A look at Jose Peraza’s numbers in 2019 is hardly inspiring. Few major leaguers put up worse numbers than the Reds utilityman before Cincinnati made the decision not to tender him a contract for the 2020 season, making him a free agent.
There were 207 big leaguers who had at least 400 plate appearances last year. Peraza had the second worst OPS (.631) and, in the calculations of Baseball-Reference.com, had a -0.9 WAR, meaning that he cost the Reds nearly a win relative to a replacement-level player.
Beneath the surface of those overall numbers, things didn’t look much better. Peraza chased a ton of pitches outside of the strike zone (a career-worst 37.6 percent) and, likely for that reason, made a ton of weak contact (according to Fangraphs, his hard-hit rate was 189th among those 207 players with 400 or more plate appearances). Peraza was briefly sent to the minors last August.
For all of those reasons, no one was shocked when the Reds decided they’d rather let him become a free agent than offer him salary arbitration. Yet to date, Peraza is the Red Sox’ lone addition to their position-player puzzle. At a time when the Red Sox are reining in spending while trying to address roster needs, what did they see in Peraza that led them to commit to him on a one-year, $3 million deal?
Rewind. It wasn’t that long ago that Peraza appeared to be a standout prospect. He was a consensus top-100 selection entering both 2015 (while in the Braves system before a mid-year trade to the Dodgers) and 2016 (after the Reds picked him up from L.A. in a three-way trade).
The Reds had him start 2016 in Triple A, but called him up in mid-May. While he struggled initially to find his big league footing, Peraza — after an August demotion to Triple A — had a dominant finish to the season, hitting .366/.387/.484 over the last six weeks of the season to close the year with a .324/.352/.411 line as a 22-year-old.
“We thought we had the heir apparent to Brandon Phillips,” said Bryan Price, who managed Peraza with the Reds from 2016-18, referencing the three-time All-Star and longtime Reds top-of-the-order dynamo. “We wanted him [in the big leagues] bad . . . He didn’t disappoint.”
The Reds were so impressed that they traded Phillips to open a spot for Peraza at second base in 2017. He showed traits that the Reds liked — “good contact bat, kind of a line-to-line hitter who runs well and could play multiple positions,” said Price — but struggled to achieve consistency at a young age, particularly when waiver claim Scooter Gennett blossomed into an everyday second baseman with middle-of-the-order power. Gennett pushed Peraza from second (likely his best position) over to shortstop (where he was competent if below average), but seemed to raise questions that went beyond position profile.
“The challenge for Jose has been to maintain consistency,” Price said. “I think part of it is getting comfortable in the big leagues and not looking over your shoulder . . . [Gennett] was such an impact player when he was in there. I don’t think Jose could help but think, ‘Shoot, maybe this could cost me time in the future.’ He probably spent too much time being concerned with keeping his job instead of going out and playing the game.”
Peraza performed poorly against that backdrop in 2017, hitting .259/.297/.324. He did steal 23 bases and showed some baseball skills that had become somewhat less relevant during the homer explosion of recent years.
“He’s an excellent bunter, he can hit-and-run, and do a lot of things that may not be as pertinent in today’s game but I think still have a lot of value,” said Price.
In 2018, however, Peraza seemed to blossom. At 24, he emerged as Cincinnati’s everyday shortstop and added power to his game, hitting .288/.326/.416 with 14 homers, 49 extra-base hits, and 23 steals in 29 attempts, an overall profile that made the comparisons to Phillips seem within reach.
But his 2019 struggles were magnified by some bad luck. According to Baseball Savant, his batted ball profile suggested an expected batting average of .269 and slugging mark of .361, but his actual marks were .239 and .345.
At a time when the Red Sox are reining in their spending, the team felt that Peraza’s 2018 season shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly given how he might be impacted by playing at Fenway Park and in the America League East parks. If his 2019 spray chart of fly balls was overlaid at Fenway Park, it appears that as many as 10 balls that resulted in doubles or outs would have been threats to leave the yard.
If Peraza can become slightly more selective in his age-26 season, then his ability to make contact — he swung and missed at just 7.9 percent of pitches last year, a whiff rate that placed him among the top 20 percent of hitters in the game – could yield an uptick in hard contact.
“We have a lot of optimism that, especially given his youth, he has a good chance to bounce back offensively,” Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said recently.
At the least, the righthanded Peraza has shown sufficiently consistent production against lefties — a .297/.333/.406 line in his career, and a .287/.336/.407 line even in his 2019 down season — along with speed, athleticism, and the versatility to play five positions that he can contribute off the bench.
“I still think he could be an everyday player but he’s going to have to show he can play two full halves consecutively with that type of production,” said Price. “If not, he’s a really wonderful super-utility player. He plays all three outfield positions, he can play second and short and I imagine he could play third if you want him to. I think he’s a really nice piece.”