VIERA, Fla. - Oliver Perez’s career was on the brink of collapse.
He had sported a 5.09 ERA over his past six seasons with the Pirates and Mets, and now he was left to accept a minor league contract offer from the Nationals.
Perez took the offer, mostly because of his past relationship with Nationals minor league pitching coordinator Spin Williams, who had been his first big league pitching coach in Pittsburgh. He reported to Double-A Harrisburg, a once-promising left-hander now reduced to this.
Perez was OK during his brief 2011 stint in Harrisburg, with a 3.09 ERA in 15 starts. But the Nationals had no plans to promote him, and so he again found himself looking for work the following winter.
This time, though, the lifelong starter had some important advice from Williams that ultimately would breathe life back into his career.
“He was the one that told me if I move to the bullpen, I can get back to the big leagues quicker than a starter,” Perez said. “So that’s when I moved to the bullpen, and I’m here now. He had a really good point: I was very good against lefties. And that’s where I am now.”
Sure enough, Perez made his way back to the majors, not as a fireballing starter but instead as a lefty specialist out of the ‘pen. He signed a minor league deal with the Mariners in 2012, pitched 22 games in relief at Triple-A Tacoma, earned a promotion to Seattle and hasn’t returned to the minors since.
Over the last four seasons, in 232 appearances (all in relief) with the Mariners, Diamondbacks and Astros, Perez owns a 3.31 ERA. Last year, he held opposing left-handed batters to a .185 batting average, .235 on-base percentage and .283 slugging percentage.
And so this winter, the Nationals came calling again, offering Perez a two-year, $7 million guaranteed contract.
“Sometimes you have to realize you’ve been in tough times,” the 34-year-old lefty said. “I wanted to come to the big leagues. And I had to find the quickest way I could. That was as a reliever.”
Perez always had electric stuff, slinging fastballs and curveballs from a variety of arm angles that produced a breakthrough season for the Pirates in 2004: 12-10 with a 2.98 ERA and 239 strikeouts. But he always struggled with inconsistency, and he never did pan out the way many expected.
As a reliever, though, he’s been able to take advantage of his best attributes. By facing opposing hitters - usually lefties - only once instead of three or four times, he can throw the whole kitchen sink and not worry about saving something for later.
“Now I can go anywhere,” he said. “Sidearm. From the top. Anything. Because I’m only going to face the guy one time. The different looks I can give him, it’s going to be tougher for him. That’s really an advantage for me.”
The Nationals certainly hope so. They let 39-year-old Matt Thornton walk over the winter and signed Perez to take his spot as the lefty specialist in their bullpen. They’ll now ask him to get the likes of Freddie Freeman, Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda out in key spots on a regular basis.
He hopes to live up to the task and further cement his most surprising career change.
“I’ve already been a reliever for four years,” Perez said. “And I had eight years as a starter. I want to get to eight years as a reliever and then try to figure out which one I was better at.”