The team leader right now in plate appearances is Joey Votto – as it should be – but coming in at number two on the team is Jose Peraza. It’s been a wild ride getting there – after being acquired from the Dodgers after the 2015 season, Peraza represented the Future of the Middle Infield™ for the Reds, but was blocked by the Present of the Middle Infield, as old stalwarts Zack Cozart and Brandon Phillips still existed, wore Reds uniforms, and played 81 games a year at Great American Ballpark. When Zack Cozart hit the DL in August 2016, Peraza found an opening and started 36 of the remaining 41 games that season, most of them at shortstop. A healthy Cozart in 2017 would move Peraza back to the bench, but that offseason, the Reds paid the Atlanta Braves to make Brandon Phillips go away, and Peraza presumably had his every day spot again, this time at second base. He lost it midway through the season to surging Scooter Gennett, but the next offseason, Zack Cozart took his donkey out west to join Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in Los Angeles, and Peraza again found himself with an open every day position to fill.
It really is comical the number of things that have conspired to keep Peraza out of the lineup in the last three years, but it’s even sillier perhaps how many things have conspired to keep him in the lineup as well. In June 2018, however, Peraza finally finds himself in a desirable(ish) position: with no obvious heir apparent to shortstop, Peraza can assume the job is his for the time being and allow his performance to secure a role for himself long term. It’s the spot most youngsters with something to prove want to be in; unfortunately for Peraza, he’s currently hitting .265/.299/.336 on the season, eerily similar to the .259/.297/.324 performance last year that lost him his job at second base, and people are again starting to murmur about whether it’s time to kick Peraza out of a starting job for the third time in as many years. Detractors would argue that Peraza has a Top-100 Prospect resume and only just turned 24 in May, and perhaps 1,000 career major league plate appearances is too early to make decisions on Jose Peraza. So when is it no longer too early, and what would progress look like for Jose Peraza?
The Reds and Young Players
Let’s start with the team. The Reds have a strange relationship with their young players, to say the least, especially when it comes to performance leashes and playing time. Billy Hamilton has been one of the worst hitters in baseball for over 5 years and 2,300 PA’s now, and he is in no danger of losing his job. Eugenio Suarez floundered like a fish out of water after he assumed third base in 2016, but Suarez was given all the chances he needed to adjust (since 2016 he’s second to Votto in Reds PA’s), and he’s locked himself down in the best of ways. On the flip side, many of the young starting pitchers have needed only to fail for about a dozen starts before being cutoff; Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson come immediately to mind. Jesse Winker still has fewer than 500 major league PA’s, and despite a strong 2017 and April 2018, all it took was a slump in May to lose himself a spot in the outfield rotation.
In short, the Reds seem to determine a player’s leash on the basis of several factors, only some of which seem to be related to that player’s specific performance. On top of how well they play, the immediate availability of other options appears to be a large factor in how the organization determines playing time, as well as the urgency for an upgrade at that player’s position. The Reds decided to have a low cutoff point for starting pitchers in 2016 and 2017 because there were always other options available (depending on whether or not you consider Tim Adleman, Keyvius Sampson, and Bronson Arroyo “options”) and because the need for decent performances from their starting pitchers is absolutely critical. Meanwhile, Eugenio Suarez was afforded two consecutive years of unbroken playing time because there wasn’t an obvious replacement at third base in Cincinnati or Louisville, and with Zack Cozart, Scooter Gennett, and Joey Votto all hitting out of their shoes, the Reds could afford to let their third baseman take his beatings for a little bit.
In this respect, Jose Peraza is an interesting spot. The Reds are out their ears in middle infielders at the moment: Jose Peraza, Alex Blandino, Scooter Gennett, Brandon Dixon, Nick Senzel, and Dilson Herrera are all capable of playing second base and could theoretically play in the majors right now, with Shed Long probably not more than a year or two away. However, out of that bunch, only Peraza, Blandino, and Senzel have had a real look at shortstop, and opinions are split on that group. Despite Senzel getting an extended look during spring training, he’s played exclusively third and second in Louisville, and it’s doubtful the Reds consider him an option at shortstop right now. And while Blandino likely has more life to his bat than Peraza, there’s not much to indicate that Blandino is seen as an everyday player right now, though he has made starts at shortstop this season.
While Blandino (and in a pinch, Senzel) represent options should the Reds decide to call it quits on Peraza, it’s likely Peraza will have to lose the position himself, rather than one of them take it from him. And with the rest of the Reds infield hitting, there isn’t as much urgency for their shortstop to produce results at the plate as there is in, say, the corner outfield. So with the external factors in Peraza’s favor, let’s look at the internal factors.
Jose Peraza’s Past and Present
I’m sure most readers here are familiar with Jose Peraza’s basic hitting profile. Though he’s never even remotely resembled a power hitter (in 532 career minor league games, Peraza hit only 11 home runs), he has always earned praise for his contact ability and speed, hitting .299 across all minor league levels with only 250 strikeouts and 220 stolen bases. The 4.9% walk rate in the minors is pretty worrying, but a 10.7% strikeout rate and a consistent average with good speed tools made him a highly regarded prospect, one that the Reds fought tooth and nail for. Before the domestic abuse issues came to light, the Reds were ready to send Aroldis Chapman to the Dodgers for Jose Peraza; when that fell apart, the front office organized a three team trade with the White Sox to ensure they landed the prospect.
Upon reaching the majors, Peraza has basically played to his minor league hitting profile exactly, and Reds fans have seen the good and the bad that has come with that. Peraza has had flashes of brilliance that have shown the Reds just what he could be capable of: in September 2016, Peraza hit .330 and stole 8 bases in 28 games. He’s had streaks of weeks to even months at a time where he’s hit for a high average, legged long singles into doubles, motored his way around the basepaths, and generally looked like a solid cog in what could be a great offensive machine.
These streaks never seem to last, however, and Peraza has suffered through a sub-.700 OPS for a full season and a half now, even despite the hot streaks. A closer look at his hitting approach reveals how inevitable this regression is. The first thing to note is that Peraza never walks – like, honestly never, even during his good streaks. His 3.9% walk rate in 2017 was sixth worst in the majors last year, and even during that impressive September 2016 stretch, he only walked 5 times in 122 trips to the plate. Not walking isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Dee Gordon actually walks less than Peraza, and we’ll get to him later – but what it means is that, aside from indicating a lack of command over the strike zone, Peraza’s ability to produce at the plate is almost single handedly dominated by his BABIP. When you don’t walk at all, you hardly ever strike out, and you can’t really hit for power, you’re essentially slave to your average.
Now, I want to make a point about BABIP. A lot of people misunderstand batting average of balls in play – while it does fluctuate more than most stats, players do have a level of control over their BABIP. Fly balls go for hits more often than ground balls, and line drives more often than fly balls, meaning a player that hits more line drives is more likely to get hits and therefore should have a higher average BABIP. For example, Joey Votto hits line drives 25% of the time on his career, more than the league average 20%, which means that Votto’s career .353 BABIP isn’t a fluke, but rather a consequence of good hitting.
Peraza’s hitting profile doesn’t help him in this category. While he does hit line drives slightly more often than average – 23% of the time – he also makes a lot of soft contact. In 2017, 26% of his hits went for soft contact, against the league average 18%. Only 21% of his hits were for hard contact, against the 32% league average. He’s doing slightly better this year, hitting 25% hard balls, but still well below where he should. As a result, his .280 BABIP this year isn’t necessarily “due” to trend upwards; rather, one would expect his BABIP to have a normal value a little below average, since he doesn’t hit the ball in the air with authority as often as the average hitter.
Jose Peraza’s Potential Future
I brought up Dee Gordon earlier because when talking about how long Peraza’s leash should be, it’s important to discuss his ceiling, and I think Dee Gordon is a good place to look in that respect. Peraza is never going to be an All-Star; in fact, I think Jose Peraza’s ceiling is as a solid, reliable everyday player, and nothing more. It’s hard to build a career around a lack of walks, a lack of power, and weak contact. But it’s not impossible. In eight major league seasons, Dee Gordon has only once posted a walk rate above the average 8%, and only once posted a slugging percentage above .400. His hard contact rate is even worse than Peraza’s, a career 16.2%, and hits ground balls a remarkably high 57% of the time. Yet, he has been worth an average of 2.7 fWAR per 162 games, a perfectly acceptable (if not even above average) level for an everyday major leaguer. A large part of this is taking full advantage of his speed: Gordon has 81 bunt hits and 148 infield hits in his career. If he got bunt hits and infield hits at league average rates (34% and 6.7%, respectively), his career BABIP would be .317 rather than .344, and his career average would be .271 rather than .293. But Gordon uses his elite speed to hit safely 41% of the time for bunts and 11% of the time for infield hits, elevating what should be abysmal offensive production and turning it to just below average (career 93 wRC+). He also adds spectacular value through his defense and baserunning: since 2011, his cumulative BsR total is fourth in all of baseball according to fangraphs, behind Mike Trout, Billy Hamilton, and Rajai Davis. He is also one of the consistently highest rated defensive second basemen in the game, or was until the Mariners moved him to centerfield. This has helped elevate his performance from subpar to above average, making him a useful tool in the Marlins and Mariners lineups.
Jose Peraza’s ceiling is probably to be Dee Gordon. The two things Peraza has going for him are the same two things that Dee Gordon does: he has a fantastic ability to put the ball in play, and he is very very fast. He will never be a prototypical offensive contributor, but if he can utilize his speed to reach base more frequently, run the bases with efficiency, and play a strong defensive shortstop, he still has the ability to be a useful player on a winning team. He has wiggle room in the organization – there isn’t someone ready to take his spot right now, and the Reds are particularly easy on soft hitters if they have a good glove, not to mention he’s only 24 years old. But if his ticket to a job on this team is to reach a ceiling of “just above average”, it is probably important that he reach that ceiling sooner rather than later.