Positional versatility is something that has become very important for the Milwaukee Brewers under the David Stearns’ regime. Stearns has said that part of the organization’s developmental philosophy is that “we want all of our prospects to have the ability to play multiple positions.” Stearns affirmed this position when he was asked about Orlando Arcia playing some second base in AAA earlier this season:
"We have checkpoints throughout the year where we review playing time and usage throughout the system," Stearns said. "As we got into June, we reviewed positional playing time and reemphasized the need to move guys around."
This emphasis on versatility is in play the big league level, as well. According to an article at TheAthletic.com, only five teams have a higher “flex percentage,” or frequency that a player is starting at their non-dominant position, than the Brewers 13.0% this season. Having multiple players with the ability to play more than one position gives Craig Counsell the ability to get creative with his lineups. No one is a better example of this than Hernan Perez, whose role has been akin to a Swiss Army Knife this season.
Perez hasn’t exactly followed a linear development path to success at the major league level. Signed by the Tigers as a 16 year old back in 2007, Hernan was playing in high-A ball in 2012 when his contract was purchased and he was called up to the big leagues. He received two plate appearances and collected his first big league hit, but his minor league option clock was probably started much earlier than it should have been. Perez would receive a call-up in each of the next two seasons, as well, and by 2015 he was a 24 year old with a career OPS near .400 and no minor league options remaining. After hitting .061/.088/.061 in 22 games in 2015, Detroit designated for assignment the man who ranked as their sixth-best prospect just a year earlier, according to MLB Pipeline.
Doug Melvin rolled the dice and the Brewers were awarded the waiver claim on Hernan, though while he stuck with the big league team for remainder of 2015 his .270/.281/.365 slash line failed to impress enough for Perez to keep his 40 man roster spot once the season had ended. With the Brewers rebuilding under new GM Stearns, however, Perez saw an opportunity to get back to the big leagues and rejoined the organization on a minor league contract a short time after he was outrighted.
Perez didn’t have to wait long, as after just 16 games and an .848 OPS in Colorado Springs, he was added to the 40 man roster and recalled to replace the injured Scooter Gennett in late April. He’s taken advantage of the opportunity, earning himself regular at-bats while posting a .283/.309/.454 slash line with 11 home runs and 23 steals in 86 games, good for a near-league average 96 wRC+.
Most of Hernan’s work early on this year came at third base (his best defensive position), but once it became clear that Domingo Santana was going to miss an extended period of time Perez began taking reps in right field, giving Counsell a right-handed hitting option in the outfield along with Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Ramon Flores. He’s also made starts at second base, shortstop, and first base and has been a defensive replacement in left field.
When Santana returned to action last week, Counsell assured the press that “Hernan is going to play,” noting that his ability to cover multiple positions made it easier to find places to put his bat in the lineup. According to the Brewers.com depth chart, Perez is listed as a starter or backup at four different positions so there are plenty of lineup variations that can be made to ensure his bat is included.
Overall, Perez has been about a net neutral defensively this year, turning in better-than-average marks at first base and third base according to Defensive Runs Saved while grading out at average or slightly below at second, shortstop, and right field (though obviously small sample size caveats apply here). The fact that he is a passable defender at five or six positions is what’s important, however. He’s not a significant detriment to the team no matter where he’s playing in the field.
Quietly, Perez has been one of the best baserunners in the league this season. His 23 steals rank ninth-best across the entire MLB and he’s been caught just four times for a success rate of 85%. He’s also been adept at taking the extra base when possible and his 4.8 baserunning runs rank 15th-best in the league despite the fact that everyone ahead of him has played in 104 or more games. Perez’s pure speed grades out only as average, so credit him for being an intelligent baserunner who knows when to pick his spots to be aggressive.
Some improvements at the plate will hopefully mean that Perez can sustain something close to his current batting line going forward. He’s never walked much in his minor league or major league career, so it’s likely his batting average will be the main driver of his OBP. That doesn’t mean he isn’t selective at the plate, however. Perez has reduced his swings at pitches both outside and inside the zone this season. As a result, he’s making less contact on pitches outside the zone - pitches that generally aren’t good to hit - and he’s also seen his swinging strike rate reduced. Perez has also seen a marked increase in his contact on pitches within the zone, lending to better batted ball results: Perez is sporting a well above-average 35.4% hard hit rate. That quality contact makes it difficult to see his career-best .328 BABIP as pure luck.
Perez has also started elevating the ball a good deal more than he did last season, increasing his fly-ball percentage to 37.0% from 34.5% in 2015. More fly balls combined with a greater rate of hard contact has naturally lead to an increase in dingers, and the 11 home runs Hernan has hit this season are more than he has hit in any previous full season at any level. His HR/FB ratio of 14.3% is a bit higher than the league average of 13.0% this season, but not so much that it’s obviously unsustainable.
Hernan Perez earned himself an opportunity to get some regular playing time in the big leagues this season and he’s thrived. If Perez can sustain the improvements he’s made at the major league level this year, he could be a 15 homer/15 stolen base threat with regular playing time. The fact that he has shown the ability to play all over the diamond only increases his value. Perez, who will have another four years of club control after this season, is certainly making an impression on the organization this year and could be carving himself out a role going forward as something like a poor man’s Ben Zobrist.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs