Saturday, May 06, 2006

Is that an elephant in the room? Probably not.

Before I even start, let us keep in mind that I AM NOT ACCUSING ANYONE OF ANYTHING right now, I'm simply musing through some thoughts aloud.

It's a thought that has kind of run through my head since about halfway through last year, brought to light by some quotes from Berkman about the hitting increasing this year because the pitchers are no longer on steroids. Mike Rizzo at Rizzo Sports has now also raised the question aloud, and after another bad start, I feel like it's time to think this whisper of a thought through. The question is... Was Oliver Perez on steroids?

And again, please please please keep in mind that I am in no way accusing Ollie of using steroids, I'm simply trying to address the question of just where his velocity went. I realize that starting ugly rumors like this is exactly how blogs get a bad name, so keep in mind that this is an objective discussion I'm having with myself and anyone that would like to continue it with me in the comments. I have no inside knowledge and I am not accusing anyone of anything, I'm simply thinking out loud here.

The reason this thought comes up is an obvious one. In 2004 Oliver Perez had a 95-96 mph fastball that he could run up to 98 when necessary to get a strikeout. In 2005 and 2006 his fastball hovers between 91 and 92 and tops out at 94, but only on a good night. This coincides with the beginning of the MLB suspending for steroid violations. On other nights he can't even break 90. He's also shown no sign of recovering the lost velocity. I thought most of last year that he was injured, but I find it hard to believe that he's pitched for over a year now with an arm problem serious enough to cause that kind of loss in velocity. At some point, I would think someone would've diagnosed that something was wrong, or he would've simply quit pitching because of the pain he would have to be in.

Still, let's consider some cons to the argument. The most obvious one is that from what I know about Perez, he's always been a hard thrower. Testing is stricter in the minor leagues, and it's possible he was one of those kids with a 94 mph fastball at the age of 17. I went to high school with a kid that was like 6'2", 140 lbs and threw in the low 90s. Some people just throw hard and don't know why. Alternately, they also don't know why when they stop throwing hard. So the question is, does anyone know Oliver Perez's minor league history? In this comment thread, reader TJ seems to recall that his velocity kind of came out of nowhere in late 2002. I'm a little skeptical of this, simply because the current Perez isn't pitching like a guy who could've reached the majors without a dominating fastball now that he's lost his dominating fastball. Still, I do not profess to know much about Perez's career before Pittsburgh, if anyone can give us some answers on this, I'd be very appreciative.

As much as the voice in my head presses the issue, I'm just not sure that I see it. Playing Little League to Senior League to High School ball, every year it seemed like a kid or two would show up in the spring without the same zip on the fastball and not know why and never really get it back. It's a familiar process, a pitcher loses control, drops velocity to get the control back, then never finds the velocity again. WTM has applied the Rick Ankiel parallel to Perez several times, and to this point it would seem apt. We are, after all, talking about a man whose friends and family call "Flaco," or skinny. It's possible the name is a joke, but he certainly still appears to be pretty skinny to me. While it's true that almost none of the players that have tested positive for steroid use have fit the image the public has of juicers, I still find it hard to believe that a man listed at 6'3" 210 is on much of anything at all, though it's possible that we're all still a bit naive on the subject of steroid usage in the big leagues (in that we may never know just how pervasive it really was). And though it does seem like an awful lot of talent to just disappear in one winter of partying in Mexico without pitching (and one would wonder that if that was the case, shouldn't he have recovered it by now after pitching for well over a year?), one winter off can be a lifetime in terms of the arm strength of a 23-year-old pitcher. Sadly, I don't know if the question of where his velocity went can ever really be answered, mainly because when I watch Ollie pitch, I'm almost positive that he's as flummoxed by it as we are.