Goodbye Good Ollie

>I can remember, and it wasn’t all that long ago, when Oliver Perez was my favorite Mets pitcher. No, really. He was. It’s laughable to think about now, but in the summer of 2007, I used to look forward to Perez’s turn in the rotation. It wasn’t because Ollie was the best pitcher, or a reliable one — certainly not a reliable one — or a scrappy magician who was fooling everyone with parlor tricks, because he was none of those things. Perez was just a goofy-looking young lefty that threw sizzling fastballs and mixed in a slider that broke like a wiffleball. His stuff, as long as he could get it near the strike zone, was absolutely dominating. He didn’t even really need a plan on the mound, outside of “try to throw strikes.” He could just let it fly. Hitters would just shake their heads in bafflement as they walked away from the batter’s box — they could have known exactly what pitch was coming, and it didn’t make one bit of difference. I loved watching Oliver Perez. He made me happy in that way only certain oddball players make people happy.

It wasn’t all sunshine and sliders, of course, not with Oliver Perez. Batters would be baffled by his stuff — but Oliver would baffle just about everyone else too, particularly his pitching coaches. Often he implode, without warning, for no discernible reason. Watching an Oliver Perez start was like being in a room with an audibly ticking bomb and no visible timer. You knew it was bound to go off, but you didn’t know when, and all you could do was hope it wouldn’t go off when you were still in the room. Perez could be cruising along, and suddenly, the sixth inning came along — and this one particular sixth inning is branded into my memory for some reason — single, single, E-1 on a throwing error off a bunt, pop fly, pop fly, home run, single, home run, walk, strikeout. And all anyone could do was shake their heads in amazement.

But that was just Bad Ollie — and in order for there to be a Bad Ollie, there must also be a Good Ollie. Darkness is just a term given to the absence of light, and Bad Ollie is just the name given to the absence of Good Ollie. Bad Ollie existed only because there was a good Oliver Perez who showed up more often than not.

Good Ollie really did show up more often than Bad Ollie. Just for the heck of it, let’s split up all his Mets starts from 2006-2008 into three groups — gems, disaster starts, and the in-between. Or, Good Ollie, Bad Ollie, and just Oliver Perez. We’ll use Bill James’ definition of a “gem”, a start with a “game score” of 65+ (click here for what a game score is) or 6 or more shutout innings pitched, and Rob Neyer’s loose definition of a “disaster start”, which is a start when a pitcher surrenders more runs than innings pitched. In 2006-2008, Oliver Perez made 70 starts for the New York Mets:

17 were gems,
12 were disasters,
and the 41 others were somewhere in between “brilliant” and “epic failure.”

But that was Ollie. Sometimes good, sometimes awful, often somewhere between — but it was always entertaining. Well, at least it was for me. An Oliver Perez start was always something to talk about. Why can’t he be that dominant every time out there? Why was he so awful today? What, exactly, is really going on in that head of his? There were awful times — his September 28, 2007 start against the Marlins, when he recorded just 11 outs, surrendered six runs, and hit three batters, contributed to the collapse — but there were also the moments of brilliance to balance those duds out — his second-to-last start of 2007, when Perez pitched eight innings, surrendered two runs, struck out eight and walked no one, and his July 24, 2008 start against the Phillies, when he lasted until two outs in the eighth, struck out twelve, walked one, and surrendered just one run jump to mind. Picking an Oliver Perez start at random is like picking a Mickey Rourke movie at random — it’s probably really, really good, or really, really bad. Either way, it was probably memorable.

* * *

It seems to me that Met fans fall into two groups when discussing Oliver Perez: Ollie haters and Ollie lovers. On one side, you have the group that dislikes Ollie, and have always sort of disliked Ollie, and will probably always dislike Ollie. These are the fans that think Perez just never cared all that much, that it was inevitable that Oliver Perez would show up to spring training out of shape after finally getting the big bucks in 2009, and that big game Ollie was just a myth. These fan believe that “Oliver Perez” was just a scam set up by the Boras Corporation, and the Mets, suckers that they are, fell for it. These are the fans that have always just wanted the headache to finally go away.

On the other side, you have the Mets fans that really liked Ollie, and always sort of liked Ollie, and maybe even still like Ollie now, even if they’re too ashamed at this point to openly admit it. These fans write about how they still like Oliver Perez in a round-about, third-person way on their overly long blog posts. These are the fans that will point out, yes, Perez does seem to care. They’ll point out that Oliver broke his toe kicking a chair after a loss as a Pittsburgh Pirate, that Perez was violently slamming his glove into the bench after his disaster start yesterday against the Marlins. These are the Oliver Perez apologists, who believed that if he could JUST FIGURE OUT how to keep the ball in the strike zone consistently, he could really be something special.

Which side of the Oliver Perez divide you come down on depends on what you think is going on in his head. If you think Perez cares, you like him; if you think he doesn’t care, you dislike him. There’s evidence for both sides. Perez’s vacant stares will make it appear that nothing is going on upstairs when he’s on the mound. Maybe that’s evidence that he’s not all that invested in his work, but, in his defense, I also think maybe that’s just how he looks all the time. He always sort of looks like a goldfish a bad goatee. On the other hand, yesterday was the angriest I’ve ever seen him in a game. That seems to be proof that he does indeed care, and finds himself as frustrating as the rest of us. However, anger can be manufactured for the cameras just like any other emotion. Just because he looks angry doesn’t mean he actually is.

I have no idea how Oliver Perez’s brain works — I don’t think anyone does but Perez, and maybe he doesn’t even know. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun for the rest of us to argue about.

But that used to be the only argument about Oliver Perez. His brain. His problems were always about getting his brain to tell his body how to throw strikes consistently, and as long as he could throw strikes, he’d be okay. And then sometimes he could throw strikes, and other times he couldn’t, and maybe there was no deeper Freudian reason why. It would have been nice if he could have done it more consistently, but maybe Good Ollie/Bad Ollie was the best Ollie anyone was ever going to get. Maybe there was nothing “wrong” with him. Maybe that’s just the pitcher he was, one with great enough stuff to just get by on that alone.

It seems funny now, because whatever his problems then, the batter always seemed secondary in the struggle. The real battle was Oliver against Oliver. The stuff was always there to take care of the hitter. The only question was if he could harness it.

That sadly doesn’t seem to be the problem anymore.

* * *

Maybe you’re one of those people that never liked Oliver Perez and always thought of him as an unnecessary headache. Maybe you never thought he cared all that much, and that he has his money now and he’s happy with that. And maybe you’re thrilled that you might never see him take the mound again — maybe
rightly so.

You know what? Maybe those fans are right. Perhaps Oliver Perez really doesn’t give a crap, and he’s fine with whatever happens to his baseball career. I really don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows but Oliver Perez. I’d like to think he cares — I find it difficult to believe that anyone makes it to the major leagues by not really giving two you-know-whats about their baseball career. But I don’t know that for sure.

What I do know for sure is that Oliver Perez used to be my favorite Mets pitcher to watch. He used to be able to throw a slider that looked like it was breaking like a boomerang, and a fastball that exploded past the hitter’s bats. And, yeah, sometimes he would walk the ballpark, make a throwing error, and surrender a three-run home run, (usually all in the same inning), but when he was at his best, there weren’t many better.

It seems that often the most inconsistent players are the ones who can be the most exciting to watch — and no one was more inconsistent than Oliver Perez. I used to be happy when O.P. was going to take the mound, because SOMETHING interesting was going to happen. I figured he would be the one to finally throw the first Mets no-hitter.

But it’s not like that anymore. Now he can’t find his velocity or his old stuff, and it looks like he might just be done. He’s just 28-years-old and it doesn’t seem like that he can get major league hitters out anymore. His ERA is sitting at 5.94, his strikeout rate is down to about the lowest point rate of his career, and his walks are about where they were last season. The talk about Perez used to be that if he could just figure it out someday, he could be great. It looks now like someday already came and went, and it’s scary to think about how fast it all went by for him.

Oliver Perez used to make me happy when he pitched — the way he made everyone look over-matched was just fun to watch. Now Perez is the one that’s over-matched, and no one is having fun — except the Marlins, and who wants the Marlins to have fun. Good Ollie is gone, and without Good Ollie, there is really nothing for Bad Ollie to be compared with. It’s just an ineffective Oliver Perez all the time, and for all that talent and time he used to have, he’s got none of it left now. It doesn’t make me happy or frustrated or angry, like it seems to make some people. It really just makes me sad.

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