Perez Shining

Young lefty has advanced ability and maturity

GREENSBORO, N.C.—Martin Perez spends his down time doing a lot of the same things most 18-year-olds do: talking on the phone, surfing the Internet and the like. But put him on the mound and it quickly becomes apparent that Perez is no ordinary 18-year-old.

Perez was a key element in the Rangers' reinvention of their farm system in 2007. While their trades of Mark Teixeira and Eric Gagne garnered the most attention at the time and scored them numerous promising young players like Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz, the Rangers landed Perez as the headliner of their 2007 international free agent class. The club anted up $580,000 for the Venezuelan lefthander, an investment that could pay off handsomely down the road.

Perez turned 18 less than a week before Opening Day, making his debut with low Class A Hickory on April 11 all the more memorable. Perez, who started and struck out six over four innings, combined with two relivers on a seven-inning no-hitter against Bowling Green. He's rarely slowed down since, posting a 2.81 ERA over his first 57 2⁄3 innings of work.

"The kid's a true professional," Hickory manager Hector Ortiz said. "He takes care of his business like he knows what his goals are and what he wants to be. He takes his job very seriously. He's a kid with a lot of talent."

Up For A Challenge

The Rangers were aggressive with Perez in his first year as a professional. Most Latin American players get their first taste of pro ball in the U.S. in Rookie leagues like the Arizona League or Gulf Coast League. Not Perez. Texas skipped the then-17-year-old straight to short-season Spokane of the Northwest League, where most of his opponents were 20 or 21-year-old American players fresh out of college.

Perez didn't blink. The lefthander held his own in 15 starts for Spokane, going 1-2, 3.65 in 612⁄3 innings and ranking as the top pitching prospect in the league. He credits the experience with helping him learn how to pitch smarter, a lesson he's carried forward into the South Atlantic League, where he's again facing many players two or three years older than he is.

If anything, Perez's hunger for learning his craft might be too great.

"He's just got a very, very high aptitude," Hickory pitching coach Brad Holman said. "If you give him information, he's able to take it and apply it at a rapid rate. I think my biggest concern is giving him too much. But thus far that hasn't been a problem. He's taken and ran with whatever he's heard. At 6-foot and 165 pounds, Perez doesn't cast the most imposing figure on the mound. But that's only until he starts firing his fastball in the low to mid-90s. Perez can ramp his fastball up as high as 95-96 mph when he needs to, though he usually works in the 92-93 range.

Perez complements the fastball with a curveball and changeup. Of the two, the curveball was the pitch expected to be his best secondary weapon this year, but you might say that looks to be changing. Perez's changeup has emerged as a go-to pitch, as he can achieve as much as a 12-14 mph difference between it and his fastball, and without losing any arm speed in the process.

"I've been working on the changeup," Perez said through a translator. "I trust three pitches—fastball, curveball, changeup. I feel real comfortable right now."

The improvement in Perez's changuep is borne out in his numbers against righthanded hitters. A year ago, righties hit him hard, averaging .306 in 170 at-bats. Through the first half of this year, that number had shrunk to .227.

"Watching him pitch, his changeup is probably a better pitch than his curveball," Holman said. "The outings where he's fared the best, he's used his changeup more than his curveball.

"(Perez's changeup) gets hitters off his fastball. With the curveball and the fastball, the releases are so obviously different that that changeup, when he stays behind the ball and gets the same spin as the fastball, it gets hitters a little bit more honest."

Playing It Safe

Though the Rangers haven't been afraid to put Perez in challenging environments, they're not taking chances with him either.

Perez has worked under strict restrictions to his pitch counts, as none of his first 14 appearances lasted longer than 51⁄3 innings. Such limitations contributed to his modest 2-4 record at the season's midpoint. The Crawdads used Perez in tandem with Jake Brigham, a 21-year-old righthander coming off Tommy John surgery.

Brigham and Perez alternated between starting and relieving, with the starter generally going four or five innings and the reliever coming in for the next two to three. The setup isn't ideal for padding a pitcher's win total, but it didn't stop Perez from being named to the SAL's all-star game, where he was the youngest participant. Perez pitched the fourth inning of the Northern Division's 8-7 win against the South, striking out the first two hitters he faced before retiring the third on a groundout.

By all accounts, Perez has handled all his accolades extremely well, which speaks to his maturity beyond his years.

Not unlike his command of his pitches, Perez also is learning to command his English. The Crawdads' Latin players take English classes when the team is at home. Such as things are right now, Perez isn't the most vocal guy in the Hickory clubhouse. But that's a trait that could be changing down the line.

"He's got some leadership qualities," Ortiz said. "I think, right now, he's not showing himself as a leader out there in the clubhouse because a lot of the older guys have been in the game longer than he has, and they do the leadership. But he, I think down the road, can be that leadership type of guy in the clubhouse, vocally and with how he acts on the field and off the field."