This ought to be a fun one. Opinions on Oliver Perez are easy to find and, given his past performance, probably pretty easy to argue. I'm sure that a lot of people with a lot better credentials and a lot more time will tackle this -- but given his level of potential, the size of the contract, and the fact that I will have to watch him pitch to about 2,500 batters, I would like to take a crack at it.
The reports are three years, $36 million. So $12 million per year for his age 27, 28, and 29 seasons. What does $36 million dollars buy you nowadays?
Oliver had his career season at the tender age of 22. While pitching for the Pirates, Ollie posted a 2.98 ERA and struck out a phenomenal 239 batters in 196 innings, for a K/9 rate which I believe was second in MLB that year. Great year.
The rest of his career with the Pirates was tumultuous. In 2005 he collapsed to a 5.85 ERA, walking batters at almost twice the rate at the year before. In 2006, he regressed even further, going 3-13 with a 6.55 ERA before being traded to the Mets.
As we all know by now, Oliver came over and showed just how volatile he can be in his final few starts. After getting shellacked twice, he SHUT OUT the Braves in a brilliant start in Atlanta. He then proceeded to get his around down the stretch before coming back in the playoffs and pitching decently in the Endy Chavez game. Say what you will about his erratic nature, but he had already proved he was not afraid of the spotlight.
In 2007 he took what appeared to be a great step forward for the Mets, notching his second best full season. He struck out 174 batters in 177 innings, lowered his walk rate (which had been above 5.5/9 the previous three seasons) to 4.02 batters per nine innings, and posted an ERA of 3.56. He wasn't quite that good, as he allowed a ton of earned runs, but it was a big step forward.
In 2008 his overall numbers regressed -- and what you make of that will go a long way toward what you think of Oliver. Oh, and remember that big game reputation? In his career, here are his ERA's against some select teams which might be of interest to the Mets and some which could be considered bottom feeders:
Atlanta (3.46), Philadelphia (3.15), Yankees (2.61)
Washington (6.53), San Francisco (7.07), Arizona (5.01)
What Happened in 2008?
As I mentioned, he regressed in 2008. His walks went up, his strikeouts went down, his ERA went up. Why? A cursory glance at the numbers doesn't reveal much -- his fastball was the same speed (actually faster), his pitch selection remained the same, he got basically the same number of swings and misses. You can speculate if you like, but for my money, I think Oliver was basically the same pitcher with a little different luck.
Firstly, he allowed 90 runs in 177 innings for a RA of 4.57. This year, he allowed 100 runs but in 194 innings. That's an RA of 4.63 --- nearly identical. A metric called Fielding Independent Pitching (which looks at a pitchers secondary statistics to make a rough estimate of what their ERA should have been if not for fielding and luck) has Oliver at 4.35 in 2007 and 4.68 in 2008.
So is that what we have? A pitcher who sits somewhere in the 4.3 to 4.6 range?
Perhaps. The projection systems which have published their data so far, Bill James, CHONE, and Marcel, have Oliver right in that zone. Of course, these projections are what they are and cannot be taken too seriously, but they project him to post an ERA between 4.22 (Marcel) and 4.72 (CHONE). Everyone likes him to keep striking batters out and to keep walking too many guys.
I would be skeptical of the projections for a number of reasons. As mathematical models, they are not going to be able to take into account of what we know about Oliver. Looking at his numbers, they are going to weigh heavily his poorer recent performance in 2006 and won't weigh his 2004. They don't know that he's got great raw "stuff" -- a good fastball and a killer slider. They are helpful, but one data point of many.
A couple of years ago, none of us knew what to expect of Oliver Perez. Was he the wunderkind who struck out 240 batters and posted a sub 3 ERA? Was he the headcase who posted an ERA over 6? As we've seen him more, I think we've all realized that his band of expected outcomes has narrowed. Whereas a few years ago we didn't know if he'd be C.C. Sabathia or out of baseball, we now know that Oliver will have value to a team somewhere (well, as much as we know anything in this silly game).
I think there is reason for optimism, though, on Perez, that is not based on homerism. Although I no longer hold my breath that he could eventually turn into an ace, I think he can still be Oliver of 2007 rather than 2008. Why?
Stuff and Health
He's got great raw talent. His fastball has not lost any speed since 2005, the first year we have data from. That year his average fastball was 91.3, in 2008 is was 91.2. In the years between, it was down to 90.2 and 90.5. His slider, as we all know, is filthy, and stayed filthy last year.
Although he is entering his age 27 season, he already has 999 ML innings on his arm. Although that sounds like a lot of innings, I think that it is a manageable workload for someone who has been in the majors for 7 years. He also had, by accident or not, a reasonable progression of innings for a youngster. In 2002, he pitched about 155 innings; in 2003, about 173; in 2004 he pitched 196. This gradual progression avoided something called the Verducci effect (which is a commonsense proposition that adding too many innings in a single year could hurt your arm). Furthermore, the fact that he sucked in 2005 and 2006 kept his innings down big time.
Its obviously an impossible thing to predict, but Oliver looks like a better bet than most to stay healthy, which is great. He increased his innings by only 13 last year and looks like he could be poised to make another leap this year, provided that he stays effective.
There is plenty of precedent, as well, for pitchers like Oliver Perez, who has control issues as younger pitchers, to put it all together down the road. The obvious comparison would be to Randy Johnson -- who as a left handed fastball/slider machine failed to get his walks below 100 in a full season for four full years before starting to put it together. Johnson was 29 before his first truly dominant year with the Mariners -- and even then he took another year to become the Randy Johnson we all know. Of course, Randy Johnson is a freak of nature -- he's enormous and throws much harder than Oliver. But in terms of repertoire and issues, they are very similar.
More realistically, Baseball-Reference.com sees Oliver Perez as most similar to three very successful pitchers: Mark Langston, Bobby Witt, and Frank Viola.
Langston, another Mariner lefty, won 179 games and made four all star teams. He succeeded despite not harnessing his control problems until the age of 31. He posted an ERA consistently better than average (four of five years of ERA+ above 125) while walking more than 4 batters per nine innings.
Bobby Witt was a useful but unspectacular righty for the Rangers (mostly) who makes the comparison list because of his walks, but was never as good as Oliver. Witt has a 3.36 ERA in his best season, striking out a batter per inning, at the age of 26, but was never good before or after. Oliver already has two seasons better than Witt's best.
Finally, former Met Frank Viola. Viola left the Mets before I was old enough to truly appreciate him, but he did some good stuff while here. In his career, Viola won one Cy Young and received votes in three other years. As for his comparison to Oliver Perez, Viola is another better-case-scenario pitcher. Viola has much better control than Ollie, but also didn't strike out as many guys -- he is probably on the list because of their similar K/BB and handedness (they also had the same exact WHIP for their age 25 and 26 seasons). Either way, Viola was a very good pitcher -- he has his breakthrough at the age of 24, after cutting his walks from 3.9 per 9 to 2.5 per 9.
Interestingly enough, Perez seems to split the difference between Viola and Langston on a variety of metrics. For K/BB, Oliver has the best ratio for the age 22 season, was tied with Viola (behind Langston) for their age 23 year, beat them both in their age 25 years. Both men, Viola and Langston, both saw their careers progress from there and posted great ratios for ages 26-31, just as you would expect them to. Hopefully, Perez sees the same kind of incremental improvement. Link to Fangraphs Images
Obviously, baseball-reference comparisons are far from an exact science, but it reminds us of some important things. (Lower ranked comps included Livan Hernandez, Sidney Ponson, Randy Wolf, Ryan Dempster, Melido Perez). Young pitchers with the success of Oliver Perez, even if they do not go on to become Cy Young winners, can at least hang around this league (barring the worst case Ponson scenario, which looks physically impossible). Just as importantly, pitchers like Perez can, but don't always, harness their control. Harnessing their control may not be make or break for them to be average, but IS necessary for them to emerge as aces.
Putting it Together
It took us a long time to get here, so I apologize for the long-windedness. I think Oliver Perez is a very, very safe bet to - at the very least - maintain the performance he has had so far as Met. I think most people agree with that assessment -- Oliver can post an ERA around 4.3 or 4.5, just like the last two years and the computer projections say. According to Fangraphs, his performance last year saved 13 runs and was worth $5.8 million dollars (following a formula which turns runs into wins, and then calculates the value of a win in free agency). For reference, his 2004 season would have been worth $14.1 million and his 2007 season worth $8.8 million.
So did the Mets just commit $12 million a year to a pitcher who will be worth $7 million dollars on average? I'd say no.
As discussed above, I think there are reasons to be optimistic about Oliver Perez. I'm hesitant to put a number on it, I think he has the potential to outperform the FIP he's posted the last couple of years of 4.3 and 4.8. He's a young lefthander with a great fastball and a team who is committed to him and to managing him through his troubles. MOST IMPORTANTLY, we are not simply banking on potential -- he has done this before. Oliver dominated in 2004. He was good in 2007. And that 2008 season that we never talked about? Let's take a look at one very important split:
134 innings, 62 walks, 130 strikeouts -- 3.56 ERA, 1.29 WHIP.
Those are his stats last season from June 7th to the end of the year. That's not one start, or one month -- that is the majority of the season. Obviously, it would be foolish to completely disregard his slow start to the season, but once again, Oliver has shown stretches where he actually DOES dominate how we expect him to.
Another interesting split? From June 29 to September 3, a stretch of 13 starts, he never pitched less than 6 innings. That's 84 innings, 1387 pitches, and two and a half months. I'm not saying that Oliver is an ace, but he is certainly capable of more than what Joe Talkshow realizes.
In order to justify a contract paying him $12 million a year, Perez would need to post an ERA between 3.30 and 3.50. I don't think he will do that, not in 2009. I am optimistic, however, that he can come close to that. While he will never be a world beater, Perez is likely to provide durability and stability to the Mets rotation and there is a significant chance that he can be come pretty darn good.
As we all know, it will come down to walks. Can he walk less batters without giving up more hard hits or sacrificing strikeouts? In his best season, he walked 3.72 batters per 9 innings. Last year in his good stretch, he still walked 4.16 and was VERY effective. He can still pitch WELL while walking a lot of guys. The true issue is can he lower the walks beneath 4.15 per 9 ever again? Can he lower than to 3.72 again?
Well -- baseball-reference's comparables think so. Common knowledge that a pitcher will improve his control throughout his prime would indicate so (the league average for walks per nine innings is about 3.5 for a 25 year old and decreasing, finally crossing 3.0 for a 38 year old). So, let's use a combination of mathematics, scouting, and intuition and make an educated guess.
Knowing that pitchers with electric stuff will often beat their forecasts (as Oliver has done ever year with the Mets so far) and that he will be pitching in a ballpark which everyone expects to decrease home runs, and that he will have a man named Carlos Beltran shagging flies for him...
2009: 13-8, 3.70 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 200 IP, 89 BB, 180 K
That ought to put him in the neighborhood of deserving a $10 million dollar contract. My initial instinct after hearing about the deal was that I thought the Mets overpaid slightly. That impression hasn't changed. But I do NOT think its a disaster, I do not think it was stupid. I think the Mets needed a starter in the worst way, and I would rather have Oliver Perez than Randy Wolf or someone off the scrap heap. He probably won't earn the full amount of his contract but he is unlikely to flame out entirely and there is a slight chance, let's say 10%, that he can grow into himself and become an ace to the tune of an ERA between 3.00 and 3.30.
Edit -- October 5, 2009
He was ineffective, then he was hurt. He may have been hurt all year. Either way, he sucked... and I don't think you can judge the signing on an injury plagued year.