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System Sort-of Sundays 20th June 2021: Okay, So We Have to Talk About Delvin Perez

There’s a shortstop breakout happening in the minors right now. And it might not be the one you’re thinking of.

MLB: MAR 08 Spring Training - Marlins at Cardinals Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Howdy, folks. Apologies for this belated Sunday post; I had hoped to be able to get this done despite both work and Father’s Day obligations (went to a car show, had dinner, it was nice), but ended up just not being able to. I will, however, not be changing the title of this post to System Mondays, because alliteration is more important to me than temporal accuracy. Just so you know where I stand.

What we’re going to cover today is a subject I haven’t really been all that keen on getting to, because I’m still very skeptical of this player. Even up to a few weeks ago, Delvin Perez was putting up god awful offensive numbers this season, to go along with similarly god awful offensive numbers at several other stops along the way. It’s hard for me to really buy in or believe that Perez has a major league future, given that he hasn’t been an above average hitter since his first taste of pro ball, back in 2016, and that was in the Gulf Coast League, the very lowest level of short-season ball that existed stateside. There were times in the intervening years when Perez managed to draw enough walks to put up a reasonable batting line, but at no point did he ever hit the ball with enough authority to suggest he could be a meaningful offensive contributor. When a guy drafted at seventeen has the exact same body, and exact same complete lack of physicality, at twenty, it usually suggests he’s just not going to make it.

Which brings us to today. Delvin Perez, somehow, is trying his best to make me believe he needs to be paid attention to again. So let’s talk about him.

As of the 21st of June, Delvin Perez is 22 years old. He is playing at Double A Springfield. And he is currently hitting .289/.344/.415. That translates to a 107 wRC+, and that is very, very interesting. Delvin Perez was drafted as an elite athlete and all-world defensive prospect at shortstop, and he remains that five years later. He has the range, the hands, the balance, and the arm to make plays both routine and spectacular at short. What I’m saying is, the offensive bar for a player of his ilk is quite low, well below where he is currently performing.

Early on this year, it looked more or less like just another season for Perez. He came into the spring with a new body and a new outlook, having used the Covid shutdown time to finally add real weight and strength to his frame. Putting on weight has long been the bane of Perez’s existence, as he looked more like a long-distance runner and less like an explosive athlete up until the time he showed up to camp this year. That inability to get bigger and stronger not only limited his ability to hit for power, it allowed pitchers to challenge him in the zone with absolute impunity, and likely was the reason for his performance-enhancing experiments back prior to draft day in 2016. When a kid has one real chance to cash in for himself and his family, and he could potentially make a ton of money if only he could add ten or fifteen pounds of muscle, it’s not surprising that kid might look for outside the box solutions.

So the body looked substantively different, as Perez used the time off to focus on his body without the daily grind of baseball. The former beanpole was replaced with a still-svelte but now notably cut shortstop’s body. While the body looked different, though, the performance really didn’t. At the end of May, Perez was putting up just a 68 wRC+. He was slugging .308, and that performance was being propped up by a .351 batting average on balls in play. To be fair, Perez’s elite speed should probably lead to him running somewhat elevated BABIPs, but everything else in his profile suggested the same lack of authority on contact that had consigned him, more or less, to the forgotten prospect bin. Even his once-strong plate discipline had seemingly deserted him against Double A pitching, as he was walking just 6% of the time, compared to a 27.7% strikeout rate. In other words, things were not going well.

But then came June, and, well, things changed. How much they have changed is honestly difficult to square with most of what we knew about Perez before this, but here we are.

Since the beginning of June, Delvin Perez is hitting .328/.394/.547, good for a 153 wRC+. Yes, he has a .419 BABIP over those three weeks, but he has also put up a .219 isolated slugging percentage over that time frame, so it isn’t as if he isn’t hitting the ball with authority. In the month of June, Perez has hit three home runs in 71 plate appearances. In nearly 1100 plate appearances prior to this season, he had hit two. This isn’t just a hot streak for a player who wasn’t good before. This is three weeks of a player hitting the baseball in a way he never has at any other point in his career.

Then again, we have to keep in mind it is just three weeks. Any player, even a bad one, can have a brilliant three weeks. This, though, this feels a little different. Still, we cannot throw out 1100 plate appearances from 2016-’19, and all that time Delvin Perez looked like a bad minor league hitter, to say nothing of what he might be in the majors. So big grains of salt are called for here, all over the rim of the glass.

Still, what we’re looking at this season is a truly different player, in spite of whatever skepticism I might still possess. We obviously don’t want to simply project this hot streak going forward and say that Delvin Perez is now an elite defensive shortstop and a plus hitting prospect. On the other hand, he is putting up an above-average line for the season as a whole, and that isn’t nothing. And it would be one thing if this hot streak came out of nowhere. It didn’t, though. This is a player who worked incredibly hard to truly remake himself physically, and this hot streak just happens to have come after his first month playing competitive ball since 2019. If one were so inclined, you could easily talk yourself into believing that May was Perez shaking off the rust of the long layoff, and June is the breakout, when all that hard work and his previous natural talent have really started to show up in games. I’m not quite ready to believe that wholeheartedly just yet, but I cannot argue that what Perez is doing this year isn’t just different from what he’s done in the past, but it would have been literally impossible for him before now.

It’s not all wine and roses for Perez now, it should be said. His strikeout rate this season (26.6%), is way too high for a player with such limited power, and his previous patience at the plate hasn’t really been evident this year, with just a 7.1% walk rate. Even during his June tear, Perez has whiffed more than a quarter of the time. Yes, strikeouts are just part of the game, but for a player who even now is not going to hit for that much power (no, that June ISO is not a new baseline), he needs to get on base via non-contact outcomes more often than he has this season. His speed should always lead to somewhat elevated BABIPs, but you have to think he’s due for some regression on that front given his season number is .381. Batted balls turning into hits is doing a lot of the heavy lifting for his batting line, and we know that the BABIP gods are fickle.

On the other hand, it’s also worth noting Perez is hitting more line drives this season than he ever has before, with a 23.2% rate. He’s another hitter like Lars Nootbaar, who hits the ball on the ground too much (just under a 50% GB%), but that’s also not the worst thing for his profile. Yes, fly balls with power would be preferable, but low launch angle contact for a guy with limited power but great speed isn’t necessarily the worst outcome. Lou Brown making Willie Mays Hayes do pushups for fly balls had a kernel of wisdom buried in there somewhere, after all.

Oh, and he also stole home the other night. So, you know. That’s fun.

At this point, it really can’t be avoided: if Delvin Perez has made himself back into a real prospect, the future of the Cardinal organisation looks different now than it did. I’m not saying Perez is a franchise-altering talent, by any means — although, admittedly, when he was drafted he looked like he could be — but if the Cards have a potential starting shortstop sitting at Double A right now, that does alter the outlook on the near- to medium-term future for this team. The way Masyn Winn has started his career certainly makes it look like the Cardinals have a potential long-term shortstop answer in the system down at the lower levels (Winn is hitting himself right into future plans and right out of that two-way player thing that was so interesting), but even a few weeks ago it really didn’t appear they had anything closer on the horizon. Now they have a former first-round pick, playing at Double A at 22 years old, who is putting up a legitimate batting line.

Edmundo Sosa is an excellent defender and can hit just enough to be useful at the big league level, but it looked like the Cardinals were either going to have to ride or die with Paul DeJong, or consider going outside the organisation if it looked like Pauly D’s offense is permanently borked. To be fair, a hot month at Double A (or even a solid two months on balance), isn’t going to be enough to make the organisation decide to trade Paul DeJong for a pitching prospect and just try to bridge the gap to Perez with short-term Sosa, but it is worth asking the question whether they should at least consider it, and the data point of Delvin Perez jumping back into real prospect status almost has to factor in to some degree.

Then again, it’s also possible the Cards could try to capitalise on potential excitement regarding Perez’s breakout and flip him for a big-league piece or a prospect at a position of need, such as a starting pitcher type. I firmly believe, and also desperately hope, the Cardinals would not move a guy one month into a possible breakout for something like a left-handed middle reliever for a team like the 2021 club (the current version, not the fully healthy version, mind you), but I admit that it worries me a little. The Cardinals, both the front office and owner’s boxes, have been very bad at recognising when it’s time to cut bait on a season and either simply not invest further resources or, even better, turn some present value into future value. This season is even more complicated than many others, largely because of the threat of Nolan Arenado’s opt-out looming over the club. I understand Arenado walking away wouldn’t be the absolute worst thing in the world over the long haul, but it would still be subtracting the team’s best player for the 2022 and 2023 seasons, seasons in which the Cards will be trying to compete.

Once upon a time, Delvin Perez was a supremely gifted young athlete who fell in the draft due to a PED issue. He was too talented not to take where the Cardinals got him. In the years since, it became more obvious why he felt the need to resort to those measures to try and improve his body. Now, at 22, Perez finally looks like the athlete, and the hitter, the Cards were hoping he could become back in 2016. How that changes future plans remains to be seen, but it has to be considered one of the more remarkable developments so far this season. The Cards as currently constructed don’t really have a good place to put Perez if he proves this breakout is real. I do hope Mo and Co. are at least thinking about how they should handle this rather unexpected gift.