Wenceel Pérez shows no signs of stopping

Bless You Boys

The road to the major leagues was a twisty one for Detroit Tigers’ outfielder Wenceel Pérez. Even as an early believer in his 2022 breakout, you could not have convinced me that he’d be hitting in the three-hole and providing a major offensive boost to the Detroit Tigers even as late as this spring. The 24-year-old has been on a remarkable run over first 106 plate appearances in the major leagues. Now what everyone wants to know is, can this last?

In our preseason prospect reports, where we ranked Pérez 25th in the farm system, I described him as a player who have fallen through the cracks and wasn’t getting much attention, but who had the bat to ball skills and speed to be a very useful bench player. I don’t feel too bad about that characterization although he’s clearly proving me too much of a skeptic in his case.

Preseason, Pérez was still a light hitting infielder without a real position of strength who didn’t strike out much and got on base a lot. For a few years I’ve been begging the Tigers to make him an outfielder because his issues throwing accurately, especially at less than full velocity, at second base or anywhere in the infield just never really improved that much. The Tigers helped him improve his footwork, and the truly eye-opening throwing yips he showed from time to time were less pronounced, but he clearly wasn’t going to play a lot of infield for the Detroit Tigers.

The move was sort of an obvious one in retrospect. Pérez has always been fast, and even after finally adding significant muscle to his frame in 2022, maintained the speed to play a good center field. The question was whether he could learn to read the ball, run good routes, and close on tough plays.

The Tigers finally decided to make that move full-time this spring, and it’s worked out very well. He’s still learning out there, and grading out about average, but he clearly has the skills to be good out there. It also wouldn’t hurt if he continued to work on his infield defense when time allows, because it would really add to his versatility, and the Tigers’ have a pretty highly regarded infield coach now in Joey Cora for him to work with.

For now, that’s pretty irrelevant because he’s hitting so well that they can’t take him out of the lineup, and as the lone switch-hitter on the team he’s becoming something of a lynchpin for an offense that does a lot of matching up with opposing pitchers to try and overcome the lack of true everyday players in the lineup.

Can Wenceel Pérez keep this going?

So far, through 106 plate appearances, Pérez is slashing .301/.377/.527, good for a 155 wRC+. He’s been 55 percent more productive than the average major league hitter, and with three home runs and three stolen bases is on a 20/20 full season (650 PA) pace. Among players with 100 or more plate appearances, Pérez ranks 22nd in all the major leagues in terms of run production.

There are a few red flags, certainly, but also a couple of notes that give credence to the idea that Pérez can sustain a pretty good percentage of this production.

The first red flag is his .375 batting average on balls in play. That’s 86 points higher than league average. 65.7 percent of his plate appearances result in a ball in play so far. 10.8 percent end in a walk, and 23.5 end in a strikeout.

The ZiPS projection system forecasts a .303 BABIP and a .252 batting average going forward. Notably, he’s also projected for a 100 wRC+ which is exactly a league average hitter. That’s probably still in line with what we should expect, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to post a .225 BABIP over his next 106 plate appearances to balance it out either. He might just post something close to a .303 mark over the rest of the season and hit .250-.260. With his typically strong walk rate, a trait he has always had throughout his years in the minor leagues, that’s still going to work out to a well above average on-base percentage. Something like a .330 OBP seems likely.

However, it actually makes good sense that Pérez could sustain even better marks than those. He’s fast, for one thing, which naturally leads to a few more hits even on weak contact. Another element in his favor is his outstanding batted ball data.

Pérez currently holds a 28.4 percent line drive rate and a superbly low 26.9 percent ground ball rate. League wide batting average on ground balls is just .243 with a .267 slugging percentage. In certain game situations, slapping a ground ball through a hole left in the opposing infield is great, but overall hitting in on the ground is death in the major leagues. Defenses and defensive alignments are just too good to find much open space.

Line drives league wide produce a batting average of .632, with a monster slugging percentage of .879. Fly balls only produce a batting average of .244, but that’s still better than ground balls, and there’s no comparison in terms of slugging percentage, obviously. League wide slug on fly balls is .736. That excludes pop-ups, which are of course no good to anyone at the plate.

So there’s good reason to suspect that Pérez will continue to produce well above his expected projections as long as he keeps the ball off the ground and without adding much to his 13.3 infield fly ball, or pop-up, rate. You’d expect a few more ground balls as pitchers start to junk ball him a little more and pitch him with more care in general, but he’s always hit a lot of line drives in the minors, and drastically lowered his ground ball rate over the last two seasons as well. It’s carrying over to a fantastic degree right now, but that’s one area where you’ll start to see him cool eventually.

In terms of hitting the ball really hard, Pérez is a little on the light side in terms of raw power, but he’s making a lot of good contact. His max exit velocity is 105.6 mph and that all tracks with his power in the minor leagues. He’s not going to carry a ball 420 feet very often. So he’s not going to hit the ball to center field or the opposite way for home runs much. But a hitter like Isaac Paredes is only a mph better in max exit velo. If you pull the ball in the air and otherwise spray lots of line drives you don’t even need average raw power of the sort that Kerry Carpenter and Mark Canha possess.

Of course, there’s also a world of difference between “having” power and hitting for power. On that score, Pérez looks pretty good. His average exit velocity is 90 mph, 84th among 266 qualified hitters. The data echoes what we’ve seen, which is that Wenceel Pérez is hitting the ball hard into the outfield an awful lot. Four triples and four doubles, to go with the home runs and steals, speaks to the amount of damage he’s doing despite the below average power. Hit the ball in the air as much as you can. Even with mediocre power.

Overall, it’s fair to say that Pérez has had more good luck on batted balls than he can expect going forward, but it’s not a surprise that more balls would drop for him or go for hits than the average major league hitter. He has speed and is a bona fide switch hitter even if the power is mostly left-handed. Pérez hits a lot of line drives and hard fly balls, has a good enough eye to draw more walks than average, and good enough bat and body control to adjust in flight, create good bat angles through the ball, and just hammer fastballs.

There’s even an argument that he’s struck out more than he likely will going forward. Pérez never struck out more than 18.1 percent of the time in the upper minors. He’s currently at 23.5 percent in his rookie year. ZiPS projects him to strike out just 19.5 percent of the time going forward.

The reasons behind those projections come from the fact that Pérez is making more contact both in and out of the zone than league average. That also tracks with everything we saw in the minor leagues. His chase rate is actually a little better than league average as well. He’s struggled a bit with two strikes, but pitchers are having a heck of a time getting him to two strikes without him hitting a screamer somewhere. He also has more balls called strikes than the reverse, getting a bit of rookie treatment, perhaps.

Regression shouldn’t hit Pérez too hard

Are there some weaknesses? Sure.

Pérez is a good fastball hitter but he’s pretty average against higher velocities and doesn’t do that much against breaking balls and offspeed pitches. To his credit, his whiff rates are better than league average against all three categories of pitches, He just does most of his best work by waiting for a fastball to hit and not missing it. He’s not that easy to get chasing a breaking ball or changeup, and if he does offer he usually puts the ball in play. And while he’s looking fastball, we’ve seen him take sliders and changeups that hang deep to right field plenty of times.

He’ll probably start to see a little more care taken by opposing pitchers as this keeps up, but Pérez is pretty well equipped to weather the storm. His contact ability and speed give him strengths to fall back on when the hits aren’t dropping as readily. It’s still very early in his major league career but there’s little about his approach, underlying skills, or results that suggests he’s going to crumble.

So while you can expect Pérez to decline back toward league average as the season progresses, it certainly looks like the Tigers have a pretty good hitter here who is at least a solid center fielder already and still new to the position. He’s been an absolute savior to a struggling offense over the past six weeks and has absolutely seized a regular role on this team. Parker Meadows has a lot of work to do to force his way back into the outfield mix at this point, despite the outstanding defensive work.

In the long run, I think Wenceel Pérez probably settles in as a modestly above average major league hitter who gives him manager a real weapon for the late innings with his speed and contact ability. In the Tigers’ offense, that may mean he starts two out of every three games, and gives A.J. Hinch a great option in many different situations when the team faces a left-handed starter. Pérez hits lefties, but not for much power, so you’d guess that on those days he’d be the designated pinch-hitter, pinch-runner, or defensive replacement. That’s a luxury for a manager with a complicated roster with few everyday starting players.

Wenceel Pérez probably can’t keep this up, but he certainly looks like he’s here to stay. And if the Tigers do finish the rest of the season strong, Pérez coming to the rescue when most of their other hitters were scuffling badly will be a big reason why.

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