Game 54, Mariners at Rangers: Give and Take

marc w · June 5, 2022 at 11:05 am · Filed Under Mariners 

George Kirby vs. Martin Perez, 11:35am

After a close win and a close loss, the M’s look to win the series this morning in Arlington. They’ve got George Kirby on the mound against veteran lefty Martin Perez, and if you’ve followed Perez for any length of time, that sounds like a favorable match-up. But in one of the more improbable early-season lines, Perez is 4-2 with a 1.42 ERA and a 2.36 FIP. If the season ended today, Martin Perez – the journeyman, the ol’ pitch-to-contact, yikes, not THAT contact guy – would get Cy Young votes. The guy on a one-year, $4M contract has been one of the AL’s best starters, and it makes zero sense.

Perez was one of the most anticipated prospects in years, coming up in 2012 as a 21-year old. He showed poise, a deep repertoire, and just enough bat-missing ability to be a widely-hailed prospect, and rose through the ranks quickly. This was despite some troubling signs, though. Despite the decent peripherals, Perez gave up a lot of runs for a top-50 prospect. Sure, he was young for the league, but he gave up too many walks. He got grounders, which helped, but evidently not enough. This was the classic scouting over stats call; the numbers showed a young guy struggling to put it all together, but the scouts insisted he would.

In his second season, the scouts appeared to be on the march, as he crested 100IP with an ERA under 4. FIP was a bit more concerned at the lack of K’s and mild HR trouble, but the guy was 22. He looked erratic, but often sharp the next year, notching two CG shutouts in 2014, but his season was cut short when he blew out his elbow. After returning, he just looked…off. He logged innings, he was perfectly serviceable, but his K rate collapsed as the league’s was surging. Perhaps because of that inability to miss bats, he really struggled to strand runners, and this led to higher ERAs than his already high FIPs. After a disastrous 2018, the Rangers cut bait, and Perez began wandering through the AL. He gained a bit of velo in 2019 with Minnesota, raising his K rate. But HRs and that awful strand rate gave him a nearly-unchanged ERA/FIP. He moved to Boston the next year, and his walk rate spiked, and he oddly transformed himself into a fly ball pitcher after making his name as a rather pedestrian ground baller. His K:BB ratio was a career best last season, but being a fly baller in 2021 wasn’t a great recipe for anyone, and he again struggled. Lacking anything better, he moved back to Texas.

And all of the sudden he’s an ace. He has already pitched his first CG shutout since 2014, and he’s back to being a ground ball pitcher after that stint in Boston. He’s lowered his walk rate below 6%, easily a career-best. While his K rate is still low, it’s his first time above 20%. So what’s the difference? A new pitch? Different mix? A faddish sweeping slider? No, not really any of that. He’s leaning on his sinker more after being a cutter/change guy for a few years. That explains the increased ground balls, but there’s no real difference in movement with any of his offerings. His velo is *down* compared to last year. He’s just hitting his spots much, much better. After a decade of consistent mediocrity, Martin Perez is taking off. It makes no sense. It’s tempting to think it’s short-term luck, and his HR luck is pretty remarkable (in over 63, he’s yet to give up a home run this year), but he’s been so consistently good this year. I’m trying to think of something like it – that Jason Vargas all-star year in KC comes close, but Vargas was better than Perez.

But even as Texas gets an unexpected All-Star season out of a guy all of baseball thought it knew, they’ve reached the end of the road with a player who was supposed to drive their re-build. The Rangers called up OF prospect and 80-grade name Steele Walker today, and to make room on the 40-man, they’ve DFA’d Willie Calhoun. Calhoun was the prize in the trade that sent Yu Darvish to Los Angeles, and despite being undersized and defensively challenged, he was born to hit. He flew through the Dodgers system, hitting at every step. The key was preternatural bat-to-ball ability that limited Ks, paired with sneaky power. Two initial cups of coffee with Texas weren’t great, but he hit 21 HRs in a very solid 2019, and while his defense kept that season from being *valuable*, it was at the very least *encouraging.* He seemed to be exactly what he was supposed to be: a DH or corner OF who hit enough to be dangerous. And then it all went wrong.

He was disastrous in the shortened 2020, as both his BABIP and his power just evaporated. Everyone in the world had a bad 2020, so how did he bounce back? By showing 2020 wasn’t a fluke. He hasn’t really struck out much, but everything else has been bad: no power, no average, no defense. He’s clashed with the team and demanded a trade after being optioned to the minors. This day has been coming. Calhoun’s ability to make contact will get him a shot somewhere, and it’s easy to convince yourself that this kind of profile plays up in today’s high-K environment – hell, that’s why Adam Frazier is here. But in something that’s really surprised me, so many guys with this skillset have really struggled. This was supposed to be Nick Madrigal’s year with Chicago, but he’s played himself out of a starting role. Willians Astudillo is back to being a journeyman. Steven Kwan is trying, and has been good for Cleveland, but his line is propped up by an insane first week. You’ve got to hit a ton of line drives like Luis Arraez and Michael Brantley, or have power like Wander Franco (who hasn’t shown as much as he’s got) and Jose Ramirez. With shifting and a draggier baseball, it’s hard to make it on pure BABIP.

But again, that wasn’t supposed to Calhoun’s problem. At his shape, he wasn’t going to make it by slapping grounders around the park. This is someone with 20-30+ HR power, and then it just…went away. I’d love to know if this was the result of an injury, maybe one Calhoun never knew about, or possibly even Covid. Was it a disastrous swing fix suggested by a coach (leading to Calhoun’s mistrust and headbutting with the Rangers coaches)? Whatever it was, Calhoun’s moving on. I’m not sure the M’s have any kind of track record with a player like this, but they’re clearly a team that doesn’t mind the low-K, low-power profile. Their work with JP Crawford has been encouraging, but they couldn’t help Dan Vogelbach. We’ll see if they kick the tires on Calhoun, but with Justin Upton in Tacoma, I’m just not sure there’s room.

1: Winker, LF
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Crawford, SS
5: Suarez, 3B
6: Torrens, C
7: Toro, 2B
8: Moore, RF
9: Haggerty, LF
SP: Kirby

Taylor Dollard is the biggest name amongst today’s minor league starting pitchers.
Tacoma lost to Reno last night, and Everett got swept by Eugene in a double header. Modesto came back to beat Fresno 4-3, getting three runs in the 9th.


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