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2020 in Review: Martín Pérez

It turns out it was just one year in Boston, at least for now.

Washington Nationals v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2020 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we take a look at the 2020 season for Martín Pérez.

2020 in one sentence

Martín Pérez was originally signed to be a low-upside fifth starter, and though circumstances cast him in a grander role, he did ultimately live up to that originally-planned billing.

The Positives

Pérez was legitimately solid in 2020, his first season with the Red Sox, with some good mixed with some bad. And while it may seem like a bit of a slight against the lefty to have his number one positive essentially be simply taking the mound every five days, but that was huge for the Red Sox. In fact, he was the only guy they had remotely close to a reliable presence on the mound. Nathan Eovaldi was better on a per-start basis, but Pérez was there every time out on a team that was desperate for even the illusion of stability. In fact, durability is one of the main reasons the team may be interested in bringing Pérez back for 2021, though that’s a conversation for later in this post. But in a 60-game season there are 12 five-man turns through the rotation — off days mess with that a bit, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll call it 12 turns — and Pérez made 12 starts. “Availability is the best ability” and all that.

It wasn’t just that he was there, though. Pérez did some good things on the mound, and most of them were building off the improvements he started to show in 2019. The big selling point for the southpaw’s signing last winter was that he had started inducing all of this weak contact and that his subpar results with Minnesota in 2019 were the result of bad luck and bad defense. Well, he did get better results this year and continued to allow that weak contact. According to Baseball Savant’s metrics regarding quality of contact, Pérez was in the top 10 percent of all pitchers in how often he allowed hard contact (defined by balls in play of at least 95 mph) while appearing in the top 15 percent of all of baseball in average exit velocity of all batted balls. There are some limitations to this kind of weak contact-oriented approach on the mound, but Pérez showed you can ride it to average results.

Keeping in the theme of carrying over 2019 changes to 2020, Pérez also continued to lean heavily on his cutter, a pitch he started throwing for the first time in that 2019 campaign. And once again, it paid off in a big way. The lefty upped its usage a tad up to 32 percent, making it his most-used offering. And once again, opponents failed to do damage against it. By the end of the year he had allowed a .233 wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) against the cutter with an expected wOBA (based on quality of contact) not far behind at .282. As you can see, he did a great job of painting the glove-side corner with the pitch going in at the hands of right-handed opponents, which no doubt contributed to righties managing just a .321 wOBA against Pérez in 2020.

via Baseball Savant

The Negatives

While Pérez was able to ride that weak contact to solid-average results — his park-adjusted ERA had him three percent better than league-average — his inability to control the strike zone puts a big cap on his ceiling. And specifically, the lack of swing-and-miss stuff can really come back to bite him, particularly in smaller samples. In 2020, Pérez ended the year striking out just under 18 percent of his opponents, and while that’s the second-highest rate of his career it is still about five percentage points lower than the league-average for starting pitchers in 2020.

This was my main issue with Pérez coming into the year. Soft contact is great, but at the end of the day you are still leaving things up to luck and your defense on any ball in play. While there is more likelihood for an out the softer the contact, it’s still not nearly as effective as a strikeout, which is pretty much always an out. When you fail to miss bats, you open yourself up to that bad luck, and unless Pérez starts to miss more bats it’s hard to see much of a ceiling in ERA beyond what he did in 2020. Which, to be fair, you can do a lot worse than league-average starting pitchers who take the ball every five days.

To go along with the strikeout issues, Pérez also isn’t exactly a beacon of great control, walking nearly 11 percent of his opponents in 2020. He’s always had some issues with control, but this past year was actually the worst of his career on this front. Some of that could be due to some small sample noise, to be fair, but he also just failed to get batters to chase. Again per Baseball Savant, only 23 percent of his pitches out of the zone were swung at, down from 32 percent in 2019 and 30 percent for his career.

For a guy whose two main pitches are a cutter and a changeup, both of which dip out of the zone at their best, he needs to get some chases to avoid high walk rates. And to add on to the strikeout issue, when you’re now adding free baserunners to this situation where you’re leaving a lot up to luck and defense, this is how you end up with long innings from time to time, which we did see from Pérez in 2020.

The Big Question

Does Martín Pérez have a breakout coming in 2020?

The idea behind this Big Question was building off those 2019 changes to transform in 2020. And as we discussed, he did ride those 2019 changes to a very solid season. That said, it wasn’t exactly a breakout campaign. It wasn’t a failure of a season by any means, but it wasn’t a slam dunk victory of a signing either.

Looking ahead to 2021

In one of the signs of how poor this market will be for players this winter, Pérez had his $6.25 million option declined by the team at the start of the offseason, making him a free agent. Given how solid and durable he was this past year, it seemed for some time that he’d have that picked up. There is a chance he could come back next season, as he seemed to enjoy his time here and by all accounts he fit in well with the clubhouse. If he does return, the hope would of course for him to be more properly cast in the back of the rotation where a 30-start season within five percent in either direction of league-average would be a win.