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Cionel Pérez’s season featured a bad start, a strong finish, and too many walks

The Orioles lefty had an awful April and May, but the team didn’t give up on him and he rewarded them later on

Division Series - Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

How long can you put up with bad performance from a reliever who’s been good in the past but just not getting it done right now? Through Cionel Pérez, the Orioles gave an answer this year. For the right guy, they’ll have a whole lot of patience. A near-disastrous April and May was followed by some better results in every area other than ERA in June and July. Only after this did Pérez put together a couple of months where he showed why he was on the team.

Through the end of May, Pérez pitched in 24 games and had allowed 11 earned runs over a stretch of 20.1 innings. That’s a 4.87 ERA. In this same time, batters were hitting against him at Hall of Fame caliber. Pérez had allowed a .352/.426/.523 batting line across the first two months. It is almost unbelievable. Though there were reasons to believe he was having bad luck with a well above average .397 BABIP, he was also doing plenty to make it his own fault, issuing free passes to more than 10% of the batters he faced.

This was a reversion to previous form for Pérez. Challenges with command had plagued the parts of four seasons that Pérez pitched in the big leagues before the Orioles claimed him on waivers after the 2021 season. That year with the Reds, Pérez walked 20 batters in 24 innings pitched. This was his age 25 season and he was out of minor league options headed into 2022, so he was passed down to 2021’s worst team, the Orioles.

Only in 2022 in Baltimore did he get the walks under control, just a 3.3 BB/9 for the season after entering that year with a career BB/9 of 6.2. It is a big difference. Up through the end of July, the old Pérez was back.

Even as other aspects of his performance improved, including that Pérez did not allow an extra-base hit after the calendar turned to June, he was still prone to handing out a lot more free passes than you’d like to count him as a reliable reliever for a good team. June and July saw him walk another ten batters in 15.1 innings. That’s not good!

It’s not like the Orioles were giving out infinite chances to everybody who happened to be in their bullpen this year. Guys were getting optioned or designated for assignment throughout the season. Logan Gillaspie got 11 games and a 6.00 ERA and was sent packing. Austin Voth and his 5.19 ERA over 25 games were removed shortly after he returned from an injured list stint.

There were also guys whose season-long results were about as good or even a little better than Pérez’s - Bryan Baker and Mike Baumann particularly - who were sent to the minors while Pérez endured. It is still something of a surprise to me that the Orioles stuck with Pérez even as his WHIP over the full season was 1.556. Out of the 357 MLB pitchers who tossed at least 50 innings this year, Pérez was 326th in this category.

Part of that is because the team had the ability to send Baker and Baumann to the minors while it did not have that opportunity with Pérez. Another part is surely that Pérez had some value as a lefty specialist that those right-handers did not, holding lefties to a .213 average and .602 OPS for the season. Still another part is that Pérez maintaining a ground ball rate over 60% meant that at least whatever other problems he had, he wasn’t giving up home runs. His 3.54 ERA was 115th out of that same group of 50+ IP pitchers.

What’s interesting about comparing Pérez’s quality 2022 season to his not-as-quality 2023 is that from the perspective of Statcast expected stats, they were actually quite similar. Last year, Pérez had an xBA (expected batting average) of .236; this year, it was .237. His actual averages allowed were .220 and .262, respectively.

In expected ERA, Pérez went from 3.62 last year to 3.69 this year. With xSLG (expected slugging) he had a big improvement from 2022 to 2023, dropping from .361 to .324. That was a lower xSLG than every other O’s pitcher except for Félix Bautista and Baker.

Pérez went through maddening stretches, and Baseball Reference WAR tagged him with a -0.3, but again, when it came down to his actual ERA of 3.54, Pérez was... fine? You’ve got problems if that’s one of your two or three best relievers, but for the 2023 Orioles, he wasn’t. Over the full season, he was maybe the fourth-best - and in September he was probably behind DL Hall too.

Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?

Yes. The fact that the Orioles stuck with Pérez through his early struggles this year seems to show that they are willing to be patient with him at his worst in order to get back to him closer to his best. MLBTR projects his 2024 arbitration salary to be $1.3 million. That’s a trivial expense for the team, and Pérez, who will turn 28 next year, is not old enough where you’d expect decline.

The only downside is if Pérez is on the roster and he stinks for two months or more and costs the team games. I will be surprised if the Orioles change their minds about him at any point between now and the start of next season. After that, it depends on how he pitches, and even then, the team might look past superficially poor outcomes if they like some of the peripheral stuff that goes into it.

2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson, John Means, DL Hall, Jordan Westburg, James McCann, Ryan O’Hearn, Mike Baumann, Ramón Urías, Cole Irvin, Ryan Mountcastle, Danny Coulombe, Tyler Wells

Tomorrow: Austin Hays