The Rays’ bullpen features plenty of relievers with incredible arms capable of hitting 95 MPH or higher. From Fernando Rodney to Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth to Cesar Ramos, and even the recently-called up Josh Lueke, opposing batters have to be ready to face the heat almost no matter who the Rays bring into the game. That is not the case, though, with Joel Peralta. Despite the fact that he has been the Rays’ setup man the last three years and done quite well, managing a 3.20 ERA and a 162-41 strikeout to walk ratio in 163 appearances and 149 IP, Peralta’s fastball stays right around 90-91 MPH, even dipping as low as 88 MPH at times. How has Peralta found so much success while we have watched so many players with better arms implode?
You’re 37 years old and pitching better in the past couple of years than you ever did before. How does that happen?
To me, it was experience. Experience and getting the right pitching coaches. When I was young, throwing hard, I was just trying to challenge guys. I wasn’t pitching, I was just throwing the ball. I learned the hard way how to pitch, when I’d try to challenge guys and it wouldn’t work. I just got smarter, figuring out how to pitch. Keith Comstock helped me out when I was in the minor leagues with the Angels. But the main guy before I got here was Bob McClure with the Kansas City Royals. He really helped me out; he was probably the guy that taught me the most about being smart, control, commanding pitches.
Unlike many relievers, Joel Peralta is certainly a “pitcher” and not a “thrower.” But that’s just beginning of his path to success. Peralta talked to Jonah Keri about the advantages he uses to close the gap between 90 MPH and 95 MPH, and there turned out to be quite a few. Peralta does everything from quick-pitching hitters when they’re least suspecting, throwing splitters up in the zone, pitching backwards, and most famously, putting plenty of pine tar in his glove to apply to his hand. Most of that can’t be quantified too well, but thing we can look at is his ability to work backwards.
So far in 2013, Peralta has thrown just 43% fastballs according to Brooks Baseball, throwing his splitter 30% of the time and his curveball 26% of the time to account for the bulk of his pitches. Only when severely behind in the count, down 2-0, 3-0, or 3-1, does Peralta throw fastballs the majority of the time. What does that accomplish? It makes his 90 MPH fastball seem a whole lot faster. Overall on the season, Peralta’s swing-and-miss rate on his fastball is 12.4%, well above the league average of 7.9% (he was even higher in 2012). For his career, Jake McGee is at 12.7%– Peralta throws 6 MPH softer than Jake McGee and yet has a nearly identical whiff rate on his fastball. How is that possible? Peralta does have great command, but that’s only a piece of the puzzle. As Tom Glavine once said (hat tip to Keri), “Too many guys pitch backward. They throw their breaking ball so much that it’s almost like their fastball is their off-speed pitch.” That describes Peralta to a T. 90 MPH seems much faster when it’s preceded by an 80 MPH pitch, and Peralta exploits that constantly. Most major league hitters dream of getting a 90 MPH fastball and hitting it a long way. Joel Peralta gives them exactly that fastball and makes them look silly.
Peralta subtle edges extend beyond his pitching. Peralta interpreted for Yunel Escobar when Escobar was interviewed by Sun Sports’ Todd Kalas following a game, and that was only one example of the way he has emerged as a “bridge” between the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking players on the Rays. He has served as a mentor for players like Escobar and a friend and confidant for players like Fernando Rodney. The presence he has in the clubhouse is just another way he makes a positive impact on the Rays, and adding that to his pitching makes him the complete package.
The more you hear about Peralta, the more it makes sense that the Rays signed him to a two-year contract this offseason with options for three more years. Relievers are variable to begin with and that is even more the case as they age, but the way Peralta pitches, relying on command and secondary pitches as opposed to an overbearing fastball, makes him a pitcher more likely than most to find success as he approaches age 40 than most. Add in his clubhouse contributions, and Peralta is the setup man of the Rays’ dreams. He doesn’t succeed in an orthodox way, but he squeezes out every once of his ability to keep himself and the entire team going strong, and the Rays couldn’t ask for anything more.