Perez using deep breathing to avoid overthrowing
Young Rangers left-hander picked up technique in Triple-A, making it part of delivery
ARLINGTON -- Martin Perez works fairly quickly on the mound, but sometimes, he just needs to find time to breathe.
The 22-year-old rookie walked off the hill to remain composed with one out in the fifth Saturday, ahead, 0-2, on Kyle Seager, who has more home runs and RBIs against the Rangers than any other team and already went deep. Perez took his glove off, tightened the ball and adjusted his red Rangers cap. Right before his delivery, the left-hander gave his shoulders a few shrugs, took a deep breath to calm the nerves, then fired his third consecutive changeup.
Seager struck out swinging, his only punchout during the three-game series.
Breathing is an involuntary action, but the incorporation of the simple technique into Perez's routine has been the latest attempt to help control his emotions. The highly touted pitching prospect has not only started to live up to expectations, but Perez has helped Texas through a stretch of injuries to its rotation while the club fights for a playoff spot.
Perez learned the breathing tactic at Triple-A Round Rock, working with pitching coach Brad Holman, who noticed the left-hander was overstriding in his delivery and pulling the ball over the middle of the plate. Holman felt the issue was emotional, not mechanical, due to excessive aggression on the release that commonly occurred in crucial situations.
"A lot of the times, not just Martin, pitchers are guilty of trying harder," Holman said. "It's human nature to try harder and compete more. With pitching, sometimes that's not always adventageous. Sometimes it's just important to breathe, relax and almost take a 'try-less' approach."
Perez learned to throw unemotional pitches with runners on base, which can be a difficult adjustment under pressure. That's where tactical breathing came into play. Holman said pitchers at times hold their breath in those situations, but Perez takes a final deep breath before his delivery to loosen his upper body and help concentrate on executing his pitches.
"If you're trying to pitch with your nerves and muscles hard, it's not going to be the same in every situation," Perez said through an interpreter. "Everything has to be relaxed. As soon as I shrug my shoulders, if you see me shaking my shoulders, that means I'm not confident. Until I feel that I'm in the right place and breathing in and out, that's when I feel confident."
Perez has carried that additional checkpoint into his delivery in his second stint with the team. The left-hander proved he was ready for another promotion to the big league rotation in his final Triple-A game against Oklahoma City on June 17. He pitched six scoreless innings, allowing just three hits with one strikeout. Perez forced 12 of the 21 batters faced to ground out, one on a double play. He also displayed late life on his fastball, which the Rangers didn't expect when they signed the Venezuelan native at 16 years old.
"By trying less, sometimes you actually incorporate some other key checkpoints in creating velocity that get lost [otherwise]," Holman said. "You try to just muscle the ball, a lot of the times you lose timing, you lose direction, you lose flexibility. It's kind of a strange truth and really hard to sell to the pitchers sometimes because of their competitive juices, but to try less, sometimes in some regards helps them throw harder."
The Rangers recalled Perez to start against the Cardinals on June 22. He threw seven innings of two-run ball, giving up five hits and walking one. Perez allowed four runs (three earned) in 5 1/3 innings of his first big league start of the season on May 27 against the D-backs, but he is 6-2 with a 3.41 ERA in 11 starts since his second promotion, now a permanent fixture in the rotation.
That wasn't the case for Perez last year, who had three stints with Texas as a starter and reliever. He made his Major League debut on June 27, 2012, throwing two-thirds of an inning in relief against the Tigers. Three days later, Perez made his first big league start against the A's.
"Last year, when they brought me, I had a little problem, because it was up and down, up and down," Perez said. "It was really tough what happened with me. Mentally, I wasn't tough enough. I wasn't always a starter, bouncing back from the bullpen. It wasn't the same."
Perez had a chance to make the big league roster as the fifth starter this year, but fractured his forearm in Spring Training and missed two months. With injuries to starting pitchers Alexi Ogando, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison, Perez now has a spot as the fourth starter in the rotation, even with the June acquisition of Matt Garza.
Perez will seek his fifth consecutive quality start Friday against the White Sox. He's 3-0 with a 2.12 ERA in his last four starts and outdueled his idol, fellow Venezuela native Felix Hernandez, in a win Saturday against Seattle. Perez had just two pitches working that night -- fastball and changeup -- and credited his ability to get through seven innings to his mental toughness.
"He is a great example that you just don't know when it will happen," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "Everybody comes at their own pace. Some have a slow process, for some guys it just clicks in. It speaks to the patience you have to have."
Perez has even impressed opposing managers.
Astros skipper Bo Porter watched Perez throw his first career complete game on Aug. 11 in Houston. Perez lost his shutout bid with two outs in the ninth, allowing a solo home run to Chris Carter, but he ended the game one batter later on a groundout. Perez recorded 12 outs on ground balls and eight on strikeouts on 115 pitches that night at Minute Maid Park.
"He worked extremely fast, which for a young guy, he worked at a pace where he looked like a veteran guy," Porter said. "He knew exactly what he wanted to do."
The breathing technique wasn't the first step in his mental progression, but it is the latest step for Perez, who signed as an amateur free agent six years ago. Some in the organization don't think it's the last step either, including Perez, believing the best is still to come from the left-hander.
"Everything is coming OK, but I have to keep working," Perez said. "I don't have to change my mentality because we beat the Mariners and Felix Hernandez. I'm learning from every outing. If something happens, I'm learning from it. That's what I'm going through and thinking about only."
Master Tesfatsion is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.