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One Big Question: Can José Peraza get his OBP to league-average?

His career OBP has been a rollercoaster.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by John Capella/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover José Peraza.

The Question: Can José Peraza get on base at an average rate?

Yesterday, we talked about Josh Osich being the first addition to the major-league roster despite the fact that the Mookie Betts trade will almost certainly be remembered as the first transaction. We have another first for Bloom today in José Peraza, who was the first major-league free agent to sign, just barely beating out Martín Pérez. Peraza obviously wasn’t a super exciting free agent for fans, particularly being the first. He’s got more of a late-offseason kind of feel. Plus, there’s the whole kinda sorta replacing Brock Holt situation, which won’t make things easy. Tough sitch, as they say on the Around the NFL Podcast.

Either way, Peraza is going to get his chance to make his mark on this team. The leash probably won’t be super long, and Michael Chavis is going to take a good chunk of the time at second base, but Peraza will be more than a fill-in.

What’s interesting about the former Red is that it’s kind of impossible to know what to expect from him given the all-over-the-place career trajectory. Once upon a time, Peraza was in the Braves organization and was traded to the Reds before his major-league debut, and at the time he was a top prospect in baseball. He topped out at number 54 on Baseball America’s list and was as high as 38 on MLB Pipeline’s list. He hasn’t made good on that potential in the majors, but he’s had two seasons in which he was league average or close to it at the plate (with good baserunning and defense) and two seasons in which he was below replacement level. It just so happens that those seasons have alternated. By the Clay Buchholz Law Of Even Seasons, that means Peraza is due to bounce back, but I’m still waiting for peer review on my study of that law.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Workout Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

We’ll get out of the way the stuff that we know about Peraza, and specifically what we know he is not. The middle infielder is not going to hit for power, even if there is a juiced ball again. It’s just never been part of his game, and even in 2019 with that juiced ball he finished with six homers and a .106 Isolated Power(SLG - AVG). His career highs, both from 2018, are 14 and .126. He’s also not going to draw walks, as he’s been in the 3.9 percent to 4.2 percent range in each of the last three seasons. Players have weird, out-of-nowhere breakouts in these areas from time to time, but there’s no point in speculating on it for Peraza at this point. The chances are just low.

It’s interesting talking about such a steady walk rate in the context of an article about his on-base percentage, since for most of us when we think of OBP and getting on base in general it’s usually in the context of patience and working walks. For Peraza, though, that hasn’t ever really been the factor. Instead, for him it’s about getting singles to boost that OBP. Over his four seasons in the majors, his OBPs have gone as follows, starting with 2016: .352, .297, .326, .285. For a little context, last year the league-average OBP was .323. Obviously there’s some variance from park-to-park, but let’s just use that league average as the money mark for Peraza. When he’s been above that, his wRC+s have been 102 and 96. Respectable! When he’s been below, his wRC+s have been 61 and 62. Yikes!

Now, when we talk about batting average, it can be broken down into two pieces in its simplest form. You have to put the ball into play, and then you have to get a hit on those balls in play. In the first part of it, Peraza is good. He makes a ton of contact, and even with a career high strikeout rate in 2019 he was still at 14.4 percent, nine percentage points lower than the league-avearge. He did pair that with a career-high whiff rate, too, but there’s no sign that he’s suddenly going to strike out 20+ percent of the time, or even 15+ percent of the time.

So, the real variance here is with turning those balls in play into hits. Most of us know this as batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, and associate it with luck. There is certainly a fair amount of luck involved, although that excuse is often used as a crutch on both sides of the .300 mark. Players can make their own luck, and Peraza is no exception. I will admit that this is a little hard to parse, but the biggest correlating factor in his batted ball data in his good seasons versus bad ones is his line drive rate. This makes sense, of course, because it’s a lot easier to get a hit on a line drive than on a grounder or fly ball. The specific numbers are a little different on FanGraphs versus Baseball Savant, but both sites agree that he hit liners at a higher rate in 2016 and 2018 than he did in 2017 and 2019. The issue with line drives is that, and the reason the sites differ on their numbers, is that the difference between a line drive and a fly ball can be an inexact science.

Now, if you are looking for good news, beyond the line drive rate (which, again, can be subjective) the batted ball profile from 2018 to 2019 didn’t change that much. According to FanGraphs, Peraza had basically an identical ground ball rate, his distribution for pulling, hitting up the middle and going the other way was close to the same, and his hard-hit rate was actually a little bit higher. On the other hand, Baseball Savant digs a little bit deeper and there is a big difference in barreled balls, which is the best contact a player can make. Peraza had a barrel rate of 0.3 percent last year, compared to 2.5 percent the year before and just below two percent in his previous two seasons. Furthermore, his weak/medium contact was a little more in favor of getting under the ball versus topping it, essentially being the difference of easy pop ups or fly balls versus grounders. We know intuitively that a grounder is more likely to sneak through for a hit than a pop up or fly ball.

There’s another part of this, too, which plays specifically into Peraza’s profile: Speed. One of his most valuable skills in his career has always been the value he provides of the bases. Last year, though, he stole only seven bases (and was caught six times) after swiping at least 20 bags in each of the previous three years. He was also a negative value with his legs according to FanGraphs’ baserunning metric. There are numbers to suggest this isn’t a fluke, too, as his sprint speed fell from the 92nd percentile down to the 75th percentile. If Peraza really did lose that speed overnight, it’ll be harder for him to leg out some infield singles, putting more pressure on the bat to produce hits.

By its very nature, Peraza’s performance is always going to come with a big of uncertainty. While power, walks and strikeouts are somewhat stable from year to year (there’s a reason they’re called the three true outcomes), batting average on balls in play can fluctuate much more wildly. For Peraza, it also happens to be the key to his value. He’s going to need some luck in his favor, but he can also make his own luck. Look to see how many line drives he’s hitting, and on the occasions he mis-hits a ball, see if it’s going for grounders or pop ups. That, along with simply getting his speed back, will be the difference between a solid player who gets on base at an average rate, and a below replacement level contributor.