Triple-A presents new challenge for Perez

ROUND ROCK, Texas – Texas Rangers' top pitching prospect Martin Perez won't pitch in the major leagues this season, but he is currently with the club to observe and learn from the older players. Lone Star Dugout features the 20-year-old hurler.

There is little doubt that left-hander Martin Perez has fantastic raw stuff. The young Venezuela native projects to have three plus pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup)––a combination that could lead to him being a future top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher in the major leagues.

As Perez's overall results during the last two seasons show, he isn't there quite yet. While Perez has an excellent three-pitch mix, his fastball command must improve before he's able to turn his talent into results at the upper levels.

The 20-year-old hurler––like all pitchers his age––must refine the consistency of his secondary stuff. His changeup has been a reliable offering for some time now––the pitch has excellent deception with good fade and sink. It's a legitimate plus pitch. His mid-to-upper 70s curveball took some steps forward this season and was a swing-and-miss pitch at times.

Perez must work on getting ahead of hitters consistently so he can put them away with the good stuff. He was able to do that during his time at Double-A Frisco this season, and as a result, his earned-run average dropped from 5.96 to 3.16. His walk rate dipped, his strikeout rate jumped slightly, and he induced a few more ground balls.

After his promotion to Triple-A Round Rock, Perez often struggled to get ahead of hitters. He made 10 starts with the Express, posting a 6.43 ERA. In 49 innings, he yielded 72 hits, walked 20 and struck out 37.

As Round Rock pitching coach Terry Clark mentions in an interview located below this article, Perez's fastball command is directly tied to his mechanics. He must learn to control his body and stay on-line to the plate instead of overthrowing and rushing through his delivery. It was an issue Perez battled with in Double-A last season, and he conquered it this year.

But when Perez got to Triple-A, he often fell into old habits.

"I'm focusing on my legs and staying back," Perez said after a recent Triple-A start. "I want to throw the ball out in front of my body. Before, with my legs, I would go out in front too early. Now, I'm working to stay back and throw the ball.

"When I stay back, I throw strikes and I don't miss the zone a lot. When I do that, I attack the zone early in the game and I throw more strikes."

Clark chalks up the inconsistency to youth and anxiety––growing pains for a 20-year-old hurler pitching in Triple-A. Particularly when Perez is working without his best stuff––the majority of outings in a season––he has a tendency to overthrow and try to do too much.

One prime example comes from Perez's start against Memphis on July 26––his third Triple-A outing. It was a start in which Perez said he didn't feel his best.

"It was a little bit tight," he said of his arm. "I felt it when I threw my changeup. I'm going to practice in my next bullpen. I feel good with my fastball working today. My curveball––today, when I threw my breaking pitches, I felt a little bit tight. I didn't throw as hard today. I just felt a little bit tight. But it's okay."

In that start, Perez's peak velocity was only 93-94 mph instead of the 96-97 mph that he can reach. He settled into the 90-92 range instead of sitting 93-94, as he does on the ‘good' days. As a result, the command wasn't there, and he was often reaching back for more––causing the fastball command to suffer. After the outing, Clark summed it up.

"The fastball command––I think he threw 31 strikes and 24 balls," the pitching coach said. "That's not where you need to be in this league."

The Venezuelan is still very young. The Newberg Report's Scott Lucas recently noted that, of the 30 Rangers prospects to start more than 10 state-side minor league games this season, Perez was the fifth youngest. He doesn't turn 21 until spring training 2012. Every starter younger than Perez was in low Single-A or below.

There is still plenty of time for Perez to iron out his issues, and the stuff isn't a problem. His 90-96 mph fastball has good life when thrown low in the zone, and he did a better job of commanding it at Frisco this season.

Perez made progress this season, but he's still not a finished product, and his time in Triple-A proved that. The 6-foot-0 prospect may need at least another half season in the minors––if not more––before he makes his major league debut.

Perez will actually get his first taste of the major leagues this week, as noted by Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Although he won't be activated, Perez and fellow Triple-A pitching prospect Neil Ramirez will "join the Rangers for a couple of days to learn and observe from the team."

The prospects won't be active, although they will both almost certainly be placed on the 40-man roster after this season. Both Perez and Ramirez will be eligible for this offseason's Rule 5 Draft. As two of the organization's top overall prospects, the duo is a lock to be protected after the campaign concludes.

The Rangers are looking to get Perez as much experience as possible before he actually pitches in the major leagues. Last offseason, he made seven appearances (four starts) during winterball in his native Venezuela. One of those was in Caracas against the Leones––in the intense Magallanes/Caracas rivalry.

Pitching in front of 20,675 fans, Perez worked three innings of one-run ball. It was an experience he hasn't forgotten.

"It was nice," he said early this season. "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 plate."

Perez would certainly like play winterball again this season, but the Rangers must give him permission. The southpaw had only 99.2 regular-season innings in 2010 before he logged some time with Magallanes last offseason. He finished this year with 137.1 frames and is still very young.

The hurler also had a chance to showcase his stuff in the MLB All-Star Futures Game in Arizona earlier this summer. He gave up a run on two hits in one inning, throwing only 11 of his 23 pitches for strikes.

Perez appeared frustrated and––showing his issues in Triple-A this season––began to overthrow a bit. He balked once and even ‘accidentally' got out of the jam by fooling Rays prospect Tim Beckham.

With a runner on second base and two outs, Perez threw a fastball from the windup. The runner took off for third base immediately as Perez went into the wind. The fastball was right down the heart of the plate, and it froze a clearly confused Beckham (video below).

"After that, the manager said, ‘Hey, what happened? Why did you throw from the windup?' I said, ‘What? I threw from the stretch.' He said, ‘No, you threw from the windup.' But then I said, ‘It's okay. I threw a fastball for a strikeout so don't worry.' It was a good experience.

"Yeah. That happened. I think I got a little bit nervous, but it's okay. That won't happen again."

While the end result wasn't exactly what Perez hoped for, he got a chance to pitch in front of a large crowd on national television in a major league stadium. He was happy to get the experience.

"It was a good experience," he said. "I was very happy. I saw a lot of people. I threw the fifth inning. The last pitch was from the windup with a runner on second. I forgot where the runner was. But it was a good experience, and I learned a lot. You only get to go one time in your life, so it was good."

Perez went on to pitch in Triple-A for the remainder of the second-half. Though he had his share of growing pains, he's glad he has the opportunity to work through the issues in the minor leagues.

"It's hard here," the prospect said of Triple-A. "The hitters have more experience than Double-A. In Double-A, they swing at a lot of pitches. And here, they're going to swing at just one pitch.

"That's good for me because I learn. What happened here––I want it to happen here and not in the big leagues."

The following is an excerpt of this late-July interview with Round Rock pitching coach Terry Clark. He discusses Perez and his work with the Triple-A club this season.

Jason Cole: What were your overall thoughts on Martin Perez's start tonight (July 26).

Terry Clark: He had a great side last week. He had a good warmup before the game. I think a lot of it has to do with what he's trying to do when he goes in the game. I would really like to see him build during the game instead of just try to go as hard as he can from the very beginning. Velocity in the first inning was 94 and 93. And then once he settled down, it was 90-91.

But he just lost his command on his fastball. The changeup was very good tonight. He threw some good curveballs––hung a couple, but the offspeed stuff was there tonight. The fastball command––I think he threw 31 strikes and 24 balls. That's not where you need to be in this league.

The strikes––are they quality strikes or are they just right down the middle? So he needs to just work on his fastball command. I think if he gets his fastball command, he won't have a tough time in this league. But until he gets to where he can throw the ball in and out––and throw strikes with it to set up his offspeed stuff––he's going to struggle like he did tonight.

Cole: When you work with Perez on the side right now, what is the primary focus?

Clark: Basically just keeping his body under control and staying toward the catcher. Being long out front with all his pitches, because he has a tendency to rush down the mound and jerk a little bit. That's what causes his fastball to get out of whack.

He is nice and smooth on the side, and you will see spurts of it in the game when he is real smooth. Then all the sudden the fastball is down and it's on both sides of the plate. And then he gets that anxiety, and he starts pumping up and trying to do too much with it. That's when he loses all command of it and he's just hoping it's a strike.

Cole: Is that something you just attribute to him being 20 years old?

Clark: Oh yeah, there's no doubt. He's in a harder league now. The guys can hit balls down the middle. In Double-A, they foul them off. Neil Ramirez––he had the same problem, and he still does a little bit now and then. It's just growing pains through Triple-A. That's part of the gig.

I told him, ‘You gave up a bullet that almost went out of the ballpark. You gave up a ball that went out of the ballpark. Two months ago, both of those guys were in the big leagues. You're not facing Double-A and Triple-A hitters––you're facing guys that have been in the big leagues. And when you make a mistake, they hit it.' I said, ‘It gets a little tougher, even in the big leagues. They only give you maybe one mistake that you can give up.' But you're going to make mistakes, and if you make them to those guys, they'll hit you hard.

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