A Validating Start

Amid Rangers' shaky start, pitcher Martin Perez stays rock solid

Amid Rangers' shaky start, pitcher Martin Perez stays rock solid

Texas Rangers pitcher Martin Perez
Martin Perez off to a great start on the mound for the Rangers. Texas Rangers/Facebook

Twenty-six starts, 11 victories and one Rangers Rookie of the Year award. That was enough to get the Texas Rangers to commit a four-year, $12.5 million contract to pitcher Martin Perez this offseason, a deal that also includes three additional years at the club’s option starting in 2018.

That’s a risk no matter how talented the player is. Perez just turned 23 years old. You’re committing substantial money and time — seven years, if the Rangers pick up all of the options — to a player with a limited track record entering 2014. Plus, the Rangers weren't required to extend him. They controlled his rights for another five years.

But Perez has spent the first three starts of 2014 validating the Rangers’ faith in him. Perez’s start against the Houston Astros on Sunday was his best to date. Pitching in a game that started in light drizzle and ended under sunny skies, Perez mystified the Astros for eight innings, striking out two, walking three, giving up five hits and throwing 107 pitches.

 Perez mystified the Astros for eight innings, striking out two, walking three, giving up five hits and throwing 107 pitches.

Perez rarely found himself in trouble, and when he did he extracted himself with the help of his defense. The infield turned two double plays behind him Sunday, several days after they turned five in Perez’s start in Boston.

The secret to Perez’s success, according to manager Ron Washington? Location.

“With Martin he has to keep the ball down,” Washington said. “He had his change-up working today. He spotted his fastball down in the zone where he wanted it. And he made good pitches when he had to. That was the reason for the double plays. He just continues to grow.”

The young Venezuelan has quickly built upon his finish to the 2013 season. Perez has now won nine games since August 1 of last year, best among any American League starter in that span. The Rangers are also 15-8 in games Perez starts since he was called up in 2013.

Perez’s emergence is important for the Rangers this season, as they’re off to a shaky start. The Rangers expected some bumps in the offense with the additions of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, and the departure of Ian Kinsler. Injuries have put some unusual players in the lineup every day, including backup catcher J.P. Arencebia, infielder Josh Wilson and infielder Kevin Kouzmanoff.

The pitching staff should have been a strength to start the season. But Derek Holland is out half the season. Matt Harrison is still making rehab starts. Colby Lewis is about to join the rotation on Monday. Yu Darvish started the season on the disabled list but is back. Guys like Nick Martinez, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross have been in the rotation. Only one of them was expected to be in the rotation during spring training.

Perez didn’t look that hot at times during spring training, finishing up with an 0-4 record. But according to Washington the winless record belied exactly what he hoped Perez would work on leading into 2014.

“He’s perfected his change-up,” Washington said. “He can throw his curveball behind in the count now. His sinker is moving well for him. Because he throws the ball down in the zone it’s more effective, as long as you hit the strike zone, and he hits the strike zone.”

Now Perez isn’t struggling and, given his youth, one had reason to expect he might to start the season. For a Rangers team that has found itself struggling to find its equilibrium thus far this season, what could have been seen as their riskiest move of the offseason is giving them the shot in the arm they sorely need.