Fantasy Baseball: Trying to make sense of Martin Perez’s continued dominance, and why we’re still skeptical

Martin Perez has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball so far this season. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about from a Fantasy Baseball perspective – he ranks 20th among starters in Roto scoring and 12th in CBS Sports points formats – or from a real-life perspective, where he ranks fifth in ERA and innings pitched and third in WAR, per FanGraphs.com’s calculations. No matter how you cut it, he’s been phenomenal, a true difference maker.

And I have him ranked outside of the top 60 in my starting pitcher rankings. I don’t buy Perez’s strong start to the season one bit, and it’s made me look pretty bad so far. And I’m hearing it from our audience. My favorite example of this is one Fantasy Baseball Today listener who has taken to sending me increasingly close-cropped versions of Perez’s mugshot every time he has a good start, like this:

And the thing is… I’ve gotta eat it. For as long as Perez continues to pitch well and I continue to insist that he won’t, I’m opening myself up to criticism. And there’s no question that, so far at least, if you’ve listened to my advice about Perez, you’ve missed out on difference-making production. So, I figure it’s time to dive deep and figure out what, if anything, I might be missing with Perez.

It’s been quite a turnaround for Perez, who is in his 10th major-league season and has never had a 14-start stretch as good as this one. In fact, he’s never been close before – prior to this season, the lowest ERA Perez has ever sported over a 14-appearance stretch was 2.72, which took place over parts of the 2018 and 2019 season. Perez was so bad last season that he was pulled from the Red Sox rotation in early August with a 4.77 ERA.

What’s changed? Well, Perez still isn’t getting many strikeouts, ranking in just the 35th percentile in strikeout rate for the season. He has the seventh-worst swinging strike rate among all starters at just 8.7%, and his 27.5% called-plus-swinging-strike rate (CSW) ranks 35th out of 59 qualifiers. His changeup from him has been a solid swing-and-miss pitch, but he does not have any other pitchers with a whiff rate over 20%. And his fastball from him, which sits at 92.6 mph, is in the 24th percentile in velocity.

In an era of increasing velocity and whiffs, Perez is bucking at least that trend. So, how is he doing it?

The most obvious change Perez has made comes in the form of his pitch mix, as he’s back to being a sinker-first guy after limiting his usage of that pitch in recent years:

And that pitch has been very effective for him so far. Though he doesn’t get many whiffs with it, he has 26 of his 71 strikeouts with it, largely of the so-called variety. He’s sporting a .287 expected wOBA with the pitch as well, allowing just an 89.8 mph average exit velocity and 4-degree average launch angle.

The sinker is sinking, in other words. His changeup from him (.299 xwOBA allowed) and cutter (.253) have also been tremendous so far, and those three pitches make up 85.4% of all pitches Perez has thrown. Perez is keeping the ball down and generating easy outs that way – his barrel rate allowed is just 3.1%, in the 93rd percentile so far.

He’s pitching a lot like Dallas Keuchel used to, actually. Only two pitchers have thrown pitches in the strike zone less often than Perez, at a 35.1% rate. Despite that, he ranks seventh in called strike rate at 18.8%. He’s having great success on the edge (or just outside) of the zone, generating called strikes and weak contact as a result. That he’s avoiding walks at a career-best 5.9% rate only makes it more impressive.

Add it all up, and the advanced stats largely back up what Perez is doing. His 3.13 xERA is not quite as good as his current mark, but it’s still better than average, and his 2.62 FIP agrees; his 3.63 xFIP from him is n’t quite as rosy, but it’s still the best mark of Perez’s career even adjusting for the lower run-scoring environment of 2022.

Which is to say, a lot of the tools we use to judge pitchers suggest Perez is very much an improved pitcher. If he continues to pitch the way he has, and batters continue to approach him the way they have, Perez could continue to pitch well. maybe not Este well, but well enough to make him a top-60 pitcher, for sure.

My skepticism comes from a few places. For one, there’s the simple fact that while it’s possible to continue to suppress hard contact in the way Perez is, it’s really hard to do. Pitchers have some control over the quality of contact they allow, but not nearly as much as hitters do, and it takes a while for a pitcher’s true talent level to shine through.

Perez has been roughly average over the course of his career in terms of quality of contact allowed (.367 career expected wOBA on contact vs. 370), and given his typically well-below average strikeout rates and middling walk rates, that’s led to bad results. So far this season, he’s combined excellent control with a .338 expected wOBA on contact, his second-best mark of his career. This new, more ground-ball heavy approach could make that sustainable, but it’s too early to say for certain. My expectation is, Perez will be more like the average quality-of-contact pitcher he’s been throughout his career.

But the main reason I don’t believe in Perez has less analytical backing, I’ll admit. It comes down to the fact that I just don’t believe in Perez. Or, rather, I don’t believe in pitchers with this kind of profile. He’s pitching like a peak Keuchel or Kyle Hendricks, and while both of those guys managed to be high-level performers for years despite an unorthodox approach, the truth of the matter is there’s a reason those are the only two guys you can really point to. who have sustained success with this approach.

You’ll occasionally see someone like Kyle Gibson, Wade Miley, or Marcus Stroman – all of whom ranked in the top 20 in ERA in the first half of last season – put together a strong run of starts on the strength of great control and a high ground-ball rate, but it’s hard to pull off consistently.

The most consistent way to keep runs off the board is to sit guys down via strikeout, which is why the best pitchers in baseball almost always strike out the most batters. It’s very, very hard to succeed consistently without getting a lot of strikeouts, because your margin for error is a lot slimmer. That’s why we so rarely see full seasons – let alone multiple – of elite production from low-strikeout pitchers.

Of course, there’s a lot of distance between “elite production” and where I have Perez ranked, and maybe he’ll continue to beat the odds and be a must-start pitcher for you. However, I’m going to continue to be skeptical, both of Perez specifically and of this pitcher archetype in general. I’m just hoping he doesn’t keep making me look bad.

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