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One Big Question: Was Martín Pérez’s 2020 sustainable?

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He relied on a lot of weak contact.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Martín Pérez.

The Question: Can Martín Pérez sustain his 2020 success model?

Martín Pérez was the most consistent pitcher for the 2020 Red Sox, which is just about as low of a bar as one can find, but it’s still a title that belongs to Pérez. This fact, along with some help from a personality that is just easy to root for, led to fans calling his start days “Pérez Day,” perhaps the first time this kind of title has been given to someone with a career ERA hovering around 5.00. Still, to his credit he was consistently solid, if unspectacular, in a year that was filled with pitchers who were decidedly unspectacular. All of this caused some surprise when the Red Sox opted not to pick up his team option at the end of the season, but all’s well that ends well. Pérez ended up re-signing here anyway, and Pérez Day will be once more.

Looking ahead to 2021, Pérez should not have to play as big of a role in the rotation. If he ends up back in that sort of role, either he has taken a major step forward or, more likely, something has gone very wrong ahead of him in the rotation. But he will serve as the four or the five, and if he can just repeat what he did last summer he would be very well-suited for that role. Pérez made 12 starts last year, pitching to a 4.50 ERA and 4.88 FIP over 62 innings of work, a roughly league-average performance.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The thing is, him repeating that is no sure thing. Prior to finishing the shortened 2020 season with a 97 ERA-, meaning he was three percent better than the league-average pitcher by ERA, he had been worse than league-average in each of the three previous seasons. This was an out-of-the-norm performance, and any skepticism can point to that track record along with his 111 FIP- indicating he got some luck along the way. And indeed Pérez did benefit from a .266 batting average on balls in play, easily the best mark of his career. So the question becomes: Can he really repeat that 2020 performance, which would fit so well in the back half of a rotation?

On its face, the answer seems to obviously be no. His results outpaced both his career track record and his peripherals, and he was largely boosted up by a seemingly unsustainable BABIP that is not in line with his .310 career mark. Throw in the fact that it was a 60-game season that was filled with noise, small sample and otherwise, and the answer seems to be quite simple. It seems very easy to just say that he got lucky, and that luck will revert back to normal in a 162-game season.

It’s not quite that simple, though. If you’ll recall, there was some mild optimism around Pérez heading into last season for exactly this reason. In 2019 with the Twins, Pérez had started throwing a cutter, something he had never done before, and in fact made it the focal point of his arsenal. The result was a lot of weak contact, and elite placements in the league in terms of hard-hit rate and average exit velocity. That wasn’t reflected in his BABIP, which came in at .316, but the thought was that he actually got unlucky there and the weak contact should lead to a low BABIP. He kept throwing the cutter in 2020 and induced a similar contact profile — he was in the top 10 percent in hard-hit rate, and top 15 percent in average exit velocity — leading to the BABIP that he should have had the previous season.

So who’s right? Were the 2020 results finally just catching up to the batted ball profile he had shown off the year prior, and this is who he is? Or were the 2020 results simply noise in a shortened season being used as confirmation bias by those who were expecting those kind of numbers coming into the season? I don’t really have a good answer, largely because I am still unable to predict the future no matter how hard I try. But I do think there are two related causes of concern for me with Pérez this year, regardless of how much he can actually control.

And it starts with the Red Sox defense, which could be an issue this year. This is not a novel concept and has been covered here and elsewhere, but the Red Sox figure to take a step back defensively this season, particularly in the outfield. Any time you lost Jackie Bradley Jr., you’re going to suffer defensively. It should also be noted that Pérez threw his sinker much less in 2020, and as a result allowed more balls in the air. And even if he goes start to get more ground balls, Pérez is a lefty and thus faces many righties, and the left side of Boston’s infield is not exactly a Gold Glove haven. Defense didn’t hurt Pérez last year, and weak contact is certainly easier to deal with from a defensive perspective than hard contact, but any time a pitcher is reliant on contact quality, they are also reliant on the defense behind them. That could be an issue for Pérez on this Red Sox team.

We can also extrapolate from there and say that Pérez also gives himself and his defense an even thinner margin for error given how many free baserunners he puts on. ERA is based partially on luck, but sometimes you make your own luck, and Pérez is not good in this regard. He walked almost 11 percent of his opponents last season, and has been worse than league-average with his walk rate in each of the last three seasons. It should be obvious that you open yourself up to more damage from bad luck when you put runners on for free. Put another way, back-to-back bloop singles or singles finding a hole in the infield look a lot worse when they come following a leadoff walk rather than with the bases empty. As a guy who doesn’t miss bats, Pérez is playing with fire trying (and mostly failing) to get so many chases out of the zone.

I’ve generally been on the more skeptical side with Pérez, largely due to the walk issues that give this type of pitcher such a thin margin of error. The defense presumably taking at least a bit of a step back this year does not help matters either. With that said, smart people were expecting a season similar to the one we got in 2020, which lends some credence to the idea that he can do it again. The quality of contact, or lack thereof, is there. Whether or not he can parlay that into another year of people being excited for Pérez Day, well that remains to be seen.