he doesn’t remember what his last motion was. Why drop down and throw sidearm? Because it felt right in that moment. Why doesn’t he look upset when he’s sitting on the bench after being removed from a miserable start? Because that’s over, it’s in the past, and it’s not what’s happening right now. He’s like a being that’s not fully in this dimension or any other one. He’s in his moment and nothing else.

He can be bad Ollie, good Ollie, ineffective, brilliant, Big Game Ollie, a bum who doesn’t care, the kind of pitcher that gets general mangers fired. Whatever you think of Oliver Perez, you want to see him pitch in 2010 because he’s the second most interesting pitcher on the Mets staff. You missed Oliver in 2009. He’s an oddball on a team with very few distinguishable characters. He’s not always effective, but there’s never an awkward pause with him on the mound. He’s like the anti-Steve Traschel – Traschel chugged along each year racking up 200 or decent if dragging. boring. forgettable. innings. Perez is a fireball who is going to strike out 10 in seven innings or walk 10 in two. Oliver Perez is one of those 1950’s unmanned rocket launches. Maybe he will stream up into the great depths of space, or maybe he will explode on the launch pad. Either way, it’s going to be spectacular.

The early signs are that something in Oliver Perez is finally different in 2010. He spent the winter in Arizona at the API, supposedly getting in shape, maturing, not shaving, having Johnny Depp repeatedly ask him if he’s a Mexican or a Mexican’t. If he wasn’t taking things seriously before, he appears to be now. Perez is getting older; his window to figure this “pitching thing” out is quickly closing. A 27-year-old lefty with talent has time on his side – not so much for the 30-year-old lefty with control issues. This season might be a last shot for Oliver. And maybe, just maybe, this is the season the eternal prospect figures it out. When he find his command and stops f@#$*#g walking so many guys. Perez was awful last year because of injuries, the WBC, indifference, chronic ineffectiveness – blame it on what you will. It’s been the same story his whole career. But I’ve got a good feeling about Oliver Perez in 2010.

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