ST. LOUIS — For the first time in his career, Wily Peralta feels like a pitcher.
He posted exceptional — and not so exceptional — performances in his younger years with the Milwaukee Brewers, making his MLB debut in 2012 and sticking around through 2017. He then pitched out of the bullpen for the Kansas City Royals from 2018-19 before an elbow injury forced him to miss the season in 2020.
When Peralta signed a minor-league deal with the Detroit Tigers in February, the 32-year-old was ready to showcase his development. He told the Tigers he wanted to be a starter for the first time since 2017 and that he could pitch at least four more years in the big leagues.
By the looks of his 2021 season, there’s no reason to doubt Peralta.
“I’ve really grown with more experience,” Peralta told the Free Press in Toronto. “When I was young, I had a harder fastball but wasn’t really worried about locating. Now I have experience and am a more complete pitcher. Before, I feel like I was a thrower. Right now, I feel like I’m a pitcher.”
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Peralta has appeared in 13 games for the Tigers, making 12 starts. He has a 3-3 record, 3.63 ERA, 23 walks and 39 strikeouts over 62 innings.
These results are the product of improved fastball command, mixing in elevated fastballs, generating ground-ball contact and staying healthy. (Peralta landed on the 10-day injured list Sunday with a right finger blister but should return once he is eligible.)
Some of his best work came across five starts from June 26 through July 18, tossing up a 0.34 ERA with eight walks and 17 strikeouts over 26⅔ innings. He allowed just one earn run during that span and delivered seven scoreless innings July 5 for the first time since Aug. 14, 2015.
“It all starts and ends with his fastball,” manager AJ Hinch said. “His command of his fastball is why he’s been able to be pretty consistent in the rotation. Everybody has secondary pitches, everybody has a fastball, but where you locate it against your opponent and how you attack their weakness is going to keep you in the game. It’s all revolved around his fastball command.”
The most recent example of Peralta’s success with his fastball occurred Saturday at Rogers Centre in Toronto. While the Tigers were blanked 3-0 by left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu, Peralta kept the Blue Jays to two runs across six innings with 64 pitches.
He threw 38 two-seam fastballs and five four-seam fastballs, helping him induce 12 ground-ball outs against a powerful lineup that featured Bo Bichette, Marcus Semien, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez at the top of the batting order.
“We’re in an era where everybody loves their secondary pitches, you talk about secondary command and nobody wants to throw fastballs anymore,” Hinch said. “Wily is a little bit of a throwback. He’s got an angle fastball with movement where he can control contact on the ground. That in itself has allowed him to log some innings, stay in games and be a very effective pitcher.”
When the Tigers added Peralta from Triple-A Toledo on June 15, the nine-year veteran set his focus on making pitches — rather than chasing strikeouts — to record outs. The same day he was called up, Peralta made his 2021 debut in Kansas City.
He pitched 1⅓ scoreless innings out of the bullpen to do his part in a 4-3 win over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
“It felt my it was my first year in the big leagues,” Peralta said. “I got chills.”
Back in 2019, Peralta relied heavily on his four-seam fastball. This time, he was prepared to use a healthier mix of two-seamers and four-seamers to accompany his split-changeup, which has held opponents to a .083 batting average this season.
“When I got the call, I wanted to show not just the Tigers but everybody that I belong here and am feeling good,” Peralta said.
Peralta is scheduled to return from the injured list to start an early September matchup with the Oakland Athletics at Comerica Park. Beyond the next outing, his future remains uncertain. A 13-game sample size, regardless of his reliability, won’t provide any guarantees.
But Peralta hopes he has done enough in 2021 to continue his career.
“I feel like I got plenty in the tank left, and that’s what I’m showing right now,” Peralta said. “I’m just focused on this season and what’s going to happen in the six, seven outings I have left. I just want to finish strong and do the best I can in my next outing.”
Although if it were up to Peralta, he would stick around with the Tigers in search of his first playoff appearance.
“This organization is headed in the right direction,” Peralta said. “The Tigers are going to be playoff contenders soon. Since I’ve been here, we’re playing great. I feel like I got enough experience that I can help the young kids trying to establish themselves in the big leagues.
“I feel like I can help this team win ballgames.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.