Cionel Pérez transformed from waiver-wire fodder to dominant setup man in Baltimore

Cionel Pérez transformed from waiver-wire fodder to dominant setup man in Baltimore

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The O’s claimed the journeyman lefty in November and helped him become a late-inning force for their surprisingly strong bullpen.

The roster move registered with barely a blip last Nov. 24: Orioles claim Cionel Pérez off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds.

Yawn. At the time, it seemed just another in an endless line of inconsequential waiver claims, another pickup of a no-name, roster-filler journeyman. Most Orioles fans, hoping for the club to make a splashy move before the impending Dec. 1 lockout, paid no mind to the minor addition of a control-challenged left-hander who might never pitch for the team.

Little did we know then that the Orioles had just taken a giant step toward transforming their bullpen into one of the most reliable units in baseball. That well-traveled southpaw not only made the team but emerged as a dominant, late-inning relief weapon, posting the lowest ERA by an Orioles reliever — 1.40 — since Zack Britton’s Cy Young-caliber 2016 campaign.

In a season full of pleasant surprises for a shockingly competitive 83-win Orioles team, there might have been none more unexpected than Cionel Pérez.

Coming into 2022, the 5-foot-11, 162-pound Pérez had 45 games on his major league ledger, spanning parts of three seasons with Houston from 2018-2020 and one with the Reds in 2021. The results: a 6.04 ERA, a .788 OPS against, and a brutal 6.2 BB/9 rate. He was far from the first young pitcher to have trouble throwing strikes in the major leagues, but with his ceiling limited by his relief-pitcher-only profile, teams weren’t willing to give him a particularly long leash to work out his struggles. The Astros, an annual contender, determined they had other players more worthy of a 40-man spot and jettisoned him to Cincinnati for a minor leaguer. The Reds, an uncompetitive club, couldn’t fix what ailed Pérez, either. When they tried to sneak him through waivers, the Orioles decided to take a chance.

It’s not as if Pérez was lacking in pedigree. He’d been a highly touted teenager in Cuba, his home country, leading the Cuban National Series with a 2.06 ERA as an 18-year-old in 2015. He was one of the most promising prospects in the Astros’ farm system, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the club’s #6 prospect in 2018 and #9 in 2019 (ahead of, among others, Framber Valdez). Current Orioles general manager Mike Elias was the Astros’ assistant GM of scouting and player development when Houston inked Pérez in 2016. Elias knew as well as anyone that Pérez, who was 25 when the O’s claimed him last November, had plenty of untapped potential. It was just a matter of unlocking it.

Oh, did the Orioles ever unlock it. And it didn’t take long.

Pérez was practically automatic from the outset in 2022, starting on Opening Day in Tampa Bay, in which he tossed a perfect inning with two strikeouts. He rattled off 11 straight scoreless outings to begin his Orioles career before surrendering a solo homer in St. Louis on May 12. Undeterred, Pérez followed that up with another seven straight shutout appearances.

By that time, Pérez had firmly entrenched himself as a valuable setup man in the Orioles’ dynamic bullpen. It’s a role in which he’d continue to excel all season long, teaming with Dillon Tate to bridge the gap to closer Jorge López and later Félix Bautista. As the only southpaw in that group, Pérez was often tasked with getting huge outs of tough left-handed hitters late in games. He, of course, handled that task with aplomb, holding lefties to a .224/.286/.250 line in 84 plate appearances this year. But Cionel proved almost equally adept against right-handers, who batted just .218/.293/.587 against him in 150 PAs. In the era of the three-batter minimum, where LOOGYs (lefty one-out guys) can’t survive anymore, it’s essential for pitchers to be able to hold their own against hitters on each side of the plate. And Pérez was an equal-opportunity dominator.

Pérez’s season numbers across the board were eye-popping. In addition to the aforementioned 1.40 ERA, he slashed his WHIP to 1.162 — down from 1.708 last season — and cleaned up his command issues, striking out 2.62 batters for every walk. He also kept the ball in the park like never before. After averaging two home runs every nine innings in his previous MLB career, Pérez surrendered only two home runs the entire 2022 season, none after July 15.

What led to the drastic improvement? Part of it may have been simply giving Pérez a consistent opportunity to pitch. He’d never thrown more than 24 innings in a season before this year, often bouncing between the majors and the minors. The Orioles provided Pérez with regular work, giving him a chance to flash his impressive stuff.

They also helped refine his repertoire. Last year with the Reds, Pérez relied mainly on his four-seam fastball, which he threw 64 percent of the time, even though his slider was the more effective pitch (.150 opponent AVG and .350 SLG). This year, he mixed the two pitches almost equally: 45 percent for the heater and 39 for the slider. Batters couldn’t hit either of them, batting .221 off the former and .182 against the latter. Pérez also added a third offering, a sinker, as a putaway pitch.

It’s been a long and winding road for Pérez to even get to this point. As Dan Connolly chronicled in The Athletic, Pérez’s baseball career almost ended before it began on numerous occasions. His first attempt to defect from Cuba failed. His second attempt ultimately landed him in a Haitian prison, where Pérez thought he might die in his cell. When he finally arrived in the United States, the Astros voided his original contract, scared off by the results of his physical. Pérez even had an agreement with the Dan Duquette-led Orioles before the commissioner’s office nixed the deal. It wasn’t until the Astros came calling again in September 2016, with an offer more than $3 million lower than their previous contract, that Pérez was able to begin his journey in professional baseball.

He survived. And now he’s thriving. And the Orioles are all the better for it.

Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie, Spenser Watkins, Rougned Odor, Ryan McKenna, Kyle Bradish, Austin Hays, Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander, Jordan Lyles, Bryan Baker, Tyler Wells, Austin Voth, Jorge Mateo, Dean Kremer

Monday: Cedric Mullins

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