The 2011 minor league season is still less than a month old, but left-hander Martin Perez––the top prospect in the Texas Rangers' organization––looks like he just might be turning a corner at Double-A Frisco.
Perez initially reached the Texas League late in the '09 campaign, when he was only 18 years old. After jumping straight from Low-A Hickory, Perez made five starts and posted a 5.57 earned-run average in 21 innings that season.
He returned to Frisco in 2010 and scuffled a bit statistically, giving up 117 hits and walking 50 in 99.2 innings––leading to a 5.96 ERA. Still, Perez's stuff remained solid and he struck out more than a batter per inning (101) despite being extremely young for the level.
After the '10 regular season, Perez played winterball in his native Venezuela for the first time in his career. The prospect was excellent in four of his seven appearances with Magallanes, allowing one earned run or fewer. But he was knocked around in the other three games.
Perez's third winterball start came against the Leones del Caracas––the biggest rivalry in Venezuelan baseball. Pitching in front of an announced crowd of 20,675, he shined in the three-inning start, yielding one unearned run on two hits.
It was an experience he'll likely never forget.
"It's nice," he said of his winterball experience. "Your family gets to see you. I threw Caracas against Magallanes, and it's unbelievable. It's a lot of people. The people say things and you pitch. A lot of people say bad stuff and you're like, ‘Wow.' But you have to keep concentration and throw the ball over the plate."
The hurler's Venezuelan Winter League stint also gave him the opportunity to face more experienced hitters. The league's lineups are often peppered with players that have extensive Triple-A and major league service time.
And not surprisingly, Perez says many of the hitters are more disciplined than what he generally faces in Double-A.
"I think, in Venezuela, the hitters look for one pitch," Perez said. "They want to hit the fastball. And if you throw three curveballs in a row, they won't swing. They want to swing at the fastball.
"It's like in the big leagues. Here, some teams will swing at all of my pitches. But it's different in Venezuela. More people have more experience, too. There are some big leaguers and Triple-A and Double-A guys."
While Perez logged a 5.97 ERA between Double-A and winterball in '09 and '10, there's an argument to be made that his struggles may be good for him in the long run. The adversity caused him to begin learning how to make adjustments and deal with failure.
The southpaw came into spring training this past March looking like an improved pitcher. He flashed more across-the-board consistency, and it showed in the results.
"I got a lot of confidence," said Perez, who turned 20-years-old on April 4. "Now, I'm working with my balance because I need balance when I throw. Last year, sometimes I threw on my side. Now, I'm working with my balance so I can throw every pitch in front of my body. I have good stuff, and I have good command when I stay with my balance."
For the most part, Perez has flashed better command in his four starts with the RoughRiders this season. Through his first 17 innings, he has allowed five runs (2.65 ERA) on 14 hits, walking eight and striking out 20.
His best outing as a professional came on April 19 at Arkansas, when he retired the first 15 batters of the game––getting three strikeouts––before the contest was called due to a thunderstorm and tornado warnings.
The game was weather-shortened, but Perez got credit for the five-inning perfect game.
"It was my first time to throw a perfect game in my life," he said. "It's really good. I think, when I throw in the game, to just throw first-pitch strikes, to attack the zone, and to locate. It's easy––when you throw the fastball, curveball, and changeup. It is easy to do when you have good command."
Perez's following start wasn't quite as smooth. Facing the top-hitting club in the Texas League, he was tagged for three first-inning runs before settling down. Overall, he threw 82 pitches in four innings, giving up three runs on five hits while walking four and fanning five.
"I felt a little tired in the first inning," said the 6-foot-0, 172-pound pitcher. "I didn't have my feeling with my fastball. But in the second, third and fourth, I threw good. I thought different the first inning. I thought first-pitch strikes, and after that it's easy."
While Perez wasn't at his sharpest in the game, he showed improvement from the previous season. His fastball sat in the 91-93 mph range, and he ran it up to 95 mph a couple of times. The velocity was a bit lower than his first few outings, when he worked a tick higher and topped out at 97 mph.
More important than the velocity, Perez attacked low in the zone with his fastball, which had a little late life. The result––after an erratic first inning––was five groundouts (including an inning-ending double play) and an infield popout.
He also displayed increased confidence in his curveball. Last season, Perez worked mostly with his fastball and advanced changeup while mixing in the occasional––and often inconsistent––breaking ball.
In Monday's start, he threw the curve 19 times, ranging between 71-77 mph on the radar gun. The offering had consistently sharp break, and he was able to both throw it for strikes or bury it in the dirt on two-strike counts to chase the punchout. He induced three groundouts with the pitch––a 1-3 tapper, a broken-bat 5-3, and a double play ball to shortstop.
"Really good," said Perez of his curve after the outing. "In the first inning, I got my arm a little bit back. So in the next inning, I threw more in front and it was really good.
"I throw more curveballs this year, because now I have established three good pitches. I can throw it in any count, and I feel good with it."
In past years, Perez showed the makings of three future plus pitches. And now, all three offerings look even closer to grading as ‘plus' on the major league scouting scale.
The last piece to the puzzle for Perez will be refining his command and getting ahead in counts with more consistency. While it has improved, he knows there is still work to be done.
"Last year, I would throw a first-pitch ball, a second-pitch ball, and then after I'd have to throw a fastball and give up a base hit. It's really complicated sometimes, but it's much easier for me when I throw first-pitch strikes."
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