As it stands right now, the Milwaukee Brewers would be a playoff team. They’d just barely squeak in, of course, but if you get there, you have a chance. Getting that chance, given the unpredictability of the playoffs, is about as much as a team like this could hope for.
Milwaukee wasn’t expected to be this or any other kind of good in 2017. The team was seen as far more likely to finish in last place than first. While it had some exciting young talent on the roster, and one of the game's best farm systems, it was assumed that the Brewers were at least a few years away from contending for the NL Central again, especially with the juggernaut Cubs around. PECOTA projected Milwaukee to win 76 games this season, and there was nary an outcry over that figure.
The biggest story from the Brewers’ season thus far has been the play of Eric Thames, who lit the league on fire over the first several weeks. Much digital ink has been spilled on Thames’ start, but despite the fact that he has begun to return to Earth a bit, he has to be mentioned when talking about Milwaukee’s exceeding expectations.
While Thames has deservedly gotten most of the headlines, however, a handful of his teammates have also picked up their play. Corey Knebel has been one of the best relievers in baseball. After a slow start, Keon Broxton has been very good. Manny Pina has
made Brewers fans forget about Jonathan Lucroy hit better than anyone could have expected. But perhaps the most interesting Brewer — outside of Thames, of course — has been Hernan Perez.
Though not to the extent that Thames has, Perez has hit better than just about anyone could have expected. At the moment, his wRC+ stands at 127, as he’s become a more balanced, patient hitter. It’s mid-May, and he’s about a third of a win away from eclipsing his best full season ever, by FanGraphs WAR.
You might assume that Perez is yet another example of a player who’s gone through a successful swing revamping, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Visually, there’s not much, if anything, different about Perez as compared to previous seasons.
Plus, there’s no discernible difference in how hard he’s hitting the ball. Nor is he getting in on the fly ball revolution, as his fly ball rate is about four percentage points lower than it was last season. Still, his walk rate is up significantly, and his strikeouts have come way down. His slugging percentage is more than 100 points higher, even though his BABIP is a modest .304. If you’re looking for reasons to call Perez’s season a fluke, it’s difficult to find them.
Instead, it appears that he’s gotten better the old-fashioned way: by aging a year and using previous experience(s) to make subtle but important adjustments. As fun as that is, however, it’s only tangentially related to the most interesting thing about Perez — his versatility.
In recent years, we’ve become somewhat obsessed with the concept of positional versatility. This has been most prominent with the Cubs — who will seemingly put any player at any position — but it’s a leaguewide trend, really. Versatility is always a good thing, and clubs are taking advantage of players who possess the skills and athleticism to play in different spots on the diamond.
The concept of the utility player isn’t new, of course. It’s been a staple for much of baseball history. Generally speaking, though, “utility player” has often been a euphemism for a player who couldn’t hit well enough to justify a spot in his team’s lineup. That’s not really the case anymore, and the 2017 version of Perez embodies that shift as well as anyone.
Even relative to his multi-positional peers, Perez’s versatility stands out. Most of the current archetypes — think the modern version of Ben Zobrist — (air quotes here) only play two positions on a regular basis. Perez plays five, including the two most challenging on-field spots: shortstop and center field.
As it stands on Wednesday morning, Perez has played one game at second base, nine at third, six at short, nine in left, four in center, and seven in right. He is one of only three players to spend even one game at each of those spots, but not a bench player like Kike Hernandez and Arismendy Alcantara.
Perez isn’t a great defender at any one of those spots — he wouldn’t move around so much if he were — but the fact that he can play them all competently is both incredible and incredibly valuable to the Brewers. You can plug a lot of leaky holes when you have one guy capable of plugging most of them.
Young Zobrist (great rap name, by the way) will always be the gold standard for the guy who can play just about anywhere and still hit like a monster. His 2009 season is far and away the best in baseball history of that ilk. Perez isn’t, and will not be, that good.
But if the Brewers are really going to keep pace in the NL Central — while the projections still don’t like them, their current +27 run differential suggests they may even be underachieving — Perez will continue to play an integral role. If his adjustments at the plate are for real (again, it’s difficult to see a reason to believe they are not) he can be to Milwaukee what Zobrist was to those late-2000s, early-2010s Rays teams, albeit a lesser version.
That’s a strange thing to write, when speaking about both Perez and the Brewers at large, and there is, of course, no guarantee that either he or the team can keep this up. But it’s no longer good enough to be just a good hitter or just a good fielder. The modern ballplayer has to do both, and if he can play multiple spots, that would be great too. How many guys embody that ideal better than Hernan Perez at the moment?
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.