At one time, great things seemed to be in the future for O’s lefty reliever Cionel Pérez. He signed for big dollars as an international amateur out of Cuba in late 2016. He was signed by a Houston staff that included current O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias. One of his minor league pitching coaches was Chris Holt.
He would be reunited with that duo and others from Houston when the Orioles claimed him off waivers from Cincinnati on Nov. 24, 2021.
But no one could have predicted his time with the Orioles would go as well as it did. Or that he would even make the opening day roster out of spring training. But he did do that, and had an ERA of 0.00 through his first 11 O's games into early May. What would turn out to be a great year for him had gotten off to a great start.
We can’t know for sure what exactly allowed Pérez, on the Orioles' watch, to pitch so much better than he previously had, but he lived up to the signing bonus he once signed. Twice.
Houston signed Pérez for $5.15 million on Sept. 12, 2016. But after a medical review produced big concerns over his left elbow, that bonus was reduced to $2 million and Pérez signed again.
But in parts of four seasons, from 2018-2021 for Houston and Cincinnati, Pérez went 2-3 with a 6.04 ERA. Then in 66 games for the Orioles he went 7-1 with a 1.40 ERA.
His career WHIP was 1.597 and his homer rate 2.0 (11 allowed in 50 2/3 innings pitched) until he got to Baltimore and reduced his WHIP to 1.162 and his homer rate to 0.3 (two allowed in 57 2/3 IP). He also reduced his walk rate from 6.2 before joining the Orioles to 3.3 with them.
The club that helped several pitchers improve could look at Pérez as maybe the best example and success story.
Based on data showing pitch velocity and pitch mix, there were no major changes from his 2021 season with Cincinnati to 2022 with Baltimore. But he did throw his fastball with a bit more velocity, going from 96.0 mph to 96.9 mph. He threw his fastball 64 percent in ’21, his slider 28 percent and change eight percent. He scrapped the changeup in '22, using his fastball 61 percent and slider 39 percent.
But that reduced homer rate was big for him. And while teams didn’t chase his pitches often (in the bottom 28 percent in chase rate), they didn’t square him up too often either (in the top 32 percent for barrel percentage).
The slugging percentage against his fastball dropped from .410 to .314 and the slugging off his slider dropped from .350 to .216.
While with Houston, Pérez pitched 25 1/3 innings to a 2.84 ERA for High-A Buies Creek in 2017 with Holt as his pitching coach. With Holt as his coach again last year, his ERA ranked second among American League relievers and fifth in the major leagues (with a minimum 55 innings pitched).
“He has been a big help,” Pérez said of Holt, through O’s interpreter Brandon Quinones, during a midseason interview. “Now that we are both here together, he keeps me in check with my movement on the ball, and if something is off with my delivery, he lets me know that and we work together with getting on the same page. Plus we are a big team here within the bullpen, and if anyone notices something is off with another pitcher in delivery or whatever, we let each other know.”
Pérez's great season included the ability to slow both left-handed (.536 opponent OPS) and right-handed hitters (.587). And remarkable stats at home, where he went 5-0 with an ERA of 0.29 in 35 games. He gave up one earned run all year in 31 1/3 innings at Oriole Park.
His '22 success could be big in a couple of ways for the Orioles. For one, maybe they acquired a pitcher that will be a long-term bullpen weapon. For two, they took a struggling pitcher and turned him into a dominant one. Maybe it will attract others to consider coming to Baltimore in hopes the O's coaches will help them improve.