Prior to the unofficial winter break, Joel Peralta and the Tampa Bay Rays agreed to a one-year contract worth just over $2 million. The 35-year-old was one of six Rays eligible for salary arbitration this winter. The seven-figure salary more than doubles the $925,000 he made after signing with the club as free agent last year.
Peralta had a career year with the Washington Nationals in 2010. He earned a 2.02 ERA in 39 games with 49 strikeouts and five unintentional walks in 49 innings. Nonetheless, the Nationals did not offer him arbitration, allowing the right-hander to roam free on the market. Washington’s loss was Tampa Bay’s gain as Peralta was solid as a high-leverage reliever in Joe Maddon’s bullpen. In addition to posting a sub-3 ERA in the American League East, he maintained a 3.39 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 appearances.
Prior to 2010, Peralta was your average right-handed middle reliever that struggled against hitters of the opposite hand. Add in his flyball tendencies, and he looked very much like a cheaper version of Dan Wheeler. Meanwhile, a large part of Peralta’s success since 2010 can be directly attributed to a new-found effectiveness against left-handed hitters.
In 2010, he held lefties to a line of .212/.278/.318; however, the 72 plate appearances was not a large enough sample size to draw conclusions. The Rays tested the theory by increasing his usage versus lefties from 38% in 2010 to 46% in 2011. Peralta responded to the added responsibility by holding lefties to a .155 (17-for-110) average, the second-lowest mark among major league relievers (min. 100 AB) in 2011 and lowest single-season mark in Rays history (min. 100 AB). He struck out 28% of the lefties he faced while walking just 5%.
The biggest reason for Peralta’s recent success versus left-handed hitters has been his off-speed pitch. Commonly classified as a split-fingered fastball, lefties have seen the pitch nearly 30% of the time versus Peralta since 2010. They whiffed on more than 25% of the offerings. In 2011, left-handers missed on 35% of their swings on Peralta’s splitters according to joelefkowitz.com.
Using the heap maps located on fangraphs.com, we can see where and how Peralta uses his split-finger against lefties. Here are a few notes to consider when studying the graphs: 1) the view is from the catcher’s prospective, meaning the left-handed batter would be standing on the right-hand side of your screen. 2) the more intense the color, the heavier the usage in that location.
Peralta used the splitter to pound lefties in the middle and lower quadrants of the strike zone. He also did most of his work on the outer half of the plate. In doing so, he avoided the inside corner of the plate like it was the plague.
This winter, the Rays have already added a few new pieces for next year’s bullpen. Regardless of who joins the pen, Peralta will receive a heavy share of the high-leverage innings. This will be the case even if Kyle Farnsworth remains as the team’s unofficial closer. While the Rays continue to feed Peralta important innings, he should continue to produce favorable results against batters of all kinds as long as he continues to use his well-located off-speed pitch as his weapon of choice versus left-handed batters