Red Sox

How I learned to stop worrying and love Martin Perez

The mutual love between Martin Perez and Red Sox fans feels earnest.

Martin Perez tipping his cap to the nonexistent crowd at Fenway Park last summer is just the sort of thing we've come to expect from a character like him.
Martin Perez tipping his cap to the nonexistent crowd at Fenway Park last summer is just the sort of thing we've come to expect from a character like him. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

The Red Sox needed a hero on Thursday. They got Christian Arroyo and Martín Pérez, and they got the one win in Houston they needed to prevent a full-on disaster against a genuine contender.

Arroyo’s moment, like a lot of baseball moments are, is best viewed no deeper than the box score. Given a 90-m.p.h., full-count cutter that Jake Odorizzi left floating in the inner half of the plate, Arroyo skied it 339 feet to left field. The contact was too high, and too soft — more than half the balls put in play Thursday were hit harder.

The expected batting average on a ball hit at the angle and speed of Arroyo’s is .020. It’s a flyout in 20-something major league ballparks. In Houston on Thursday, it was manna. A three-run home run to the first row of the Crawford Boxes.

“You could feel it in the dugout. We were able to breathe. It’s not that we’re putting pressure on ourselves, but we saw what happened the first three days and we were facing a tough pitcher right there,” manager Alex Cora told reporters. “To hit that home run, it was big for us.”

Especially since the offense, relieved of its burden after hitting just .173 in losing three straight at Minute Maid Park, mustered just five more hits from their last 24 outs — the last two from Xander Bogaerts, breaking a personal 0-for-24 skid.

No matter. A win’s a win, and it was a win because of Pérez, who took a 20-percent pay cut after being Boston’s second-best starter a year ago only to return as their best.

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Ok, that’s debatable. Nick Pivetta’s allowing fewer hits and striking out more batters, and the Red Sox have won more of his games (9) than any other starter. Nate Eovaldi’s walking fewer. Garrett Richards has gone consistently deeper into games.

But none are within a half-run of Pérez’s 3.09 ERA. None can touch his 1.4 bWAR, if that’s your thing. And none have pitched a game like his Thursday, when he became the first Red Sox starter in the last two seasons to throw a pitch in the eighth inning.

“I can go nine or 10,” Pérez told reporters Thursday. “It doesn’t matter.”

It was a very Martín Pérez answer, though it felt unexaggerated against the Astros. Pérez needed just 67 pitches to finish seven innings against the deepest lineup in the American League. Cora’s hook with two on in the eighth, Pérez with a five-run lead and hitting 95 m.p.h. for the first time all day, was disappointing but entirely logical. (The middle of the Houston order was coming round for a fourth look at him.)

All the better not to ruin a #PerezDay, right?

Truth be told, I have mostly rolled my eyes at the whole #PerezDay concept, which the lefty from Venezuela ran with after Barstool’s Section 10 Red Sox podcast birthed it last summer. For one thing, I’m an old crank who hates joy, but also, Pérez is a league-average pitcher. In his 10th major-league season, his ERA+ is 97, meaning Pérez has been three percent worse than the average arm in that decade.

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But maybe that’s the point. Maybe, much like Arroyo’s home run on Thursday, there’s nothing wrong with just shutting up and enjoying it.

The two most notable pitchers with Red Sox ties in that Pérez range of slightly below league average the last 10 years are probably Wade Miley and Andrew Cashner. And let’s be honest, you probably forgot Cashner even pitched here, and Miley’s most memorable Red Sox acts were getting aired out by Dennis Eckersley and milking a cow.

The other thing? The Pérez thing feels impossibly earnest. Find a Red Sox player who’s appeared on more podcasts the last year. Find one who seems like he’s having more fun.

He declared it an “honor” to join the Red Sox at a time when angst around the team was rampant, and has never once wavered, or felt like he was taking any of it for granted.

“I think that’s just part of my job. That’s part of my career,” he told Section 10 in October about his active social media presence. “I want to say thank you to the fans after they give me all of the support.”

When he said “I want to be back next season. I feel at home here” after his final start of 2020, he meant it. And it made it much less of a surprise when, after the Red Sox declined his $6.25 million option for 2021, he hung around the market and made a reunion work.

Pérez, to be clear, has always been capable of what he’s done to this point. Two years ago, he was 7-1 with a sub-3.00 ERA 11 starts into the season with Minnesota. He finished the 2017 season winning eight of his last 11 starts with Texas, and snagged a couple third-place votes for Rookie of the Year in 2013 after ripping off six straight wins in late summer as the Rangers nearly stole the AL West.

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This is the potential that attracted the Red Sox in late 2019, that kept them interested this winter, and that has rewarded them with a rotation capable of handling the five innings a night that they’re asking of it.

Can it give more? In spurts like Thursday, sure. Pérez’s strikeout rate is at a career high, with his 35 looking strikeouts after three more in Houston leading the majors. (And probably turning The Cobbler, borrowing some Eck-ese for backward K’s, into a thing.) Pérez’s walk rate is at its lowest since 2015.

“When you go out there and you pitch for contact,” Pérez told reporters Thursday, “you can go deep in the game. That’s going to make you win more games. … Strikeouts just come when they need to come.

“My job is just compete, get people out, and go deep in the game.”

To be clear, he trusts his stuff, and that’s a pretty good formula for success, even as the percentage of hard-hit contact he’s allowing is significantly up to around league average. (He’s been among the league leaders the last two years.)

Whether it’s iguana eggs or a small sample size, Pérez has answered the bell every fifth day for two months. He’s failed to finish his prescribed five just twice, and he’s allowed more than three runs just once. He’s among the 16 starters, as of Friday morning, with 10 starts this season allowing three runs or fewer.

Martín Pérez, rubbing elbows with Shane Bieber, Trevor Bauer, Lance Lynn, Tyler Glasnow, Yu Darvish, Jack Flaherty, and Gerrit Cole. A who’d have thunk it in a year that’s been full of ’em.

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This weekend, the Red Sox dodge Cole, who gave up five runs to the Rays with surprisingly spotty command Thursday and lost. Will the Yankees feel as lucky to dodge Pérez, instead getting Eovaldi, the struggling Eduardo Rodriguez, and Richards for this first rivalry series of the year? Hardly.

But October runs need guys like Pérez, chewing up their chunk of an endless schedule and stepping forward every so often. And so does any team that wants to win back a little love following as gutting a couple years as any perennial championship contender can have.

The Sox really got a good one. Even if I might be the last person to notice.

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