Perez's Play Speaks Louder Than Ivy League Pedigree

Also: Fernando Perez Player's Perspective

DURHAM, N.C.—Scouts say that Fernando Perez has game-changing speed, that he has plus range in center field and that he has enough power to keep opposing outfielders honest. He switch-hits, gets on base and steals 30 bags a year.

What's more, he's a candidate to be the Rays' leadoff man and center fielder on Opening Day 2009.

Still, many features about the 25-year-old Perez center on his Ivy League background (he attended Columbia for four years), and not his ability to put his tools—and intelligence is certainly one of them—to use on the diamond.

"Often, the whole angle of articles about me is, 'How did I overcome an abnormally large brain to play baseball?,' " Perez says with a chuckle. "It's a little bit annoying, but on the other hand, it's good that I'm not being interviewed about performance-enhancing drugs or a long police record. It kind of comes with the territory.

"There are a lot of bad stories out there about a lot of young minority athletes. So I think I'm viewed as an anomaly, which is very, very sad to say. And that's part of why it sort of bothers me, but you have to roll with it.

"In a lot of cases it's really just, 'We don't have a story to run today, so let's just talk to this guy about going to an Ivy League school, because it's a little bit rare."

Player, Pos, Team
Round, Year
Mark DeRosa, 2b, Cubs
7th, 1996
Chris Young, rhp, Padres
3rd, 2000
Craig Breslow, lhp, Indians
26th, 2002
B.J. Szymanski, of, Reds
2nd, 2004
Ross Ohlendorf, rhp, Yankees
4th, 2004
Fernando Perez, of, Rays
7th, 2004

Edward Lucas, 3b, Royals
8th, 2004

Tim Lahey, rhp, Twins
20th, 2004

Will Venable, of, Padres
7th, 2005

Zak Farkes, c, Red Sox
NDFA, 2005

Josh Appell, lhp, Astros
NDFA, 2005

Josh Faiola, rhp, Orioles
24th, 2006

Frank Herrmann, rhp, Indians
NDFA, 2006

Erik Stiller, rhp, Indians
NDFA, 2006

Devin Thomas, c, Tigers
7th, 2007

Marc Sawyer, 1b, Cubs
15th, 2007

Sal Iacono, c, Astros
26th, 2007

Steffan Wilson, 1b, Brewers
28th, 2007

How rare? Ivy League schools count among their ranks 18 professionals, 14 of whom were drafted. Four of those 18 are in the big leagues: Craig Breslow (Yale), Mark DeRosa (Penn) and Ross Ohlendorf and Chris Young (Princeton).

But Perez isn't concerned with any of that. Embarking upon his first season in Triple-A with Durham, he cares only about doing what it takes to finish his development, as he puts it.

"You'll hear that a player is at Triple-A to work on this or to work on that, but that's not accurate. I can do everything better," he says. "And so much of that will fall into place with experience."

Perez cites improved baserunning efficiency—from higher stolen-base percentages to better secondary leads—as a goal for this season. While he can get down the line in 3.6 seconds, at his best, from the left side (and 3.8 from the right), and while he swiped 146 bases in his first four pro seasons, Perez has seen his rate of stolen-base success decline from 86 percent in short-season ball to 64 percent in Double-A. It's early, but he was off to a perfect 3-for-3 start for Durham.

He replies modestly when asked what it takes to hone his blinding speed, saying only that he stays loose, stretches a lot and just keeps doing it. Similarly, Perez has worked to improve the strength and accuracy of his solid-average arm by throwing. That he's able to put in the work at all comes as a relief to him, seeing as he sustained an injury after just six games in the Mexican Pacific League last winter and, as a result, felt a bit rusty in spring training.

Perez also strives for consistency in his lefthanded stroke, as he knows that much of his future value hinges upon it. But it hasn't always been easy.

Switching Sides

The Rays selected Perez in the seventh round of the 2004 draft, but when they did, they were selecting a strictly righthanded batter. Perez had an idea of what was in store for him, though, when at his pre-draft workout at Tropicana Field, the Rays suggested he take a few cuts from the left side of the plate. He agreed, but not without reservation. A few line drives later and, in his words, "it was pretty much history from then."

The Rays let Perez bat righthanded in 2005, his first full season, with low Class A Southwest Michigan, to establish himself as a prospect—which he did by batting .289/.361/.406 with 57 steals and 13 triples, strong indicators of his raw speed. Everything changed the next season with high Class A Visalia, though, when Perez acquired a new perspective on the game—from the lefthanded batter's box. Multiplying the difficulty, he was making the switch in his age-23 season.

"The year I started switch-hitting in 2006 was one of the most difficult baseball experiences, ever, for me, because I came off a very good year batting righthanded," Perez says. "And now facing pitchers who I'd hit doubles and triples off of—now they see me standing there awkwardly holding the bat, standing on the other side of the plate. And now they're blowing the ball by me.

"That's just the way baseball is built. It's the humbling game. One aspect of professionalism I've picked up is trying not to internalize the bad plays, because they're going to happen. I just focus on looking forward and forward and forward."

While Perez managed to hit .303 in the California League while batting lefthanded, he did so with less power and while striking out more frequently than he did from his familiar right side. Tampa Bay brass urged him to bunt for base hits, but Perez resisted so that he could learn to swing first and to bunt second.

"If you had seen me take a swing in High A . . . well, it was laughable how bad some of it was," Perez says. "The first half was really, really, really difficult. I remember I would take swings where I would foul balls off and throw the bat—just not have a chance some times. To everybody, I was just another slap-hitting lefty. But last year my swing got a little better, so I was driving the ball into the gaps.

"It's a process that everyone who advocated that I take up switch-hitting said would be about a three-year deal. But I didn't think that I would be even at this point. When I was in High A I was thinking, 'You know, I don't really know if I like this. I don't like feeling that when the bases are loaded, all I can really do is hit a ball through the hole.' I don't feel that way anymore."

Everything came together for Perez in 2007, when he quietly had one of the most productive seasons of any player in the Double-A Southern League. He batted .308/.423/.481 as catalyst for league-champion Montgomery, ranking second in the SL with 10 triples and 84 runs, third with 76 walks and fourth with 32 stolen bases. In 476 trips to the plate, he grounded into just two double plays.

Perez still hit for more power righthanded, but he reached base more frequently from the left side. Perhaps more impressively, he batted a mirror-image .308 from both sides of the plate.

The Right Choice

Perez's parents emigrated from Cuba at a time when that country still allowed its citizens to leave of their own volition. They settled in New Jersey, where Fernando attended the academically-intense Peddie School in Hightstown. From there he moved on to Columbia, where he earned a degree in American literature and creative writing.

Heavily recruited as a soccer player while still a high school underclassman, Perez grew disillusioned with the sport when an area traveling team he played on was undermined by what he refers to as politics and bad parents. Ultimately, he did not even entertain soccer scholarship offers.

"In college I wanted to get back into baseball. I'd already had the bad experience with soccer, and I looked at the game of baseball almost as something I had been ignoring all along," Perez says.

"It's been written that I fell into baseball, but it's not like that. I always played. I just never chose to say, 'All right, now I'm a baseball player; I don't do anything else.' I saw that happen with so many of the kids I grew up with, where their parents were starting to make decisions for them. The kids are miserable. They hate baseball at 17, and they hate their parents."

Ivy Leaguers with pro aspirations have to overcome significant obstacles, such as a strict limit on the number of offseason practices a team can hold and an overall lack of quality fastballs. And while Perez was a good college player, he certainly did not post gaudy numbers, nor was he selected to postseason all-star teams.  

Still, Rays area supervisor Brad Matthews, who at the time scouted the Northeast, first spotted Perez in spring 2003 and was immediately intrigued by his raw speed and athleticism. Columbia was playing Army at Lakewood Ranch High in Bradenton, Fla., as the teams played part of their early schedule.

"The raw athleticism stood out," Matthews said. "He was a true 80 runner, and that kind of speed is almost impossible to find. Then I found out he was a very intelligent guy, a hard-working kid. I met with him a few times and found he was very dedicated to playing the game.

"If he had played in the Carolinas, he would've been a second-round pick. He had plenty of raw ability. And for a guy who could run that fast, he wasn't skinny. He was a fast-twitch muscle type guy with bat speed and quick hands.

"I told him I thought the only thing that would hold him back would be that he was too smart."

Perez says that once the opportunity to play baseball professionally presented itself, he seized it. Four years later—as he sits on the cusp of the big leagues, but with several miles still to go—Perez must again seize the opportunity.

"I'm not a finished product," he says. "I don't look at stuff and think, 'Now's my time.' It may be, but I'm just trying to finish my development. Maybe I'll finish my development at the big league level, but I'm really just trying to tighten up my game.

"I'll try to always be playing well in case I have to play on TV. Look what just happened to Evan (Longoria). You know, Evan was going through a slump here, and then he (got called up and) had to play on TV. He was ready.

"You know, you can't really slip too far."