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Are You For Real? Surprising Pitcher Starts From Eury Perez and Marco Gonzales

Eury Perez - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Draft Sleepers, MLB Injury News

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?", a weekly column where we take starting pitchers who had surprisingly good starts over the past week and put them under the microscope to determine whether they're legit or just smoke and mirrors.

Sunday was all about the West, as we saw some interesting outings from pitchers in the Pacific time zone. First, we'll look at Eury Perez going into Los Angels and blanking the Angels. Then, we'll take a trip north to Seattle and break down Marco Gonzales's potential after a solid outing against Pittsburgh.

Roster percentages are taken from Yahoo and are accurate as of 05/29/2023.

 

Eury Perez, Miami Marlins – 64% Rostered

2023 Stats (prior to this start): 14 IP, 3.86 ERA, 5.07 FIP, 16.9% K-BB%

05/28 @ LAA: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 3 K

It was all smiles for Perez on Sunday, who put up one of the best starts of his young career against the Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani-led Angels lineup. Perez fired five scoreless innings and only allowed two hits en route to his second career victory. There was a lot of hype surrounding Perez coming into the season, and he’s been up and down through his first four starts as a major leaguer. Was Sunday’s performance a sign of things to come, or should we continue to exercise patience with the young righty?

To say there was hype for Perez coming into the season is a bit of an understatement. Not only was Perez the best Miami prospect coming into the season, but many scouts and analysts also pegged Perez as the top pitching prospect in all of baseball for 2023. Perez held that honor on some prestigious prospect lists, such as MLB Pipeline and Fangraphs among others. And with even a glance at the surface, it’s easy to see why scouts fell in love with Perez. Listed at 6’8” and 220 LB, he is built more like an NBA wing than an MLB starting pitcher.

It’s about more than size with Perez though, as he possesses a killer 97.5 MPH fastball that can touch triple digits on a good day. Despite turning 20 just last month, Perez has a rather deep repertoire at his disposal. His fastball pops eyes and lights up radar guns, but Perez has three secondary pitches at his disposal: a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. On paper, Perez looks like the total package, but is he ready to translate his raw gifts into results on the mound?

Perez did a few things well in this start. Most notably, his velocity was up a tick as he averaged 98.4 MPH with his fastball, a full 1.1 MPH harder than his previous start. Perez’s velocity was up across the board on Sunday. This could be a sign of improved mechanics from Perez, which could be the key to unlocking his natural ability. Mechanics can be tough for any pitcher, but the challenge grows exponentially relative to the pitcher’s size. Perez throwing harder is good for its own sake, but in the context of this big, young, raw pitcher I think there’s something deeper to be gleaned. It will be interesting to see whether Perez can sustain this velocity increase over the course of a full season.

The other tweak Perez made on Sunday was increased curveball usage. This was actually the second straight start with elevated curveball usage for Perez, who has thrown the pitch more than 22% of the time in each of his last two starts after using it less than 16% of the time in his first two outings. The curveball has been the best strikeout pitch for Perez thus far, who has a monster 25.4% swinging strike rate with the pitch thus far. All told, batters are hitting just .083 against Perez’s curveball with a .184 xSLG and .256 xwOBA.

Generating whiffs hasn’t been a problem for Perez, who notched 12 swinging strikes in this start against the Angels and has a 13.1% swinging strike rate overall. This is why it’s a little curious that Perez has struggled to secure strikeouts at the major league level. Struggle is relative because he still has a respectable 24.1% strikeout rate, but it’s a far cry from the 35%+ K rates he produced in the minors. Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect a 20-year-old to replicate minor league results in the majors immediately if ever, but I think the lack of strikeouts despite incredible stuff is a symptom of a bigger problem for Perez, which is control.

Big-bodied pitchers have a reputation for struggling with control and command, and Perez is no exception. He has a 12.7% walk rate thus far and has issued seven free passes in his last two starts. See, batters often miss when they swing at Perez’s breaking balls; the problem is getting them to swing. See, despite his incredible 25.4% swinging strike rate on his curveball, he has just a 27.3% chase rate.

This is a very small sample size (4 total starts), but I can’t recall seeing anything close to a 1.9% delta between these two metrics for a starting pitcher. This tells me that, while the pitcher is very tough to hit, batters aren’t being forced into bad swings. This could be because Perez consistently finds himself behind in the count, or it could be because Perez is so all over the place that batters can take an extra passive approach and hope for a free ticket to first. It’s likely a combination of the two, but until Perez can get his control under control, he’ll face a bumpy road.

Control issues aside, some may look at Perez’s pedigree and his sparkling 2.84 ERA and see a superstar’s ascension, but I don’t think that’s the case yet. Perez has been quite fortunate in spite of his control issues, benefiting from a .213 BABIP and 85.1% strand rate thus far. His 2.84 ERA looks good on the back of a baseball card, but his 4.89 xFIP and 4.87 SIERA paint a more accurate picture of Perez’s performance.

Furthermore, Perez has benefited from weak competition thus far. He’s faced three of the bottom seven offenses against right-handed pitching (WSN, CIN, COL) per wRC+, making the Angels the only above-average team he’s faced thus far. The cakewalk won’t continue as Perez will eventually be confronted with divisional titans such as Pete Alonso, Ronald Acuna, Bryce Harper, and many other, more formidable opponents.

Even in this start against the Angels, he issued four walks to three strikeouts and skated by thanks to the whims of the baseball gods. That’s not a winning long-term strategy, and I think it’s best to approach Perez as a sell-high candidate in redraft leagues. He still holds the same value in dynasty and keeper formats, but it seems like Perez needs some polish before he’s ready to be a consistent fantasy contributor. Perhaps he can figure things out midseason, but that’s a tall task for a man who can’t legally take a drink in America yet, even if he’s a phenom.

Verdict:

Perez possesses all the talent and potential one could hope for in a starting pitcher. He’s big and athletic, he has an elite fastball (95th percentile velocity, 99th percentile spin rate), he has three breaking balls at his disposal, and he just turned 20 last month. However, that raw ability doesn’t appear ready to be translated to success on the mound yet. Perez has been all over the place as a big leaguer with a 4.74 BB/9. His command issues have affected his ability to generate strikeouts and it’s primarily been luck driving his 2.84 ERA. The sky’s the limit for Perez in dynasty and keeper leagues, but in redraft leagues, I’d try and flip Perez for a more established pitcher.

 

Marco Gonzales, Seattle Mariners – 15% Rostered

2023 Stats (prior to this start): 44.1 IP, 5.68 ERA, 4.42 FIP, 7.8% K-BB%

05/28 vs. PIT: 5.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 4 K

Gonzales had one of his better starts of the year on Sunday, holding the upstart Pirates to one run on three hits in the no-decision. Gonzales fell one out shy of his second consecutive quality start, a trend the veteran southpaw sorely needed. The longtime Seattle Mariner is in the midst of a career-worst season, sporting an ERA north of five at the Memorial Day mark. Is there a chance for a bounce back, or was this start just an aberration as Gonzales begins his career descent?

Originally acquired by Seattle in the Tyler O’Neill swap, Gonzales has epitomized mundane reliability throughout the course of his career. Other than the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Gonzales has posted an ERA between 3.96-4.13 in every full season as a starter. Possessing neither electric velocity nor gravity-defying breaking balls, Gonzales has gotten by as a consistent strike-thrower who almost always gives his team a chance to win, even if it’s not must-see TV.

One drawback to this pitching style is that it leaves little margin for error. When a pitcher with Eury Perez’s arsenal gets wild, for example, he can still potentially get by on stuff alone. That’s not on the table for Gonzales, who averages just 89 MPH with his fastball, the third-softest four-seamer in the league (min. 50 IP). When looking at how Gonzales’s pitch mix has changed over the last two seasons I think he might be trying to “stuff” his way into success, which may be the reason behind his recent struggles.

One of the more pervasive trends in MLB pitching philosophy over the past few seasons has been the emphasis on increased breaking ball usage, or the simple idea of hammering the opponent with your best pitch, regardless of what conventional pitching wisdom (lead with the fastball) says. This trend was pioneered in MLB by the likes of Lance McCullers, Masahiro Tanaka, and Patrick Corbin. This pitching style has kickstarted the career of numerous youngsters and extended the careers of numerous veterans, but it’s not for everyone, including our pal Marco.

It's no secret that Gonzales’s best strikeout pitch is his changeup. He has a 16.7% swinging strike rate and 46.7% chase rate with the pitch this season, respectable numbers on their own and far and away better than any of his other pitches. Gonzales knows this too, and over the last two seasons, we’ve seen his changeup usage spike up to 30.3%, compared to 21.5% usage between 2018-2021. Over this same period, Gonzales’s fastball usage rate dipped about 10% as well, suggesting that Gonzales either no longer trusts his fastball as much, or is trying to get more strikeouts with his changeup, or both.

That would all be fine and dandy if this pitch mix adjustment was leading to tangible success on the mound, but it simply hasn’t yet, as evidenced by his presence in this article. Gonzales has a pitiful 15.8% strikeout rate this season, which is technically an improvement over last year’s 13.2% mark, but still among the lowest in MLB for a starting pitcher. He’s throwing his best strikeout pitch and getting fewer strikeouts.

Gonzales’s biggest strength as a starter was the solid command, but his command has waned with these changes. This season he has a career-worst 8.4% walk rate, an untenable mark for a pitcher who allows as much contact as Gonzales. Situationally, he’s increased his changeup usage by 10% in even counts and by 11% when behind in the count over the last two seasons compared to the rest of his career. Since his changeup has the lowest zone rate of any pitch, a batter can more easily lay off in this situation and try to draw a walk.

While it looks like Gonzales is shooting himself in the foot with these tweaks, there’s still time for him to put the gun away and course correct, and he’s in the right organization to do it. Seattle has unearthed a few diamonds with a fastball-heavy, command-focused approach, such as George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, and Bryce Miller, and they seemingly unlocked another level in Luis Castillo with this approach as well. It’s true that all of those pitchers have better raw stuff than Gonzales, but that doesn't mean it can’t work for him to a lesser degree.

What does this mean for Gonzales’s fantasy prospects going forward? To be frank, even at his best he doesn’t have much fantasy upside. I’ve taken digs at Gonzales’s stuff throughout this section, and that’s because it’s simply underwhelming. Our best hope is that Gonzales returns to the 2018-2021 version of himself, which had fantasy value based on volume and dependability. He isn’t that far away from it either, and if we subtract his nightmare 8-run outing against Boston on 5/17, Gonzales would have a 3.93 ERA on the year. If Gonzales can get back to basics he can be the same guy he once was.

Verdict:

The success of pitchers like Patrick Corbin has inspired a generation of pitchers to buck traditional pitching wisdom and go for it with their best strikeout weapon. One pitcher seemingly inspired by this is Marco Gonzales, who has shifted away from his safe, fastball-focused approach and begun peppering batters with more changeups, his best strikeout pitch. Unfortunately, this hasn’t translated into the results Gonzales was likely hoping for.

He still has pitiful strikeout numbers, only now he isn’t limiting walks and hard contact like he used to, which is what made him successful to begin with. All is not lost for Gonzales, who may be just an adjustment or two away from being his old self again. Even so, Gonzales’s old self wasn’t exactly a fantasy superstar, and it’s not worth weathering the bumps while Gonzales figures things out. If and when he does, he’ll likely be waiting for us on waivers to scoop up.



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