I feel like I owe you an all-positive post today, to make up for all the Sanchez-bashing last time around. So here you go.
We all missed Perez terribly, while he missed the first half of the season recovering from a torn meniscus suffered in spring training. (Perez tore his meniscus lunging for a pitch out of the strike zone. Who threw that pitch? Jonathan Sanchez, of course.) But I don’t think we realized just how badly we missed Perez, because I don’t think we appreciated just how good he might be.
I appreciated how good he was last season; as I’ve written before, he had the highest batting average by a 21-year-old catcher (min: 100 AB) in major-league history, and the 3rd highest OPS, behind Joe Mauer and Johnny Bench. But even I was concerned about what his performance meant. Batting average is a highly variable statistic, particularly in a sample size of just 39 games, and Perez hadn’t hit at that level at any point in the minor leagues.
His career line in the minors is .287/.329/.397; in Double-A last season, he hit .283/.329/.427. Those are fine numbers for an elite defensive catcher who is young for his leagues, but not the performance you’d project into an All-Star caliber player in the majors. Throw in the injury, and you had to be concerned that the player we saw on the field in late 2011 was a bit of a mirage.
That may yet prove to be the case, but we’re getting closer and it still looks like an oasis. Perez played 12 games in Triple-A on rehab and hit .340 – a soft .340, with just two walks and two extra-base hits (both doubles) – but still, .340. He was activated on June 22nd – and homered in his first game back. He hasn’t stopped hitting since.
Literally. Perez has played in 10 games since his return, and has a hit in all 10 of them – including one game in which he had a single pinch-hit at-bat. Perez has a ten-game hitting streak going, which is already the second-longest hitting streak by a Royal this season. (Eric Hosmer, surprisingly, hit in 11 straight from May 28 to June 9.)
Late update: Perez is in the lineup for the fourth straight night tonight, and singled in his first at-bat, starting a five-run inning. So 11 games, 11-game hitting streak, tied for the longest of the season.
He’s not just hitting, he’s hitting for power. I remarked on this a little last season, when I was in attendance at US Cellular Field in September when Perez hit an absolute bomb to right field. It’s rare to see any player hit a ball that far to the opposite field, let alone a 21-year-old rookie catcher. He’s shown that kind of power again this year. His second homer, on June 29, was an opposite-field homer at Target Field. Do you know how hard it is to hit a home run to the opposite field at Target Field? I don’t have numbers for this season, but between 2010 and 2011, according to the Bill James Handbook, Target Field reduced homers by 24%. For left-handed hitters, homers were cut 32%, which suggests that it’s even harder to hit homers to right field than elsewhere in that ballpark. (Since the ballpark opened, Joe Mauer has hit 14 homers on the road – and just three at home.)
Here's a link to the video. As you can see, it wasn't a cheapie.
On Monday night, Perez showed a different kind of power. He dropped the bat head on a pitch that was low and inside. Just keeping that ball fair was impressive enough – but he hit a line drive that somehow carried over the left field wall. I can’t do it justice with words – watch it here.
In ten games, Perez is hitting .371/.371/.714; for his career – all of 49 games – he’s hitting .339/.363/.519. There are warts to Perez’s game, certainly. He hasn’t drawn a walk yet, and he’s bounced into two double plays. Extrapolate his career to 162 games, and he’d have as many GIDPs (23) as walks. He’s only thrown out 10 of 44 base stealers (23%) in his career, although 1) his career rate in the minors was 42% and 2) that doesn’t count the three guys he’s picked off.
I realize the sample size is vanishingly small here, but my opinion on Perez isn’t simply based on the numbers, but on – perish the thought – my eyes. He hits everything HARD. His line-drive rate (and with the caveat that “line drives” are highly observer-dependent; what some people will call a line drive other people will call a fly ball) for his career is 27.6%, well above the league average of 18%. He’s earned his .339 average.
And as crazy as this might sound, if you put a gun to my head and I had to predict which player in the Royals organization will go to the most All-Star Games in his career…I’d probably pick Perez. Moustakas, Hosmer, Gordon, Butler…all those guys play high-offense positions where the standard for offense is really high. If Perez is simply a .280-.290 hitter with 15-20 homers, he’s going to be one of the best offensive catchers in the league along with excellent defense. The two best catchers in the AL right now are probably Joe Mauer and Matt Wieters. (Mike Napoli starts the All-Star Game, but that’s a homer pick that’s unlikely to be repeated.) Mauer can’t stay healthy and might move to another position before long; Wieters has the sterling pedigree but is more of a very good player than a star.
Perez has a lot to prove, starting with whether he can stay healthy or not. But everything we’ve seen from him since he arrived in Kansas City says that he’s a budding star. And as for his minor-league track record…let’s not forget that he was 17 when he started playing. He hit .189 in A-ball in 2009 – when he was 18. He started 2010 in Wilmington when he was 19 – he turned 20 a month into the season. Hitting in the Death Valley of the minor leagues, he batted .290/.322/.437. Last year he hit .290/.331/.437 in the high minors and was in the majors three months after he turned 21. (If I’ve done the research correctly, Perez is the ninth-youngest position player ever to suit up for the Royals.)
While much of the reason why the Royals have been such a failure the last 15 years is because many of their top prospects have failed to develop, a contributing factor is that they really haven’t had anyone who wasn’t a top prospect who surprised in a positive fashion. Think of someone like Andre Ethier, who was a 23-year-old in Double-A that the A’s thought so little of that they traded him for Milton Bradley – and then arrived in the majors the following year as an above-average outfielder who improved until he was an All-Star. Or Robinson Cano, who hit .278/.331/.425 in the minor leagues and was made available to the Royals for Carlos Beltran, only Allard Baird decided on Mark Teahen because dadgummit, they needed a third baseman.
Well, Perez might be that guy. When the Royals placed nine guys on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect List, we knew some of them would fail, but we hoped that those failures would be compensated for by players who snuck under the radar of that list. Most people would agree that Perez is one of those players. What is much more controversial is that Perez might prove to be as valuable as anyone the Royals had on that list in the first place. It’s way too early to say so with any confidence. But every time we think Perez has reached his ceiling, he builds himself another one. I can’t wait to see the perch he finally settles in at.
In the meantime, I suggest the Royals keep his knees in bubble wrap. Tall catchers and knee injuries go hand in hand. The Royals can’t afford another one.
The quick prologue to the Luis Mendoza story: a journeyman right-hander going nowhere, rebuilt his delivery last season in Triple-A, led the PCL in ERA despite striking nobody out. We were very skeptical of his chances. He pitched very well in spring training, including an excellent strikeout rate, which might have indicated something.
Or not. In his first start, Mendoza walked four and struck out two, which set the tone. In his next start, he walked four and struck out one, and also allowed nine runs in four innings. He was bumped from the rotation after just four starts, but the same pattern continued in the bullpen. Through the 6th of June, Mendoza had 25 walks and 19 strikeouts, and it’s essentially impossible to be even remotely successful in the major leagues in the 21st century when you have more walks than strikeouts. Batters were hitting .312/.405/.399 against him; he was lucky to have a 5.36 ERA.
But then something funny happened. He went back into the rotation on June 12th when the dreaded Black Arm Death swept through the pitching staff. In his first start, he took a no-hitter into the seventh – and struck out four batters against two walks. In five starts since returning to the rotation, he has walked no more than two batters in any start. He has struck out at least four batters in all but one of those starts. Wednesday night, he struck out a career-high nine.
Here’s Mendoza’s line in his last five starts:
30 IP, 28 H, 6 BB, 25 K, 2 HR, 3.26 ERA.
I have no idea what this means. I have no idea if this is sustainable. But strikeout and walk rates stabilize as quickly as any stat in the game, meaning that you don’t need as large of a sample size to trust them. Something happened to Mendoza when he returned to the rotation. Whether it was something as simple as gaining confidence in his pitches, or whether it was trying to mix his pitches up more so that his repertoire wasn’t as predictable the third time through the lineup (where he was getting killed), I don’t know. Maybe he added a pitch, or subtly adjusted an old one. I don’t know.
But I want to see more. Given the state of the Royals’ rotation, it’s easy to say “well, he’ll certainly get the opportunity to show us more,” but it’s actually worse than that. Mendoza has a 4.50 ERA on the season, which is hardly great, or even good – the American League as a whole has a 4.04 ERA, and starting pitchers have a 4.37 ERA*, so his performance is still below-average.
Except that right now, Mendoza has the best ERA of anyone in the Royals’ rotation. Luis Mendoza, for lack of a better term, is currently the Royals’ ace. He is their stopper. Those aren’t the saddest words I’ve ever written, but if you’re thinking that the Royals might actually have a chance to get back in the race this year, I suggest you read the opening sentence of this paragraph a few dozen more times.
*: AL starting pitchers have a 4.37 ERA, but AL relievers have a 3.41 ERA. Relievers generally have better ERAs, because they’re more effective and because of the way inherited runners are charged to the outgoing pitcher, but the gap isn’t usually this wide. Just three years ago, for instance, AL starters had a 4.62 ERA, but relievers had a 4.17 ERA. The ERA gap was 45 points in 2009, and 96 points – more than double – in 2012. So if it seems like every team has a great bullpen…that’s because they do. It might be just one of those years – or it could be that teams are doing a better job than ever of identifying potential bullpen arms and deploying them correctly.
Any truth to the rumors that the Royals are keeping Starling in extended spring training to shield him from prying eyes that may notice he’s not very good? – May 2nd
You probably know about my growing concerns with Starling, the hometown kid who was the #5 overall pick in one of the deepest drafts in a generation last season. You probably remember my study from last year about the importance of draft age among high school hitters, and the implication that Starling, who turned 19 before he even signed, was a significant risk to underperform, particularly compared with #8 overall pick Francisco Lindor, who was just 17 when he signed.
My concerns only grew when Lindor headed straight to the Midwest League in April and performed well – he’s hitting .262/.349/.374 as an 18-year-old, and scouting reports are uniformly glowing – while Starling stayed back in extended spring training. They grew more when it turned out our expectations that Starling would head to Kane County as soon as the weather warmed up were unfounded, and that the Royals eventually decided he would be best served by debuting in the Appalachian League, a couple rungs down the minor league chain.
Swing remains long. Wrists very fast. – May 10th
Meanwhile, it felt like every 2011 first-round pick was crushing it. I’m not just talking about the four guys who went ahead of Starling, like Gerrit Cole and Danny Hultzen and Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy. I’m talking about Jose Fernandez (#14 pick to the Marlins, now the #8 prospect in baseball per Baseball America) and Matt Barnes (#19 to the Red Sox, #13 prospect) and Lindor (#14 prospect) and Archie Bradley (#7 pick, #16 prospect) and Javier Baez (#9 pick, #25 prospect) and George Springer (#11 pick, #45 prospect).
And then Starling got hurt, straining his hamstring after his first at-bat in an exhibition game two days before his season was supposed to begin. Let’s just say I was becoming less worried and more bitter. I was starting to wonder whether Starling was just the local version of Roscoe Crosby. Starling ranks #46 on Baseball America’s mid-season list – behind ten other guys in the 2011 draft.
Everything’s working except the bat. – May 19th
Starling finally debuted on June 28, and I knew I would violently overreact to his first pro game. Naturally, he went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts (and a walk). Beautiful.
But if I’m allowed to overreact over one game, I can also overreact over one week. And I will say, a week later, that I’ve lowered the DEFCON rating a slot on Starling. On Monday, in his fourth game as a pro, he homered – twice – and singled. On Tuesday, he went 2-for-4. Last night, he went 2-for-4 with a triple and two walks.
Starling’s had a hand dip in his swing his whole life. Will take time to unlearn and retrain. Easy thing to spot, don’t know how easy to fix. – June 14th
Through six games, Starling is hitting .360/.484/.680. More importantly, he’s showing at least a rudimentary understanding of the strike zone. In six games, he’s struck out seven times – and drawn five walks. Even in a sample size of just six games, those rates are somewhat meaningful. The #1 pitfall for tools demons who get drafted in the first round is plate discipline. As an example, Anthony Hewitt was the Phillies’ first-round pick in 2008 despite being very raw at the plate, because he was one of the best athletes the draft had seen in years. In his first pro season, he struck out 55 times – and walked seven times, for a K/BB ratio of nearly 8 to 1. Incredibly, it got worse each of the next two years – 77/9 in 2009, 158/13 in 2010. Hewitt is 23 years old and still in A-ball, his career jeopardized by a simple inability to tell balls from strikes.
I’d venture to say that there is no point in Hewitt’s career where he drew as many as five walks during a stretch where he struck out seven times. Simply ruling out an extreme case of plate indiscipline makes it more likely that Starling will reach his considerable ceiling as a hitter. It’s certainly not enough – Donavan Tate, the #3 overall pick in 2009 and a worst-case scenario for Starling, has had pretty good strikeout-to-walk ratios throughout his career; he simply hasn’t hit worth a damn.
Bubba Starling’s swing is transformed. In like a month. Whoever’s been coaching him has worked wonders with it. He’ll match the hype even if he doesn’t improve his technique any further. – July 5th
All quotes in italics are from a Baseball Person whose opinion I trust greatly. If anything, the evolution of his opinions are more dramatic – and more optimistic – than any amount of statistical evidence that six games can provide.
I’d still rather have Dylan Bundy. I’d still rather have Francisco Lindor, frankly. But then we knew on Draft Day that Starling was a bigger risk than either of them; it’s just that he had an upside that bordered on historic. It’s still doubtful that he’ll reach it, but I’m feeling a heck of a lot better about him than I was a month ago, or even a week ago.