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The Rays might have found a gem in Michael Perez

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A diamond in the rough?

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

On July 25th the Rays traded swingman RHP Matt Andriese to the Arizona Diamondbacks for MLB-ready catching prospect Michael Perez. That evening, manager Kevin Cash called Perez to let him know he would not only be getting his first ever call to the show, but that he would be starting behind the plate for the Rays the next day, less than 24 hours from that phone call. The exciting young catcher gave Rays fans a glimpse of what to expect during that game at the Baltimore Orioles, but let’s back up and take a look at the reports and numbers to see what we can learn from his past first.

Background

Perez was taken in the 5th round of the 2011 draft out of Colegio Vocacional High School in San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the time, the Diamondbacks thought they were getting a left-swinging athlete with a strong, accurate arm that could profile behind the plate without much of a bat to rave about.

Seven years later, it looks like Perez might exceed that projection. Here’s what Eric Longenhagen from Fangraphs had to say just three months ago:

Perez is a twitchy little catching prospect with great feel for the strike zone and for moving the barrel around. He’s small, so there are questions about his durability and power, but he’s a viable defensive catcher with some on-base ability, so he’s likely to stick on a 40-man.

While Longenhagen wasn’t as kind with his overall prospect grade, he does project Perez for average major league contact and defense behind the plate. Baseball America, Clay Davenport, and Baseball Prospectus all agree that his defense behind the plate is probably plus at the major league level.

Clay’s database sees an average of +19 runs from defense alone over a full minor league season, though Perez has never played more than 388 plate appearances in a single season. BP’s defensive metrics are similar, giving Perez a +7.6 fielding runs this year in just 240 AAA plate appearances. Here’s a snippet of what BA had to say about him behind their paywall:

BA: He has long been one of the best defensive catchers in the D-backs’ system, but his struggles at the plate have long held him back... Perez (is) a plus defender who blocks balls in the dirt well, is an adequate framer and has a plus arm.

On top of having the more traditional defensive tools in his belt, Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs mentioned Perez is also an elite pitch framer by multiple team metrics, a clear Rays priority and maybe all you need to know about why the Rays targeted Perez in the first place.

But the kid might be able to hit, too

It looks like that athleticism is paying off behind the plate, but it gets really interesting when we look at what he’s done with the bat over the last few years.

Slashing .284/.342/.417 this year in AAA sounds fantastic until we learn that it was in the extremely hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League and only amounts to a basically-league average 99 wRC+. But if we take a look under the hood at the batted ball profile, we can see if the production may be sustainable in a league and park less friendly to batters.

Perez’ batted ball profile immediately screams a few things at us.

  1. He’s a pull hitter. Nearly every step of the way along his eight seasons in the minors, Perez has pulled more than 45% of his batted balls. This can be good or bad or both. Pulling line drives and fly balls is generally a good thing because the extra strength adds extra bases. However, pulling ground balls is turning out to be a bad thing with the advent of shifted infield defense alignments. Once a team knows a hitter pulls their groundballs a lot, they add a defender to turn all those would-be dribbler singles into easy outs. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a minor league batted ball database that splits that information for us.
  2. He was a fly ball hitter. Until 2016, Perez was putting the ball in the air a lot. This is a very good thing, if you have home run power. Perez does not have a whole lot of home run power. So instead, most of these balls went for pop outs and easy fly outs. Until he started to change.
  3. Then he was a ground ball hitter. In 2016, he changed something in his approach at the plate that allowed him to put the ball on the ground more. His pop out rate plummeted, but the overall outcome was not much better than the fly ball approach he replaced it with. My hunch is that he wasn’t going for a ground ball approach at all. He was tinkering with his swing, and it took until the following year to come around.
  4. Now he’s a line drive hitter. This is what basically every hitter wants in their batted ball profile. Lots of line drives. It doesn’t matter if you are slow, quick, strong, or weak. Line drives are king, and Perez smacked a ton of them in 2017 and 2018. He had the 5th highest LD rate in his league in 2017 (min. 300 PA, 71 qualifiers), and the 5th highest in 2018 (min. 240 PA, 113 qualifiers) as well. Couple this with his heavy pull-side tendencies and we should see lots of doubles down the right line from Perez for years to come.
MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Fitting with the Rays

Just shy of his 26th birthday, Michael Perez is the youngest catcher to start for Rays since Luke Maile in 2015. This is a very good thing as the Rays have the still-young Perez available for the entire six years of his rookie contract. Having an mlb-capable left-handed catcher on a long term deal is seemingly more and more rare these days, and something the Rays have probably been looking to acquire for some time now.

In his first game with the Rays last night in Baltimore, Perez showed off that line-drive approach at the plate, making solid contact his two trips to the batter’s box. The first batted ball was aimed straight at an infielder shaded up the middle, because baseball; however, the other found its way down the left field line (ironically, for the lefty pull hitter) bagging a double and Perez’ first major league hit.

Perez also performed adequately behind the plate, which is impressive for someone who didn’t know a single pitcher he was working with, or any of the Rays pitching philosophy.

The Steamer projection system thinks Perez is good for 75 wRC+ of offensive production in the majors, maybe because of that exploding line drive rate. That would tie him with Russell Martin and Mike Zunino for the 8th best hitting catcher in the American League. And that’s supposed to be his weak side as a glove-first catcher?

The Rays may have done really, really well here, despite his inauspicious beginning to the season as a minor league signing in Arizona.

Welcome aboard, Michael Perez.