It’s hard to imagine a 22-year-old who could be in desperate need of a comeback, but entering this season’s second half, that’s exactly how we could have described Jose Peraza.
The speedy and versatile prospect had been traded twice over a four-month span in the previous year, and his stock seemed to drop with each move. Baseball America ranked Peraza as their No. 54 prospect after a breakout 2014 season that included a .339 batting average and 60 stolen bases over two stops in the Braves’ organization. He dropped to No. 66 after a less productive 2015, and while he was no longer eligible to be on the 2016 midseason list, Peraza hadn’t been wowing many observers at either the major or minor league level.
Peraza spent most of the first half with Triple-A Louisville, batting .274 with nine stolen bases in 16 attempts. Still, when the Reds called him up in mid-June, he received fairly steady playing time in a utility role. Yet by the All-Star break, Peraza was batting .246 with no extra-base hits over 69 at-bats. The one ray of hope he offered prospective fantasy owners was that he was a perfect 9-for-9 in stolen base attempts.
After the break, Peraza’s playing time dried up and on Aug. 2, he was sent back down to Louisville. It seemed improbable that he would make his mark at any point in the second half, yet an apparent breakout was just a few weeks away. Peraza was recalled on Aug. 20, and injuries to Zack Cozart and Billy Hamilton provided him with the opportunity to play regularly over the final quarter of the season. Out of the Reds’ final 41 games, Peraza was absent from the starting lineup only five times. He made the most of the opportunity, batting .366 with 11 stolen bases. He became a valuable middle infield option for fantasy owners down the stretch, ranking as a top-10 second baseman and shortstop over the final 30 days, according to ESPN’s Player Rater.
With Cozart and Brandon Phillips heading into walk years, Peraza picked a good time to show his potential value. Cozart has already been the subject of offseason trade rumors, so it seems particularly plausible that Peraza could slide right in to the starting shortstop role.
Yet, despite his strong and timely finish to the 2016 season, Peraza’s late-year run was not an unmitigated success. His rebound in batting average went a long way towards resurrecting his fantasy stock, and as a speedy player who legged out his fair share of infield hits (10 in 256 plate appearances), Peraza made a convincing case as a player who could sustain a high BABIP rate. Even so, the .406 mark he compiled over his last 39 games is certain to fall substantially next season.
Also, while Peraza had been an efficient base stealer when used more sporadically, he was highly inefficient when used as an everyday player. At Louisville, he was successful in only 10 of 17 attempts (59 percent), and over his last 39 games with the Reds, he was 11-for-20 (55 percent). To put those rates in perspective, none of the 55 major leaguers who have stolen at least 60 bases over the last five seasons combined have had a success rate below 66 percent.
A poor success rate as a rookie won’t necessarily doom Peraza to a premature decline as a base stealer. For example, Hamilton overcame a 71 percent success rate in his 2014 rookie season to post rates of 87 percent or higher in each of the last two years. Similarly, just because Peraza used his speed to produce a high BABIP and overall batting average doesn’t mean he will prove to be an above-average hitter on balls in play over the long haul.
Given the uncertainty around Peraza’s future as a source of high batting average and steals totals, there are four potential paths he could travel over the next few seasons. Because he is a superb contact hitter, it’s unlikely that Peraza will ever be a liability for batting average, but if he settles in as merely a normal BABIP hitter, he won’t be much of an asset in the category either. If Peraza improves his stolen base efficiency, he could be a perennial 30- or 40-plus stolen base threat, but if he doesn’t, he could quickly lose relevance as a steals source. Depending on how he develops in these two areas, he could fall into one of the four categories displayed in the table below.
The best possible outcome is that he consistently registers batting averages over .290 and steadily delivers 30 or more steals per season. Though neither player fit that profile this season, that’s the trajectory Lorenzo Cain and A.J. Pollock were on coming into 2016. Peraza could be that sort of player, but without the extra-base power.
Alternatively, he could be a steals specialist who can’t be counted on to help with batting average, like Hamilton or Jarrod Dyson. If he doesn’t pan out as an efficient base-stealer, Peraza’s upside could be that of a DJ LeMahieu, but he would have to be an elite BABIP hitter and learn to walk more often. If he is neither a true BABIP hitter or an efficient base-stealer, he could still follow the Elvis Andrus career path, where the occasional .300 season is possible, but he may never become a stolen base elite.
Especially with Peraza still being in his early 20s, it’s too early to know which of these paths he will follow. That means it’s too soon to speculate on him for steals in the middle rounds of standard mixed Rotisserie league drafts, even though steals are in relatively short supply. It’s also too soon to write him off as the next Joey Gathright — a one-category threat who never winds up delivering, even in a limited way. Given his strong finish, it may not be possible to snag Peraza in the endgame of next season’s drafts and auctions. If he does slide that far, that’s the appropriate point at which to take a flier on him.