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Oliver Perez is back and he’s better than ever

The veteran lefty made a drastic overhaul to his mechanics and strategy. Now he looks to help the Indians come October.

New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

For the majority of the 2018 season, the AL Central leading Cleveland Indians have had one glaring weakness on their squad: the bullpen. Struggles from Cody Allen, injuries for Andrew Miller, regression from Tyler Olson and Zach McAllister, and the loss of Bryan Shaw shaped a clear need at the deadline. They did what they needed to do, grabbing a pair of controllable relievers in Brad Hand and Adam Cimber at the cost of standout prospect Francisco Mejia. Hand has been his usual good self, while Cimber has somewhat struggled, but these were much needed pieces.

A player that has helped this improving bullpen may be overlooked in a way. Well, remember Oliver Perez? He’s back. He’s in the latest act of a winding career path that saw him as one of the better young left-handers in the game with the Pirates, a pretty terrible starter with the Mets, a pretty good reliever with the Mariners and Diamondbacks, an inconsistent reliever with the Nationals, now better than he’s ever been in a certain role with the Indians.

After a season that saw him put up subpar numbers by LOOGY standards in 2017, the only work he could find was a minor league contract with the Yankees. He looked good in a short showing with their triple-A squad, pitching to the tune of a 2.57 ERA in 14 innings, striking out 15 and walking only three. Without an opportunity in the Yankees deep bullpen, he was released out of his minor league deal a few weeks into the season, quickly finding a major league deal in the Indians depleted bullpen. Since then, it’s been a straight run of consistent success for the veteran lefty.

A lot has changed with Perez this year. The fastball velocity is down more than a mile per hour, he’s changed up his fastball usage, and he’s putting more reliance on his slider.

Among 329 pitchers with as many innings as Perez in 2017 and 2018, only 11 have seen a bigger decrease in four-seam fastball usage.

Biggest Decreases in FA%

Name Change in FA%
Name Change in FA%
Tyler Glasnow 33.2%
Tony Sipp 26.1%
Matt Wisler 25.5%
Zach Eflin 22.0%
Zack Wheeler 20.8%
Chad Green 18.8%
Roberto Osuna 18.7%
Matt Albers 18.1%
James Pazos 17.3%
Jonathan Holder 17.3%
Charlie Morton 16.6%
Oliver Perez 16.2%
Danny Duffy 15.4%
Jason Vargas 15.3%
Joakim Soria 15.2%
J.A. Happ 15.1%
Jose Quintana 14.0%
Brandon Morrow 13.3%
Daniel Gossett 13.0%
Chad Kuhl 12.8%
Minimum 33 IP in 2017, 27 IP in 2018 FanGraphs

Yet, the four-seamer has been better than ever for Perez and it isn’t even close.

I figured something had to have changed with this outlier of success. My first instinct was to check the release points, which have also noticeably seen a change.

Horizontal release point is up...

While the vertical release point is down.

Drastic changes in release points for pristine results. Perez’s .154 wOBA against is tops among relievers with as many results as him. Only six relievers have been better in terms of xwOBA (Jose Leclerc, Will Smith, Edwin Diaz, Josh Hader, Blake Treinen, Sean Doolittle).

The rest of season projections are buying into this new Perez also, just in time to get rolling for October. Using ZiPS as a reference, the system puts him up there with some of the best relievers in the game the rest of the way. Only 22 pitchers have a better ERA projection, only 16 have a better K/9 projection, and he trails only Andrew Miller for ERA in the Indians bullpen.

30 Lowest RoS ERA ZiPS Projections

Name ERA
Name ERA
Aroldis Chapman 2.17
Andrew Miller 2.2
Roberto Osuna 2.46
Edwin Diaz 2.51
Chris Sale 2.6
Clayton Kershaw 2.68
Felipe Vazquez 2.69
Will Smith 2.71
Dellin Betances 2.76
Keone Kela 2.78
Craig Kimbrel 2.8
David Robertson 2.84
Sean Doolittle 2.86
Mark Melancon 2.86
Jacob deGrom 2.89
Max Scherzer 2.9
Zach Duke 2.91
Dan Winkler 2.94
Noah Syndergaard 2.94
Jeurys Familia 2.94
Will Harris 2.96
Kenley Jansen 2.97
Brad Hand 2.99
Oliver Perez 2.99
Blake Treinen 2.99
Tony Watson 3.02
Corey Kluber 3.04
Carl Edwards Jr. 3.05
Josh Hader 3.06
Chad Green 3.06

With some major changes, Perez looks legit. With more than ideal splits against both righties and lefties, he has the look of a great situational option, perhaps a fireman role. Add him to possible multi-inning options in Andrew Miller and Brad Hand come postseason time. They’ll need anything and everything in their bullpen filled with question marks, but the group has potential to be quite formidable if everything goes right.

Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.