French recalls early days coaching Pérez

SARASOTA, Fla. – The reunion between Orioles reliever Cionel Pérez and pitching coach Drew French was much easier to arrange than their first meeting.

The Astros signed Pérez, a native of Matanzas, Cuba, to a $5.15 million bonus in 2016 as an international free agent, but they voided the deal a month later due to an issue with his physical that led to concerns from the medical staff that he’d eventually need elbow surgery. The agreement was restructured in December at $2 million.

Perez made his professional debut in 2017 with the Class A Quad Cities River Bandits, the eventual Midwest League champions. His pitching coach was French, who saw potential inside a raw prospect.

French, hired by the Orioles in November to serve in the same role, introduced Pérez to the organization’s standards and methods, while also trying to ease his transition to life in a new country.

“I remember the onboarding process of, this is kind of our North Star, this is how we grade you, this is how we look at your delivery and your arsenal, and this is how we expect things to go, and throwing the ball in certain places,” French said earlier this week.

“I just remember a huge part of that first year was like, let’s find out how he learns best and let’s find out how he retains information. It was literally like, I don’t think he did anything in the Dominican Summer League. He came to the States in 2017, had his physical and hit the ground running. We were together from, really, Day One of spring 2017.”

Pérez left French later that year and pitched at two other levels of the Astros system. His major league debut came on July 11, 2018.

The Reds got Pérez in a January 2021 trade and the Orioles selected him on waivers in November. He posted a 5.74 ERA and 1.463 WHIP in 20 games with the Astros spread over parts of three seasons, and he averaged 5.1 walks per nine innings. He allowed 17 earned runs and 21 total in 24 innings with Cincinnati and walked 20 batters.

Questions about what the Orioles saw in Pérez were answered when he went 7-1 with a 1.40 ERA and 1.162 WHIP in 66 games in 2022 and reduced his walks average to 3.3.

The breakout season didn’t surprise or puzzle French, who spent the past three seasons at Braves bullpen coach before joining the Orioles.

“You obviously knew there was something really special in there,” French said. “A small, left-handed guy, but you saw the springy nature, you saw the athleticism. He’s so unique, the things he likes to do and watching his children grow up. It’s pretty crazy to see his transformation, but rightfully so, because he’s earned everything he’s gotten to this point.

“He was kind of a four-seam, changeup, slider, curveball guy, and for him to, happy accident probably, and figure out the sinker is a real pitch for him, given how he releases the ball and kind of his preference. And the slider’s just otherworldly. Back in 2017, the fight was to really get guys to backspin the ball and pitch vertically in the zone, something that we really didn’t consider a heck of a lot in Houston at that time, but I’m glad he ended up how he ended up now.”

Pérez might have lingered too long in the zone in the first half last season, when he posted a 4.45 ERA and 1.780 WHIP in 33 games and opponents batted .309. He registered a 2.35 ERA and 1.261 WHIP in 32 games after it, and teams hit .202.

Throwing more strikes can backfire on occasion.

Knowing what Pérez did in 2022 and in the second half last summer keeps French confident that the lefty will be fine despite a rocky spring training, where he’s allowed seven runs and 11 hits in 4 2/3 innings.

It’s the same confidence shown in closer Craig Kimbrel, who surrendered five runs and seven hits in his first two outings but has recorded back-to-back scoreless appearances.

French had to create his comfort zone with Kimbrel, while also trusting that the 14-year veteran and nine-time All-Star knew how to proceed through camp and be ready for Opening Day. He’s got the blueprint.

“That’s precisely how the conversation started back in the offseason,” French said. “When I came on board and he signed as well, it was just, ‘Hey, this is how I felt last year and this is what the lead up to spring training looked like for me. This is kind of what I’m thinking about doing this year.’

“More than anything with a guy of that caliber and that experience, you really just try to support them. We sat down and mapped out the schedule together, what he was going to do this spring, and obviously, we’ve seen his last outing (before Thursday) was a live BP at the stadium the other day. We were on the road somewhere. But it gets better every single time. And you know for a guy like that, he just needs his reps, he just needs to get back into his consistent routine, and he’s going to be right where he needs to be.”

Note: Infielder Maikol Hernández had his left hamate bone removed. The Orioles signed him for $1.2 million as part of their 2021 international class.

The club also announced that pitcher Jean Pinto and infielder Adam Crampton underwent Tommy John surgery.

Pinto, a 23-year-old right-hander acquired from the Angels in the December 2020 José Iglesias trade, averages 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings in 63 minor league games. He made 13 starts at High-A Aberdeen last season and posted a 2.75 ERA and 1.108 WHIP in 52 1/3 innings and struck out 73 batters.

Crampton is a ninth-round draft pick in 2022 out of Stanford University who’s hit .201/.287/.257 in 132 minor league games. He spent 2023 at Single-A Delmarva, playing in 111 games.


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