shut out the A's on Wednesday and has now thrown 26 consecutive scoreless innings. (Ben Margot/AP)
The Rangers entered this season with their rotation in tatters due to injuries, but they enter play on Thursday with the AL's best record at 14-8. That's thanks largely to the work of 23-year-old lefty Martin Perez, who is 4-0 with a 1.42 ERA and, more impressively, has not allowed a run in his last three starts.
His most recent gem came on Wednesday when he shut out the A's in Oakland. In doing so, Perez became the first pitcher to toss back-to-back complete game shutouts since Cole Hamels in August 2012, and the first AL pitcher to do it since teammate Derek Holland in July 2011. Furthermore, he joins a very short list of pitchers to string together two shutouts while allowing three hits or fewer during the post-1992 expansion era:
Including his eight shutout innings against the Astros on April 13, Perez is riding a streak of 26 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest in the majors this year. He's one of just 13 pitchers to throw three straight scoreless starts of eight innings or more in the post-1992 period. His ERA now ranks third in the league, and his 291 ERA+ is second.
Perez hasn't exactly been dominant during this stretch, at least in terms of missing bats. Although he whiffed eight White Sox on April 18, he struck out just two Astros while walking three, and against the A's he walked two and struck out three, getting just five swings and misses. His overall strikeout rate this year is 5.4 per nine; among the 117 starters with at least 20 innings pitched, his 17.0 percent K rate ranks 90th. However, he's walked just 2.1 batters per nine, and he's been particularly tough once he gets to two strikes; via ESPN Stats and Information, opposing batters are just 1-for-36 against him in those situations.
Beyond that, Perez has been the beneficiary of excellent defensive support. Despite the fact that Rangers infielders Jurickson Profar and Adrian Beltre have spent more time on the disabled list than on the active roster, the team has backed him for a .255 batting average on balls in play. Perez has been working that defense — with Donnie Murphy, Josh Wilson and AL Player of the Week Kevin Kouzmanoff patching things up — quite extensively; via FanGraphs, his 60.8 percent groundball rate is the majors' third-highest behind teammate Robbie Ross (62.7 percent) and the Reds' Mike Leake (62.1 percent). Perez has done such a good job of keeping the ball on the ground that he has yet to allow a home run. Only two other pitchers have thrown at least 30 innings without yielding a longball, and his 38 innings trumps the 34 of Hyun-Jin Ryu and the 31 2/3 of Aaron Harang, with Mark Buehrle's 28 the next-closest total among AL pitchers.
In all, it's an impressive follow-up to Perez's rookie season last year, when he posted a 3.62 ERA (114 ERA+) across 20 starts and 124 1/3 innings after starting the season on the disabled list due to a batted ball-induced fractured ulna in his pitching arm. The run has been Texas' reward for its patience in not rushing him to the majors ever since he cracked the Baseball America Top 100 prospects list at No. 86 back in 2009, when he was headed into his age-18 season. Perez is the rare prospect to make five BA lists, and yet he just turned 23. Moreover, his performance has made general manager Jon Daniels and the rest of the front office look particularly wise for locking him up last November via a club-friendly four-year, $12.5 million deal that tacks on three club options: $6 million for 2018, $7.5 million for 2019 and $9 million for 2020.
Perez's shutout enabled the Rangers to take over first place in the AL West as well as the league's best record. They're a half-game ahead of Oakland (13-8) in both, despite being outscored by one run (95-94). Already this year, they're a sizzling 7-2 in one-run games; it's their 16-2 loss to the White Sox on April 20 — their only defeat in the last nine games — that has them in the red. Remove that game from the balance sheet and their .576 Pythagorean winning percentage is at least in the ballpark of their actual winning percentage of .636. Texas' offense and pitching have both been middle-of-the-pack in terms of production; in the rotation, Perez, Yu Darvish (1.61 ERA) and Ross (2.31 ERA) have picked up the slack for Tanner Scheppers and Joe Saunders, both of whom are now on the disabled list and have posted identical 9.82 ERAs. Fortunately for the team, Colby Lewis recently returned to the fold with his first two major league starts since July 2012. Holland isn't likely to be back until June, while Harrison is scheduled to come off the DL to start against the Mariners this Sunday.
As for Perez as impressive as he has been lately it's still far too early to think of his hot streak in historic terms, as he's less than halfway to Orel Hershiser's record 59-inning scoreless streak. His upcoming start is a return engagement against the A's early next week, when he'll try to become the first pitcher to string together three straight shutouts since Cliff Lee
in June 2011 and/or the first pitcher with at least four straight scoreless starts of any length since Ryan Dempster
, who had five in June and July of 2012.