Carlos Pérez: An Unexpected Journey

Elsa

Carlos Pérez was once a highly-touted starting pitching prospect in the Braves' system until injuries and ineffectiveness altered his course. See how Pérez's path through the minors changed, and what that means for his potential future impact on the Atlanta Braves.

While looking at Marc Hulet’s rankings of the Braves’ top 15 prospects earlier this week, one name in particular stood out to me—Carlos Pérez. I remembered seeing Pérez’s name in November as one of the names added to the Braves’ 40-man roster. I also knew that Pérez had become somewhat of a "fallen prospect" in the past couple of years after a rough go of it as a starting pitcher in the low minor league ranks, and had all but disappeared from many peoples’ radars as a potential big league contributor on the mound in the future in part due to a role change in which he became a relief pitcher.

Baseball is a game that throws a multitude of unexpected twists and turns towards those who play the game in a variety of ways. It’s an unfortunate facet of the game, and players often do not figure out a way to overcome those challenges to become a potentially valuable asset to a Major League team. Carlos Pérez could certainly be a case study as to how the intricacies of the game can create an unanticipated set of challenges for one of its players. The Dominican left-handed pitcher, signed as a 16-year-old international free agent by the Braves in July 2008, was reassigned to the bullpen as a member of the Rome Braves in 2012, something he (and most other followers of the lefty) may not have imagined as a fairly highly-touted starting pitching prospect a mere few years before. Although Pérez was given the opportunity to make four starts with Rome at the beginning of the 2012 season, he fared poorly, and the decision was made to pull the plug on Pérez as a starting pitcher. He made three relief appearances with Rome before being demoted to Danville. Effectively, at this point, Pérez had made the transformation from a prospect (albeit fringe at that point) to a non-prospect. He hit a low from which many prospects simply do not rebound. However, Carlos Pérez has transformed his game as a reliever, giving hope to his potential future as an important piece of the Braves’ big club.

When the Braves signed Pérez at the tender age of 16 in the summer of 2008, he was given a $600,000 bonus (compare that to the $850,000 bonus that Colombian righty Julio Teheran received the previous year), and was viewed as a starting pitching prospect from the left side with an arsenal featuring an upper 80s-low 90s fastball with plenty of sinking movement, and two projectable off-speed offerings, his curveball and changeup. He was lean and lanky, at 6’2" and around 170 pounds, as many young international signees are, and was viewed to have the potential to develop a prototypical starter’s body and add velocity and refinement along the way. Many were excited about the signing, and drew comparisons to the aforementioned Teherán by calling him the southpaw equivalent to the Colombian right-handed pitcher.

Pérez made his stateside debut with the GCL Braves in the summer of 2009 as a very raw 17-year-old. Although his statistics in his debut season were not particularly impressive (he posted a 5.28 ERA in 30.2 innings of work, although his peripherals suggested that his poor ERA was largely attributable to a low strand rate and a high BABIP allowed), there wasn’t any consternation due to his young age and lack of experience. Pérez began the 2010 season with the Braves’ more advanced rookie ball team in Danville and experienced success from the get-go. He experienced an uptick in K% (from 16.2% in the Gulf Coast League to 21.4% with Danville), despite working exclusively as a starter and an improved FIP (from 4.41 to 3.20), suggesting that Pérez’s development into a coveted starting pitching prospect had begun. Pérez was rewarded with a promotion to the class A Rome Braves, something that isn’t too terribly common for 18-year-olds. He made two starts in the Sally League as the youngest member of the Rome squad before breaking a rib and bringing a premature end to his promising 2010 campaign. His campaign was so promising, in fact, that Baseball America named him the top prospect from the 2010 Appalachian League, ahead of players such as Twins outfielder Oswaldo Arcia, Cardinals top prospect Oscar Taveras, and the latest Brave to receive a multi-year, eight-figure extension, Andrelton Simmons. Pérez’s 2010 season propelled much of the hype that he began to receive in the 2010-2011 off-season from outlets such as the aforementioned Baseball America, SB Nation’s own John Sickels, and Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein, who summed up the common train of thought regarding Pérez like this:

This high-ceiling Dominican lefty blew scouts away during his second year as a pro…with a lean body, long levers, and a lightning-fast arm. (…) His ultimate upside is right there with that of any pitching prospect in the system, other than Teherán.

Goldstein mentions the need for Pérez to develop a more workable changeup, as well as the need for Pérez to refine his control and command. When considering his uncannily premature age, however, this was to be expected. It’s easy to see why so many baseball talent evaluators were so smitten with Pérez at this point in time, considering his projectablity, impressive fastball and curveball, and makeup. However, the 2011 season brought unanticipated challenges for Pérez and changed the course of his development as a baseball player permanently.

Pérez was good to go at the start of 2011 for the Rome Braves after recovering from his rib injury, and was expected to be the anchor of the team’s rotation. He took the ball for Rome as their opening day starter against the Hagerstown Suns (who coincidentally featured Bryce Harper in the 3-hole, making his minor league debut). By the middle of July, however, the prospect that had seen so much praise and acclaim thrown his way during the offseason had been relegated to a bullpen role with Rome. So, what happened? The Cliff’s Notes version of the story is that Pérez simply could not make the necessary adjustments needed to throw strikes (and quality strikes down in the zone with his sinking fastball) consistently as a starting pitcher, and thus lost his effectiveness. Pérez posted a 12.5% walk rate in the 17 starts preceding his move to the bullpen, and struggled with fastball location (Mike Newman discusses that here), which allowed hitters to make more consistent and quality contact off of his pitches in the zone, and thus limited his ability to use his off-speed pitches effectively. Pérez made three appearances in the bullpen before being allowed back to start 6 more games near the end of the season, mixed in with a couple more bullpen outings. The final numbers for Pérez were ugly, as he had the highest qualified WHIP in the South Atlantic League and an ERA pushing 5.

Below is some video of Pérez taken by the aforementioned Newman during the 2011 Rome season:

You can see from where some of the issues with Pérez’s command stemmed. His delivery is, to put it mildly, a bit complicated, and repeating such an involved delivery is difficult. Having a repeatable delivery and not varying one’s release point is a key point for pitchers that allows them to be consistent, and thus locate their pitches more accurately. To me, Pérez’s delivery seems much more suited for relieving rather than starting due to the complicated and seemingly tiring nature of his pitching mechanics. While Pérez certainly had impressive stuff and displayed flashes of brilliance as a starter, he struggled with consistency and location, which hampered his ability to develop as a starting pitcher at a more advanced league in Rome.

The Braves’ organization hadn’t completely abandoned their desire for Pérez to become a starter, however, as evidenced by his initial return to Rome as a starting pitcher in 2012. After making four starts, the last three of which being unmitigated disasters, the Braves decided to make a change—Pérez was done as a starting pitcher. The decision was made to convert Pérez into a bullpen arm, as his complex delivery and control issues simply made him an unrealistic candidate to become an effective starter at the big league level. The results of this move were, quite simply, astounding. Pérez went from a wild, ineffective starter to a dominant bullpen arm after being moved back down to Danville for the remainder of the 2012 campaign. Pérez posted a 2.35 ERA and a 1.80 FIP in the Appalachian League, along with an eye-popping, Kimbrel-esque 38.2% strikeout rate. He did not allow a single home run in 30.2 relief innings with Danville, which can largely be attributed as a product of his sinking fastball. He also experienced an uptick in velocity on his fastball, as noted in this Baseball America article, and also began throwing a more hard-biting and effective curveball. Although there were still some things to worry about (for instance, Pérez’s walk rate didn’t show much improvement in Danville, hovering at 11.5%), Pérez’s role change certainly demonstrated his ability to be a more effective asset out of the bullpen as opposed to as a starting pitcher.

Even though he hadn’t begun to reappear on top prospect lists during the 2012-2013 offseason, due to his move to the bullpen and control questions that continued to linger, Pérez’s 2013 campaign was nothing short of a rousing success. As a 22-year-old back with Rome, three seasons after his initial debut with the single-A club, he dominated Sally League hitters out of the bullpen and impressed both the Braves organization and talent evaluators alike. Pérez made 20 appearances and worked 32 innings for Rome in 2013 and posted a strong 30.3% strikeout rate. More notable, however, was the extreme improvement in his command shown during his tenure with Rome. Pérez only walked 8 batters in 32 innings of work, demonstrating his improvement in commanding the strike zone. Pérez did a fine job of keeping the ball on the ground and limiting home runs, which, combined with his K:BB numbers, led him to post a fantastic 2.25 ERA and 2.14 FIP in his time with Rome. Pérez’s fine work was rewarded with a July call-up to advanced-A Lynchburg. Nearly three calendar years after his first appearance with Rome, he had finally gotten the call to the Carolina League.

Although his stint in Lynchburg didn’t go as well as his time in Rome in 2013 (his walk rate skyrocketed, albeit in a small sample size), hope has begun to re-emerge for Pérez, and many, including myself, envision a future in a big league bullpen for him. His abilities to induce ground balls, avoid surrendering home runs, and miss bats should play well in the majors, provided that he continues to refine his secondary pitches (especially his changeup) and command as he advances in the Braves’ system. It seems evident that the front office and talent evaluators in Atlanta think highly of Pérez’s abilities, as he was added to the organization’s 40-man roster last November along with Elmer Reyes and Luis Vásquez, in order to protect him from a potential acquisition by another team via the Rule 5 Draft. Currently, Pérez is experiencing big league camp for the first time, and is surely gaining invaluable instruction time with Roger McDowell, the rest of the Braves staff, and older, more experienced pitchers. I don’t foresee Pérez being a big-league contributor in 2014, and I expect to see him spend most of the season with Mississippi. It will be interesting to follow Pérez as he makes the jump up to higher levels this season, and to see whether or not he can sustain his improved control while continuing to miss bats. However, I believe that Pérez has a future as an impressive arm out of the bullpen with two plus offerings in his sinking fastball and sharp-biting curveball, and with a changeup that should become at least serviceable with more development. Below is a video from one of Rome's games last season, featuring one of gis sharp curveballs. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of video to get a better idea of what Pérez's stuff looks like, but this gives you an idea of the break and tight spin that he uses to get batters to miss on his curveballs.

It’s sometimes difficult to remember that Pérez is only 22, so he has plenty of time to mature and grow as a pitcher before coming to Atlanta, especially considering the talented arms that reside a bit further up in the system than him. Keep an eye on Carlos in 2014, as he could be a dominant lefty out of the bullpen for the Braves in the mold of a Jonny Venters-esque sinkerballer with time.

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