DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers seem to have struck gold with the addition of Wily Peralta to the starting rotation, but is his emergence real, or will it all come crashing down?
On Monday night against the Texas Rangers, Peralta twirled seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and striking out six batters. He didn’t issue any free passes or hit any batters -- only three of the 24 hitters he faced reached base.
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This isn’t the first strong outing from Peralta, either. The 32-year-old went five innings and allowed just one unearned run against the Cleveland Indians last week. Before that, he shut down the mighty Houston Astros for 2.2 innings.
Overall, Peralta has a streak of 16.2 straight scoreless innings. He hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2016, and even at his best, the former Milwaukee Brewer was never better than average.
So how is this happening, and is it for real?
Example of underlying warning signs
How can we tell if a pitcher is going to come crashing down to earth? Let’s use Matt Manning as an example.
Manning is an elite prospect and someone the Tigers have high hopes for in the future. But even when he got through his first two starts allowing four total runs, it was glaringly obvious that his success was built on shaky ground.
In a story published June 28 (click here to read that) we discussed why Manning was in for a heavy dose of regression because of his underlying numbers.
For the sake of simplicity, I can more or less break down how I feel about a pitcher based on three factors:
- Can they miss bats?
- Quality (and type) of contact allowed.
- Minor league track record.
No. 1 is fairly simple, but it’s also the most important skill for any pitcher. Can they cause MLB hitters to swing and miss? In this era, batters are hitting the ball harder than ever. Home runs are the new norm, and there’s only one way to make absolutely sure someone can’t hit the ball out of the park: Don’t let him hit the ball at all.
To be fair, there are two exceptions to this rule. Pitchers don’t have to miss bats at such a high level if they maintain an outlier ground ball rate or demonstrate elite command. Adrian Houser, of the Brewers, has an insanely high ground ball rate, and that allows him to survive a low strikeout rate. Likewise, Kyle Hendricks, of the Cubs, has always overcome poor strikeout rates due to minuscule walk rates.
But if you look at the top pitchers in the game -- Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, Brandon Woodruff and Max Scherzer, for example -- those guys are among the best in baseball in terms of swinging strike rate. It’s a great gauge of a pitcher’s talent.
Quality of contact is also important. When batters put the ball in play against a pitcher, are they squaring it up or hitting it weakly? When they do square it up, is the ball in the air or on the ground?
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Minor league track record is very straightforward. If a pitcher wasn’t good enough to dominate the game’s lower levels, why should we expect them to perform well against the best hitters in the world?
When we talked about Manning two weeks ago, he had allowed 16 hard-hit balls and induced only 11 swinging strikes across his first 10.2 innings. He was also coming off a rocky first month in Triple-A.
Manning wasn’t excelling in any of the three categories above. What’s happened since? In two starts, he’s allowed 11 earned runs on 16 hits in 6.1 innings. He’s struck out just two of the 36 batters he’s faced. In baseball, the numbers eventually catch up to everyone.
Peralta’s underlying numbers
If Manning is an example of warning signs forecasting regression, should we expect the same for Peralta?
So far, Peralta has thrown 21 innings for the Tigers and only struck out 14 batters. That’s bad. But this isn’t as clear-cut a case as Manning’s.
In his last two outings -- starts of five and seven innings -- Peralta has induced 24 whiffs on 171 pitches. That’s a swinging strike rate of 14%, which is excellent.
Here’s what’s interesting: Peralta was able to get whiffs in two very different ways. In Cleveland, 10 of his 14 swinging strikes came on fastballs, and he only threw eight change-ups the entire game.
But on Monday, Peralta induced eight whiffs on 16 swings against his change-up. He threw the pitch 26 times, essentially replacing his slider with the change-up as the No. 2 pitch behind his fastball.
Peralta is averaging about 93.6 mph on his four-seam fastball, which isn’t overpowering but is good enough to work with when used correctly. In his last two starts, we’ve seen exactly what Peralta has to do to be successful.
The Rangers watched Peralta dust Cleveland hitters with high fastballs in his previous outing, so he turned to the change-up early and often this time around. The 12 mph difference between the two pitches is more than enough to keep hitters off balance.
If Peralta could incorporate the slider a bit more, he would have three solid weapons. So far, the results for that pitch have been mixed.
Now to the bad news: Peralta has been living a bit of a charmed life in terms of balls in play. On Monday, he allowed four batted balls above 98 mph. They all resulted in outs. Fortunately, three of them were on the ground, and while it’s never preferred to give up hard contact, that’s the right kind of hard contact to allow, if it’s going to happen.
Of the 18 balls put in play against Peralta on Monday, only five would qualify as “hard-hit” (95 mph or harder). That’s not an alarming total, especially since one-third of those balls in play were hit softer than 82 mph.
Against Cleveland, nine of the 14 balls put in play against Peralta were hit harder than 99 mph. That’s much more concerning. Only two of those went for hits, but typically, that number will be much higher.
For example, when Peralta pitched against the Angels on June 19, he allowed a 110.7 mph double, a 107.6 mph home run, a 106.7 mph double, a 104 mph groundout, a 100.5 mph single and a 98.2 mph home run. Those are the types of results to expect from so much hard contact.
Overall, Peralta has definitely been a bit lucky. He’s not going to maintain a 2.14 ERA or a 0.857 WHIP. But I am buying his success, to an extent.
He’s missing enough bats and keeping the ball on the ground, which is allowing him to overcome a little more hard contact than you’d like to see. His positive results don’t feel fluky. Peralta has been legitimately good.
Can he keep this up? Peralta has a long track record of being a slightly below-average MLB pitcher, but he wouldn’t be the first veteran to enjoy a post-prime breakout, and Chris Fetter has worked wonders with this pitching staff so far.
Don’t expect Peralta to throw seven shutout innings very often, but I don’t think he’ll turn into a punching bag, either. The Tigers seem to have found a useful piece when they badly needed it.