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2012 Player Preview: Rafael Perez

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to a key piece of the Tribe’s “Bullpen Mafia”: Rafael Perez.

Background: The Indians signed Perez, now 29, as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2002. Originally a starting pitcher, he was gradually moved to the bullpen as he ascended through the upper minors. His breakout 2007 campaign (1.78 ERA) earned him a place in Cleveland’s bullpen that he’s kept ever since—even when he posted a 7.31 ERA in 2009.

Last year: Perez gave the Indians about what they’ve come to expect from him: 63 innings with a 3.00 ERA (133 ERA+). He dominated left-handed hitters (.594 OPS against) and wasn’t too troubled by righties either (.708 OPS against). FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference pegged Perez’ 2011 value at a solid 0.8 and 1.0 wins above replacement, respectively, while Baseball Prospectus had him at just 0.2 WARP.

Key factor: Strikeout rate. In the first three years of Perez’ career, 27 percent of batters he faced struck out. But something changed in 2009—his ability to miss bats suddenly collapsed, and it’s been trending downward ever since. In 2011, his strikeout rate fell below 13 percent for the first time—less than half what it was in his prime. He can still pitch—his 127+ ERA over the last two years is a testament to that—but if he can remember how to rack up the K’s he’ll be a whole lot better.

2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs:

Not a lot of faith in Perez’ ability to repeat his performance. The major point of regression is in his home run rate—he gave up only two homers in 2011 and three in 2010, so even Steamer, Marcel, and ZIPS’ five-homer projections would actually be a lot worse. However, all the projections have his strikeout rate bouncing back at least a little bit; James has his K/9 rate shooting all the way up to 7.0.

Best-case scenario: Another 11.0 K/9 rate is out of the question, but there’s at least some chance Perez can get back to the days of striking out a batter an inning. He keeps his BB/9 rate under 3.0 and continues to be stingy with the long ball, giving the Indians 70 innings with an ERA in the low 2.00’s.

Worst-case scenario: We’ve seen this movie before. Perez loses control of his walk rate without getting enough strikeouts. He gives up more than his share of baserunners and doesn’t strand enough of them once they reach base. In other words, it’s 2009 all over again.

Most likely scenario: I’m not sure what all the projection systems’ skepticism is about. Expecting someone with a track record as inconsistent as Perez’ to repeat last year’s performance is probably unwise, but there’s no reason to assume he’s in for a full run’s worth of regression. I’ll take the Bill James projection, but without so many strikeouts.

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