When Derek Holland’s left knee went snap-crackle-pop in January 2014, the upcoming Texas Rangers season suddenly became make-or-break for youngster Martin Perez. After rediscovering his slider, Holland had a breakout year in 2013, posting career-highs in ERA (3.42), strikeouts (189) and innings pitched (213.0). With a healthy Holland, the Rangers would have plugged left-hander Perez into the No. 3 spot.
Now it appears that Holland is out for at least the first third of the season and more likely until the All-Star break. The Rangers passed on Masahiro Tanaka, leaving a mix of retreads – such as 37-year-old A.J. Burnett – and washouts – such as last year’s pitching machine Tanner Scheppers– as the available replacements. So now, whenever Perez takes the ball, pitching coach Mike Maddux will tell him “give us at least a quality start, kid” instead of “all you have to do is keep us in the game, kid.”
The good, the bad and the ugly
Perez has great stuff. He consistently reaches the lower- to mid-90s with his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, has a hard slider, a very effective straight changeup and a decent curveball. Against righties his best pitch is the changeup: Perez gets about a 40 percent whiff rate in those situations. Against lefties Perez can get a swing-and-miss with almost any of his pitches, though at a lower rate than the righty-changeup combination. Some believe that Perez could be even better by throwing his changeup earlier in the count as opposed to using it mostly as an out-pitch.
Perez is 22. Young pitchers with great stuff, like Perez, are used to getting a strikeout, roller or popup almost every at-bat. When a hitter hits the ball hard or (gasp) hits a home run, young pitchers tend to unravel. They either refuse to challenge hitters and walk everybody or they try too hard and leave pitches up over the middle. This snowball effect is even worse in the American League where the entire lineup is generally stacked with hitters and there are no pitchers or Mendoza-line shortstops that are comparatively easy outs.
The bottom line
If manager Ron Washington has any maturity pills, now is the time to use them. Perez definitely has the stuff to be a solid No. 2; he just needs to develop the mental toughness that accompanies the role. Texas Rangers’ pitchers and catchers begin 2014 spring training on Feb. 16 in Surprise, Ariz.