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2013 Indians Player Preview: Chris Perez

The Cleveland Indians’ 2013 season starts today, meaning our quest to profile every player who will be on the Opening Day roster is nearing its end. (We haven’t gotten to Jason Giambi yet, but he hasn’t been activated yet anyway.) Today, we finish our look at the pitching staff with the Tribe’s closer, Chris Perez.

Background: The St. Louis Cardinals took Perez out of the University of Miami in the sandwich round (No. 42 overall) of the 2006 MLB amateur draft, just three picks after the Indians took David Huff. He quickly began tearing minor-league hitters to shreds and appeared on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in both 2008 and 2009—high praise for a relief pitcher. He made his MLB debut in 2008 and came to Cleveland a year later in the deal that sent Mark DeRosa to the Cardinals.

Last year: Perez’ 2012 season got off to an awful start, but he redeemed himself in short order, posting a 3.59 ERA (109 ERA+) and notching 39 saves in 57.2 innings en route to his second consecutive All-Star appearance. Significantly, he struck out more than a batter an inning—his highest strikeout rate ever as a closer and a huge improvement over 2011—while getting the walks down to a by-far career-low 2.5 BB/9. The DIPS stats varied in estimating Perez’ true-talent ERA, but SIERA put it as low as 3.04; for what it’s worth, Perez has a history of outperforming his peripherals in his career.

Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus all valued Perez’ 2012 performance at between 0.7 and 0.9 wins above replacement.

Key factor: Strikeouts. It’s entirely plausible that Perez will replicate his 9.2 K/9 rate from 2012, but it’s far from a safe assumption. Looking over his career numbers Perez once struck out as many as 10.7 K/9, but more relevantly his strikeout rate was a putrid 5.9 K/9 as recently as 2011. A dominant closer will have a hard time remaining either of those two things without getting batters to swing and miss on a regular basis, so Perez’ past could be cause for concern.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

Bill James sees Perez as an elite closer. Steamer and ZiPS consider him a fairly ordinary reliever. Oliver is somewhere in between.

Best-case scenario: Combine the best parts of 2010 and 2012. Perez continues to rack up the strikeouts while limiting the walks and inducing weak contact. His role as closer is never in doubt as his ERA never even approaches 3.00 and chases 50 saves en route to his third straight All-Star appearance.

Worst-case scenario: It’s 2011 all over again. The strikeouts recede and the walks return, but this time batters start hitting him harder. Combine that with a nagging shoulder problem and he loses his title as the Godfather of the Bullpen Mafia. Inertia might keep him in the closer’s role but it becomes painfully clear that he’s no longer the Tribe’s relief ace.

What to expect: It’s no guarantee that the strides Perez made last year are permanent, but I expect they’ll hold up. Look for more or less a repeat of what he did in 2012.

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