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José Peraza’s approach is not working

Whether it’s on purpose or not, he’s got to go old school.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

The Red Sox have largely been bad to start this season, having dropped ten of their first 16 games and all that. Much of that can be placed on the shoulders of the pitching (and the front office that put this staff together), but the offense needs to be discussed too. It’s been better than the pitching, but A) I can’t talk about the pitching every day or I will lose my mind and B) the lack of offense from some players has been beyond frustrating. For the most part, it’s been the returning players who have not lived up to expectations with guys like Andrew Benintendi, Michael Chavis, Jackie Bradley Jr., J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers falling into deep slumps at points this year. The new guys have, by and large, been solid enough. That is, except for José Peraza.

When Peraza was signed, the expectation from most (myself included) seemed to be that he’d be splitting time at second base with Chavis. Instead, the latter has played first base pretty much exclusively with Peraza playing nearly everyday at the keystone position. That has not gone well. So far this season the former Red is hitting .245/.286/.302 for a 62 wRC+. In other words, he’s been 38 percent worse than the league-average hitter.

Now, it’s not exactly a huge surprise that Peraza is struggling to start this season. In fact, that 62 wRC+ is the exact same mark he carried last season in Cincinnati, and by FanGraphs WAR he had been below replacement level for two of the previous three seasons before being signed. That said, he’s also had some high moments. Peraza had played four years with any sort of significant playing time before 2020, with two being the aforementioned below replacement level but the other two being at least a league-average starter. That’s 50 percent! The Red Sox were hoping for more of that, but through 16 games it just hasn’t been there.

As far as plate discipline goes, Peraza is sort of a throwback kind of player who swings a lot and puts everything in play. He doesn’t strike out, but he also doesn’t walk. That’s continuing this season with a 14 percent strikeout rate and a 3.6 percent walk rate. For the most part, it tracks with his career norms. It is worth noting, though, that as you dig a little deeper he is getting fewer strikes than ever — which makes sense because why throw strikes to a guy who swings early and often — and is also chasing more balls than ever before.

For a player who relies on balls in play turning into hits, swinging at more bad pitches is not ideal, and we are seeing some issues with his balls in play. It doesn’t all come down to having to turn bad pitches into good contact, though. What stands out the most about Peraza’s early-season batted ball numbers is the large jump in average launch angle, which currently sits at a career-high 21.6 degrees. Looking at a jump from 17 degrees (and 15 the year before), the fair assumption would be that he is simply not hitting the ball on the ground as much as he had in previous seasons.

That’s not actually the case, though. According to Baseball Savant’s numbers, his 33 percent ground ball rate is a career-low, but it’s not a massive drop. He’d been in the 30 percent range in the previous two seasons as well. The big change here is actually that he’s popping the ball up more. Pop ups are obviously hit higher than any other batted ball, so a few more of those will have a big impact on the average launch angle, particularly in a small sample like Peraza’s 15 games. Baseball Savant has the infielder popping up nearly 12 percent of batted balls for the second straight year, and they have him getting under the ball a whopping 40 percent of the time he makes contact.

I am not, as I have admitted many times in the past, any sort of expert in dissecting mechanics. I will not pretend to be the kind of analyst who can eat some tape comparing Peraza of 2020 to Peraza of the past and tell you he’s made changes with his swing to join the launch angle revolution of the past few years. I can, however, tell you the data suggests that could be the case. When players change their swings to get more launch, the top of the zone becomes a weak spot. It makes sense, as when you think about swinging with an uppercut it is really hard to get that barrel to the top of the zone. And as it turns out, when Peraza does whiff — which admittedly isn’t super often — it has been pretty much exclusively at the top of the zone so far this year.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

If this is a conscious decision on Peraza’s part, I would humbly suggest reversing course. The fact of the matter is that Peraza just isn’t this kind of hitter. There are merits to changing your swing for more launch for players who can hit the ball well enough consistently enough to turn more batted balls into doubles and homers, even if there are also some more strikeouts added in. Peraza doesn’t have that power. Instead, he’s at his best just putting everything in play on a line or on the ground while using the whole field. Right now, he’s going the other way only 19 percent of the time, nine percentage points lower than his previous career-low.

Clearly, this kind of approach for which I advocate here is not ideal. It relies a whole lot on luck and simply hittin’ it where they ain’t, which can lead to frustration. We’ve seen in the past that luck has played a big role into whether or not Peraza is even usable. But the launch angle approach is just resulting in pop ups, and for a player who relies on not striking out, popping everything up certainly starts to cancel out that advantage.

If you’re looking for reasons for optimism, I will point out that one concern for the infielder coming into the year was his speed. Another reason the BABIP-dependent approach has worked for him in the past is that he can beat out more singles and then do damage on the bases. Last season, though, his sprint speed dropped fairly dramatically. He’s back in the top ten percent of the league in speed, though, so the old approach should be more tenable.

At the end of the day, Peraza is not a key part to this roster and there are other options if he continues to scuffle. Chavis can get more time at second base. Tzu-Wei Lin and/or Jonathan Araúz can get more chances off the bench. C.J. Chatham can get the call up to show what he can do. Ditto for Marco Hernández. There are no slam dunks, of course, but there are options. The organization clearly thinks Peraza is the top one, though, and if he wants to continue to get these chances I would suggest going back to the old way. It’s far from a guarantee, but what we’ve seen thus far appears to be a dud of an approach for someone like Peraza.