Instant Analysis: Hickory/Lake County (7/10)

HICKORY, N.C. - Martin Perez didn't have his best stuff on Friday, but he still allowed zero earned runs over five innings. Lone Star Dugout was on-hand for the contest, and we examine the performances of Perez and his Hickory teammates.

The Hickory Crawdads used excellent pitching from Martin Perez, Cody Eppley and Yoon-Hee Nam—allowing zero earned runs—and a five-run fifth inning to earn a 7-2 victory over the Lake County Captains at L.P. Frans Stadium on Friday evening.

Perez got the start and surrendered two unearned runs over five innings. He threw 83 pitches and surrendered four hits—all singles—while walking two and striking out five.

The southpaw battled without his best stuff for most of the night, but he remained effective. Being an 18-year-old in the full-season South Atlantic League, that Perez can still dominate without his best stuff is particularly encouraging.

Perez didn't give up many hard-hit balls and, as previously mentioned, he didn't allow any extra-base hits. He has kept the ball in the park this season—surrendering just three home runs in 72.2 innings. Righties have been especially punchless against him, posting a .615 OPS.

"I felt good," said Perez, through a translator. "I started a little bit out of the zone, and after that, I just tried to stay focused on the game and I got in the strike zone."

While Perez's fastball velocity was outstanding on Friday, his command was inconsistent. He missed up with his fastball quite a bit, but to his credit, when Perez missed, it wasn't really hittable. Every once in awhile, Perez got hitters to chase at a bad pitch.

The 18-year-old's fastball sat between 93-94 mph, topping out at 95 and going down to 91 a handful of times. To begin the third inning, Perez threw seven fastballs to Lake County's Matt Willard. The pitches registered at 93, 93, 94, 94, 94, 94 and 94 on the radar gun.

Perez says he was able to hit those numbers last season, but he's doing it more often this year.

Perez doesn't pitch like a youngster.
"This year I'm more comfortable and I'm more consistent with my fastball," he said. "Last year, I would throw 95 sometimes. But this year, I'm more consistent with the speeds."

Although his command wasn't perfect, when Perez was in the strike zone, he worked down and on the corners. That is fairly normal for the hurler, who has walked more than two batters in just two of his 17 appearances this season. Perez walked two on Friday.

Some pitchers prefer to save one of their pitches until the second time through the batting order, but Perez showed all three of his offerings in the first inning, using his changeup three times and his curveball twice. Those offspeed pitches were successful, as all five were thrown for strikes.

Down the line, Perez projects to have three plus pitches. His fastball is already plus, and his curveball and changeup should be as well. Even if he were a four-year college pitcher, Perez's secondary stuff would be considered advanced. But he's just 18 years old, pitching in a full-season league.

As he entered the Rangers' system in late-2007, Perez says the curveball was his most advanced offspeed pitch, and he felt it was the better pitch on Friday.

"It was my best pitch tonight," Perez explained. "This time, I practiced a little bit more in the bullpen. My pitching coach helped me with that."

Out of his 83 pitches, the native of Venezuela threw 15 curveballs and nine for strikes. The 73-77 mph bender was a bit inconsistent, but for the most part, it was very sharp and had a big break with tight spin. As Perez wore down, his breaking ball became less effective and he didn't use it as often. Perez's first six curves resulted in two swinging strikes, two called strikes, one foul ball, and one groundout to second base.

While Perez favored his curve on Friday, he believes the changeup has developed into his second-best pitch.

"I feel good this year with my changeup," he said. "I believe the changeup is my second best pitch. When I get into tight situations, I throw the changeup because I believe in it."

The 6-foot-0, 178-pound prospect flashed a very promising 79-83 mph changeup, throwing it for strikes 11 of the 14 times he used it. The changes resulted in four balls, three called strikes, two swinging strikes, two groundouts, two flyouts, and two hits. The flyouts both came in the fifth inning, when Perez's fastball velocity was down, his curve was ineffective, and he elevated his changeup a bit.

Perez's changeup crept up in the zone at times, but before he showed fatigue late in the outing, he threw it around the knees and on the corners. The pitch had excellent fade away from right-handed hitters, and it's likely one of the reasons that righties are hitting just .225 against him this season.

At just 18 years of age, Perez clearly has confidence in all three of his pitches, and he knows how and when to use them. It's pretty clear that Perez doesn't use his curve and change quite a bit simply because he wants to develop him—he throws the pitches because they're effective.

Perez was regarded as a polished pitcher when the Rangers signed him as a 16-year-old two years ago. His continued development—added velocity, improved curve and change—have made him a very polished 18 year old, and he could fly through the system with three plus pitches as early as next season.

In his previous outing, Cody Eppley surrendered a season-worst five earned runs in just three innings pitched. He bounced back on Friday to toss two scoreless innings. Of the six outs he recorded, Eppley got four ground balls and one strikeout.

The Rangers' 43rd round pick in the 2008 MLB Draft, the 23-year-old Eppley has become a sidearm pitcher this season. He gets a ton of sink with his mid-to-upper-80s fastball, leading to a 2.45:1 groundout-to-flyout ratio.

The tricky arm angle has spelled doom for righties, as they're hitting a hopeless .196 against him. However, Eppley hasn't had much to combat left-handed hitters—they're teeing off against him at a .400 rate.

In addition to being one of the system's best ground ball pitchers, Eppley may have the organization's best control. He has issued just three walks in 39 innings this season, spanning 20 relief outings. Eppley has not walked a batter over his last 18.2 innings.

Left-hander Yoon-Hee Nam also rebounded from perhaps his worst game of the year by striking out five hitters in two shutout innings.

Nam was very impressive and, if nothing else, he was very fun to watch, as the Lake County hitters looked like they had little change against the South Korean.

The 21-year-old Nam flashed four pitches, all of which came from the same deceptive arm angle. He doesn't show the ball until very late, allowing his 85-87 mph fastball to sneak up on hitters a bit.

Nam uses four pitches in relief.
Nam's big curveball was clocked between 66-69 mph, and it can be a plus pitch for him. At its best, Nam's curve could play at the upper levels without at doubt. But at times, it wasn't as sharp and became a loopy big-breaker. That's mostly what the offering was when he entered the system in 2007, but it has clearly developed over the last two summers.

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound hurler threw 39 pitches in the two innings, eight of which were curveballs. Three were balls, two were called strikes, two fouled off, and one got a swinging strikeout to end a ten-pitch at-bat.

He threw four changeups at 76-77 mph, and the change is certainly his most underrated pitch. He got two foul balls, a swinging strikeout, and gave up an infield single. Nam had excellent deception on the change, and the pitch had some good action on it.

Nam has added a slider to his repertoire this season, and he used it once on Friday. Though it was clearly his fourth-best pitch, the 78 mph slider was fouled off by the second batter he faced.

Only time will tell if Nam's stuff can play at the upper levels. His fastball clearly isn't anything special, though his deception allows it to play up. His curveball and changeup could both be plus pitches and the slider could be usable. Nam isn't one of the system's best arms, but he is a legitimate relief prospect.

The South Atlantic League isn't exactly hitter-friendly, but the Crawdads' offense had a big night, scoring seven runs on 12 hits.

Doug Hogan went yard for the third time in three games since returning from Arizona, where he was rehabbing after minor knee surgery. Hogan, who also singled and walked, is a very strong hitter with tons of power.

First baseman Erik Morrison also added a home run—his 11th of the season—later in the contest. It's hard to tell how much stock to put into Morrison's numbers. He is consistently hitting rockets all over the yard, but at 23-years-old and having played Big 12 baseball at the University of Kansas, Morrison is clearly advanced for the Sally League.

Hickory's lineup isn't exactly stacked with veteran power hitters, and that's exactly what Morrison has been. The Crawdads are having success in the second half, giving themselves a chance to reach the playoffs and win a championship. Morrison is slated to remain at Hickory for the rest of the season regardless of his results. Morrison's 1.014 OPS currently rates second in the league.

With Morrison playing first base on Friday, Jared Bolden moved to right field, where he continued to shine with the glove. Bolden showed very good hands and above-average range in Thursday's game, and he also proved to have above-average range in centerfield.

The Virginia Commonwealth product is currently showing signs of improvement at the plate, as he went 2-for-4 on Friday. His front foot has a tendency to bail out at times, keeping him from squaring up a lot of balls. Bolden has some raw power, and even though he's hitting better lately, this is likely one reason why he has just one extra-base hit despite going 17-for-49 [.347] in July thus far.

Bolden's first full season has definitely been disappointing, but it's far too soon to rule out a breakout campaign in 2010.

Utility man Michael Hollander belted two doubles in the game, but he was more noticeable defensively. Hollander can play all over the infield—including behind the plate—and he was at second base on Friday. Hollander looked very smooth and he was able to show off his plus arm at times. The Rangers tried Hollander at catcher during the spring, and he may return there eventually.

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