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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o
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            The Hermosillo Naranjeros last Friday announced their three allowable foreign-born players for the upcoming Mexican Pacific League season, including a Dominican outfielder who's become one of the top hitters in both leagues south of the border in recent seasons.


            Francisco Peguero will be back for a third winter with the Orangemen after coming to terms with the team. Last season, Peguero hit .337 with seven homers in 33 games for Hermosillo but it was his initial 2018-19 LMP campaign that raised the most eyebrows among observers. That year, he hit .352 to edge teammate Jasson Atondo by one point on the final day of the season for the Mex Pac batting title. Peguero also finished fourth in the circuit with 44 RBIs and tied for tenth with six homers over 54 games.


            The former San Francisco Giants gardener has had a greater impact during the summer in the Mexican League. Peguero debuted with Quintana Roo in 2015 and hit .294 with 16 homers for the Tigres. After a postseason trade to Monclova, he batted .311 with 15 homers for the Steelers in 2016. That was enough to earn a 2017 contract with the Toyama GRN Thunderbirds of the independent Baseball Challenge League in Japan, where he set a season record with 114 hits. Peguero then spent part of 2018 with the NPB Chiba Lotte Marines' farm team (hitting .277 with nine homers in 50 games) before returning to Monclova in time for the LMB's Fall season, and that's when he really hit his stride.


            During that truncated 56-game season, Peguero batted .368 with 13 homers and 60 ribbies and was named the Liga's Most Valuable Player for his efforts. The 6'0" right-hander followed that up with another terrific season for the Acereros in 2019, belting 31 homers, driving in 106 runs and hitting .380 as Monclova went on to win their first pennant in 46 years of existence. He's expected to help anchor the middle of the Hermosillo batting order for manager Juan Navarrete.


            Also joining the 32-year-old Peguero with the Naranjeros this year will be Cuban outfielder Yadiel Hernandez and American pitcher Mike Kickham, both of whom also played in Hermosillo in 2019-20. Hernandez debuted at 21 with his hometown Matanzas team in 2009-10 and hit .328 during the Cuban National Series that winter. He spent six seasons with the Cocodrilos, batting .324 with 53 homers over 514 games before defecting to the U.S. while playing against college teams in North Carolina in April 2015.


            The Washington Nationals signed Hernandez for $200,000 a year later and he's since spent three summers in their farm system, batting an aggregate .301 and crashing 63 homers despite his 5'9" frame. Hernandez had a banner year with Fresno in the AAA Pacific Coast League last year with a .323 average, 33 homers and 90 RBIs and was a Nats non-roster Spring Training invitee this year. The 32-year-old hit .336 for the Naranjeros last winter, finishing second to Los Mochis' Isaac Rodriguez for the batting title, while his .462 on-base percentage (thanks to an LMP-best 50 walks) was tops in the Mex Pac. As with Peguero, the lefty-batting Hernandez will likely be a middle-of-the-order batter for the Orangemen this winter.


            Kickham was a teammate with Peguero when both played for San Francisco in September 2013 (each spent parts of two seasons with the Giants) after signing as sixth-round draft pick out of Missouri State University in 2010. The 6'4" lefty spent five years in the Giants system before the Chicago Cubs picked him up on waivers after the 2014 season. That began a baseball odyssey during which the Cubs traded the 31-year-old to the Mariners a month after acquiring him. Kickham ended up pitching for four different organizations (Mariners, Rangers, Marlins and the Giants once more), plus a 2016 stint with Kansas City of the independent American Association. He was a 2017 Southern League midseason All-Star pitching for the Marlins' AA Jacksonville farm club.


            In 2019, Kickham went 5-5 with a 4.27 ERA splitting time between the starting rotation and the bullpen for the Marlins' AAA affiliate in New Orleans, and was a non-roster invitee at the Boston Red Sox training camp this year before the Wuhan virus halted the baseball baseball season in its tracks. He made his first appearance in Mexican baseball last winter for Hermosillo and was outstanding, going 4-2 with a 1.97 ERA in seven starts, and will likely be in manager Navarrete's rotation this winter.





            According to a story on the website, the Mexican League would have started their delayed 2020 season playing in empty ballparks if they'd moved forward with their tentative plans for a shortened schedule. Instead, conditions brought on by a pandemic that has spread across Mexico caused LMB president Horacio de la Vega and the loop's team owners to cancel the season instead.


            In hindsight, that turned out to be a wise decision. Septima Entrada writer Irving Furlong reports that when the abandoned August 7 opening day arrived, all 16 Liga teams were located within 14 states that had "red" or "orange" designations under Mexico's so-called Traffic Light system determining what type of activities will be allowed while the pandemic remains a problem. According to the system, a red traffic light means a maximum level of restrictions is applied, allowing only activities deemed essential and no public gatherings, while an orange traffic light indicates a high level of restrictions with some easing from red standards.


            Given that sporting events at which fans would be allowed to attend will only be allowed in yellow-light (medium security) and green-light (low security) states, along with the longterm uncertainty in virus management, the LMB announced their better-safe-then-sorry decision to call off the 2020 season on July 1 with an eye on readying for a 2021 schedule.


            According to Furlong, among LMB North franchises, only Tijuana and Aguascalientes were in orange-light states on August 7 while the remaining six teams operate in red-light states, including three in Nuevo Leon: Monterrey, Monclova and Union Laguna. Things were a little better in the LMB South, where Puebla, Tabasco and Yucatan were the only three teams in red-light states. In all, nine Mexican League teams were in red-light states while the remaining seven were in orange-light states.


            Mexican Ministry of Health undersecretary Hugo Lopez Gatell said that as long as red or orange traffic light restrictions were in effect, professional sporting events could only take place behind closed doors. De la Vega said in an interview that it was not feasible to play without an audience in the stands, since around 60-70 percent of the income of LMB clubs comes from the box office and the general sales inside stadiums.


            In addition, Furlong says de la Vega told Septima Entrada prior to the decision to cancel the season that teams not receiving governmental authorization to open their gates to fans for games might have chosen to sit out the season regardless of what was decided on a leaguewide level, making the LMB a short circuit (so to speak) this summer. Ultimately, all 16 team owners reportedly agreed that conditions made calling off the schedule the only prudent choice they could make.





            On July 26, Oliver Perez pitched in relief late in a game for the Cleveland Indians against Kansas City. The trip from the Tribe bullpen was his first in 2020, marking the eighteenth season he's appeared in a Major League Baseball game. That makes him the longest-serving Mexican player in big league history, breaking the record of 17 seasons he'd shared with Fernando Valenzuela, Juan Gabriel Castro and the late Aurelio Rodriguez.


   writer Beatriz Pereyra interviewed Perez after the historic event and talked about how the Culiacan native has had to adjust his approach to pitching and life to still be pitching in the majors long after his 2002 debut with San Diego. We repeat the translated column in its entirety here:


            October 3, 2010. Last game of the season. The New York Mets face the Washington Nationals at home, both in the basement of the NL East. Mexican Óliver Pérez comes in to pitch the 14th inning of a game tied at one run apiece.


            It's been 27 days since the left-hander has left the bullpen. Since May he has not been in the starting rotation. Not even as a reliever did the Mets use him. All season he has swallowed the boos of New York fans who deride his disastrous performances.


            After striking out the first batter, Perez, the first player from Culiacan to reach the major leagues, gives up one hit. Unable to throw strikes, he walks two. Full house. Another base on balls. The winning run scores. Thirty pitches, of which only 11 were strikes. Óliver Pérez leaves the field of play under a rain of complaints. Final score: Washington 2, Mets 1.


            At the end of the season, the Mets fired manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya, the one responsible for giving a three-year, $36 million contract to Oliver Perez, the left-handed pitcher who was completing his fifth season with the team (ninth in the majors) and who, after he signed for that amount, the saints turned their backs on.


            The team also released the Mexican. The Mets board didn't mind paying him the $12 million they still owed him as long as he left. There would be no 2011 for Óliver Pérez in New York, where the press berated him periodically and reporters hounded him every day like wasps with stinging stings.


            "It was very painful,” says Oliver. “Even if you are making millions, they come and tell you: 'We don't want you here anymore, get off the team!' It's very ugly. You feel like the smallest being on Earth; you want to hide because you think that everyone looks at you with hatred. I could have said: 'I'm staying, I have a contract,' but I'm not a conformist. I put up with that season and at the end, I continued preparing.”


            July 26, 2020. Third game of an atypical season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Cleveland Indians host the Kansas City Royals in a duel of teams from the American League Central Division. The Mexican Óliver Pérez enters to pitch in the seventh inning of the game that the locals are winning 8-2. The southpaw is part of the relief corps, which in baseball is known as a "situational pitcher." He won a contract for this year because in 2019 he exceeded 55 appearances by participating in 67 games.


            After teammate Carlos Carrasco allows a double, manager Terry Francona sends Pérez to restore order. He strikes out two opponents and the third rolls out to first base. Fifteen pitches, nine were strikes. Óliver Pérez leaves the field and his teammates congratulate him in the dugout. Final score: Cleveland 9, Kansas City 2.


            With this performance Pérez became the first Mexican player to reach 18 seasons in the Major Leagues. A pale shadow remains of that tall player who made his debut with the San Diego Padres on June 16, 2002 at 20 years and 305 days. He is no longer that 97 mph fastball shooter who can strike out 239 opponents in one season.


Effort and perseverance


            The 671 games in which Pérez has participated –195 as a starter and 476 as a reliever– and the 1,441 innings he has thrown have helped him to learn that skill is better than strength, that in baseball not everything is joy, that you learn to get up after you fall, that sacrifices have rewards, and that if you have to go down to the Minor Leagues there, you have to start over again.


            “It's an honor to have played all this time,” Perez remarks. “What I've been through has not been easy. I've wondered in recent months how important this record is. All the Mexicans who have stepped into the Major Leagues must be an example for the new generations, to show who we are and telling children that everything is achieved with effort and dedication, even if there are stumbling blocks. "


            This year, Pérez should be celebrating the start of his 19th season in the majors, but the setback he suffered left him out during 2011. That year he spent with Harrisburg, the Washington Nationals' AA farm team where he trained alongside of boys between the ages of 18 and 20 who looked at him from the bottom up because he was a major league player.


            There, among kids, Pérez rebuilt himself with the help of Rafael “El Paisa” Arroyo, the Mets bullpen catcher whom he first befriended and now both call each other brothers. With his experience managing pitchers although he never played in the major leagues, Arroyo (a Los Angeles-born Mexican-American) took on Oliver's problems.


            Arroyo witnessed how, with the Mets, Pérez's fastball lost speed, topping out at 89 MPH. He believes Perez misplaced security and trust. It didn't matter that Oliver arrived early, trained hard and was always ready to get on the mound. Fortune abandoned him. Together, they began to train with barbells and gym equipment, ate better and discussed in long conversations why they could not correct their course.


            “I had tendinitis in his right knee in the leg I land on after every pitch,” says Perez. “One must land with the tip of the foot forward and mine fell horizontally. At the moment of turning the foot, the knee twisted. Imagine that for 100 pitches, over who knows how many games? One day it had to give. They were three very difficult years (from 2008 to 2010). That happened to me by not saying that I wasn't well and insisting on playing.”


            For this reason it altered his pitching mechanics. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get out of the pothole. The Mets asked Perez to go to the minor leagues to try to compose himself. The player, thinking that to qualify for a pension he must accumulate 10 years of service in the Major Leagues, exercised his right of refusal.


            His agent, Scott Boras, famous for landing clients multi-year contracts in exchange for millions of dollars, advised him not to agree to leave the roster of 25.


            After the Mets released him, he went along with Arroyo, first to Phoenix and then to Culiacán. In the midst of family support, he tried to get ahead. Before the start of the 2010-11 season of the Mexican Pacific League, he trained to be fit and play with the Tomateros, but he was booed there too. He still couldn't find the strike zone and opponents were hitting him.


            “I had to start from scratch. I had no team and that's when Washington caught me in 2011 to go to the minors. I felt the taste of the game again. I was with young kids and I also felt like a kid at 29 years old. That motivated me. They called me a leader and copied how I trained. I had a good season and that helped make Seattle notice me in 2012."


Great support


            In his eagerness to help Oliver, Rafael Arroyo searched for videos of when he played for San Diego. He wanted to understand why his fastball had lost speed. He found that to compensate for the pain in his knee, the Culichi stooped down and that changed the angle of his arm and took away his strength. It took a lot to correct it. Barbell training, jogging on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix and shedding a few pounds also helped.


            “Oliver gained strength and confidence, increased the speed of his fastball and started the rumor that he was in shape and ready to return,” says Arroyo. “Seattle gave him the opportunity to be a reliever and he did great because having to face fewer batters using fewer pitches, he could throw more than 97 MPH.”


            In June 2012, just 10 years after his major league debut, Pérez returned to San Diego with the Seattle Mariners to face the team that opened the doors for him for the first time.


            “It was watching the game go round. Everything was perfect. His family was there. Confidence is very important in this game and when you're not pitching regularly, you start to doubt. You have no control of the ball. You are not well physically, mentally nor emotionally but when you adjust, everything works,” explains the ex-catcher, now a physical trainer for other Mexican major leaguers such as Luis Cessa and Julio Urías.


            Two seasons with Seattle led to one-and-a-half with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a few months with the Houston Astros and two more with the Washington Nationals, where he became a left-hander specializing in dominating left-handed hitters. The idea came from pitching coach Spin Williams, with whom Pérez worked in his early major league days with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Back then, Williams recommended that the Nationals sign him for the Minors in 2011.


            The advice couldn't have been better. “You have a very good arm. You throw really well against lefties,” advised Williams, “so go to the bullpen and learn how to dominate lefties.” Perez eventually pitched for Washington in the 2016 and 2017 campaigns.


            Statistics show that starting in 2012, when the average speed of his fastball was 94 miles per hour (with peaks of up to 97), Pérez began to challenge left-handed hitters by putting the ball in the center of the plate and not on the inside corner like he used to.


            His rate of home runs allowed for every nine innings has also decreased, which is paradoxical because the trend in the major leagues has been for pitchers to give up more and more home runs. Pérez also stopped regularly using his sinker, a weapon with which lefties dominate right-handed hitters.


            As of 2018, when he arrived with with the Cleveland Indians, it was clear how Oliver Pérez began to throw the slider more and depend less on his four-seam fastball. By becoming a left-handed specialist, he discovered that that power is what dominates lefties. He recognized that he could prolong his career by making these changes.


            “You have to study everything you can face,” says Perez. “Right now we have all the statistics. The teams give you everything and you have to take advantage of it because that helps when you go up the hill. It makes sense: They told me that the percentage of being hit by the slider is lower than if I throw fastballs. That's why I took it. All of us, pitchers and hitters, have a lot of information and we have to study the situations that I face.


The Fastball Pitcher


            In 2012, Pérez began throwing his fastball at the highest vertical launch point of his career. To put it in simpler terms: he stopped bending over – his knee injury gone now - and straightened his back. Those mechanics were used until 2017. That year, he lowered the angle of his left arm to make things uncomfortable while facing lefties.


            Beyond the advanced statistics, his own experience leads him to make other types of adjustments that he invents.


            Pérez fervently believes that both his fastball and the slider can be varied if, for example, before throwing home he pauses, shorter or longer, depending on who he is facing or, on the contrary, if he throws fast he sometimes lifts his leg up or down. He says he's reading hitters and wants to break their rhythm.


            One day, in a game in Culiacán, he had to face a player who hit foul balls 13 times. Annoyed at being unable to get him out with a 94 MPH fastball, Perez lifted his right leg and suspended it in the air for three seconds and struck the hitter out. He improvised on that occurrence to see if that way he could dominate his rival.


            “I want them to not get into the rhythm if they are waiting for the fastball,” explains Perez. “I take away their strength and I break their timing. I always think about how to decrease the possibility of giving up solid contact. Little by little I was inventing it. Sometimes a hitter gives you 10 fouls and you have to improvise those things.”


            Perez only needs to play and win in a World Series to go debt-free to baseball. He has spent every fall of his career watching these games on television. He doesn't want to retire without the delight of having a championship ring, hopping on the field while colored paper rains down on him and dousing himself with champagne in the dressing room.


            “Something I would like is to be the oldest player in the major leagues,” Perez says. “When I came up in 2002, I was the youngest in the entire league. I want to be there when a player born in 2002 makes his debut.”


            Ahead of Pérez, who turned 39 on August 15, the player with the most campaigns in the Major Leagues in 2020 is the Dominican Albert Pujols. At 40, Pujols is completing his 20th season. The Los Angeles Angels' first baseman made his debut in April 2001 with the St. Louis Cardinals. Perez admits that every season is a little tougher than the one before:


            “We go year by year. I try to take better care of myself and eat healthier because if I have extra weight, my knees, ankles, and back hurt. Now I think about reaching season 20. Who knows if in 2021 I will have a contract? There is no other Mexican in any sport who has been active for so many years although when I wake up, everything hurts."



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