By no means is Michael Perez a soft-spoken guy. Let’s just say he lets his game do all the talking.
The starting catcher for the Missoula Osprey is having a breakout season, his second as a professional, but you’d be hard-pressed to hear him bragging about it.
Perez, who hails from Catano, Puerto Rico, keeps his thoughts mostly to himself around strangers. It’s obvious Perez is uncomfortable with the language barrier even though his homeland is a territory of the United States and English is commonplace.
“He’s the best English-speaking Latino player on the team and he’s very smart, very articulate in Spanish,” says Alex Herrnberger, who serves as the Osprey video coordinator as well as one of the team’s interpreters. “He’s smart about the game of baseball. He’s definitely a student of the game.”
Which is why Perez often finds himself holding back.
“Whenever he speaks English he struggles to find the correct phrasing that he needs to use in order to explain his answers,” Herrnberger adds. “He’s nervous about being portrayed as ... ignorant. He doesn’t want to give the impression that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, when actually he does. Because in English it’s hard for him to express himself.”
That’s where baseball comes in. Perez has drawn praise for his heads-up play, including a game earlier this summer when he noticed that an opponent, Helena’s Raul Mondesi Jr., missed home plate on a what would have been a game-tying home run in extra innings. Perez called for the ball and appealed the play. Mondesi was called out and the Osprey won.
“I want to make sure that I’m attentive to every little thing,” says Perez, through Herrnberger. “I know that as the catcher I’m the only one that can see the whole field and I want to make sure that I am ... keeping my attention on every little thing, just like Mondesi missing home plate. If something little happens I want to make sure I don’t miss it.”
Perez, who just turned 20 on Saturday, is certainly doing all the little things right so far.
Heading into Saturday’s game, he ranks second in the Pioneer League in slugging (.610), seventh in homers (5) and is among the top 15 in batting average (.325).
Perez has also thrown out 18 of 33 baserunners (55 percent) attempting to steal, which leads the league. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound backstop says his defense is what he takes the most pride in. Never was that more evident than on June 25 in Helena.
The Osprey and Brewers were scoreless through nine innings of play. It was just the eighth game of the season.
Ty Linton hit a two-run home run in the top of the 10th inning to put Missoula ahead, but the home team appeared to answer with their own two-run blast in the bottom half of the frame. Unfortunately, Mondesi got so caught up in the excitement of the play that he stepped right over home plate at the end.
A few seconds later there was a bunch of commotion around Perez.
“Some guys in the dugout obviously saw it, too,” Herrnberger says, “but I’ve watched the video numerous times since then and he was the one who, as soon as (Mondesi) crossed home plate, (Perez) looked at him, then he looked down and then he just started pointing and yelling.”
And even though it’s funny now – Herrnberger says it’s hard to explain a “heads-up” play to Perez – the Osprey are lucky their catcher had his head down.
“I don’t know why, but something made me watch the plate,” says Perez while recounting the story with Herrnberger’s help. “I was just kind of kicking myself, like ‘Oh crap, I can’t believe that just happened,’ and something just made me look down at home plate. When I saw his foot go over home plate I said, holy ... , throw me the ball.”
Herrnberger, who played catcher for the O’s in 2009, says that’s the norm for Perez.
“He definitely displays that student-of-baseball mentality, that articulateness, that heads-up intelligence in the way he plays,” Herrnberger says. “Our pitching coordinator, our pitching coach, our manager, they all agree that he calls a very good game. He understands the hitter, he understands the swing. He knows where to go, what to do on most counts. He’s still young and he’s still learning, but he’s ahead of some other guys in the organization in his age group at the position.”
Perez is one of the top 10 prospects in the D-backs organization this year, according to rankings done by MLB.com.
Perez says that’s cool and all, but it won’t affect the way he approaches the game going forward.
“It makes me happy, but more importantly it gives me a little bit of strength and confidence to work harder because my dream is to work my way up the ladder and get into the big leagues, hopefully. Them putting confidence in me gives me more reason to work hard,” Perez said. “But even if I wasn’t a top prospect, even if they didn’t have a lot of confidence in me, I would still work hard. It wouldn’t matter to me because I enjoy playing the game and I want to work hard at it.”
Perez already displays more pop in his bat than former Osprey and fellow prospects Raywilly Gomez, who is 22, and Fidel Pena, 21. Gomez, who played in Missoula in 2009, has three home runs in 84 games this season with the Visalia Rawhide, the Advanced A team in the Arizona farm system. Both Pena and Roidany Aguila, who played for the O’s last season, are now with Class A South Bend. Aguila, 21, smacked 12 homers a year ago, but doesn’t rate as high as Perez in athleticism and defense.
One of the reasons the Diamondbacks re-signed Miguel Montero to a big contract this offseason is that several people in the organization didn’t believe there was a viable replacement coming up behind Montero and quality starting catchers are hard to find at the major league level. Montero, who played two years in Missoula, has been the starting catcher in Arizona since 2007.
Perez, who projects to be big-league ready by 2015, says he’s met Montero and he tries to model his work ethic after the veteran catcher.
“Miguel is a nice guy, a good guy. He works hard and that’s what I try to do,” Perez says. “My dream is to work hard and hopefully I can get to where I want to be as soon as possible.”
But that’s where the comparison ends, because Montero, after all, is from Venezuela.
Perez says his hometown is one of the smallest towns in Puerto Rico, even though it is right across the bay from San Juan.
There wasn’t a lot to do in Catano growing up, he says, except hang out with your friends.
And play baseball.
Perez attended the Colegio Vocacional Para Adultos in nearby Bayamon, P.R., and was drafted in the fifth round of the 2011 MLB draft. He signed late in the year and was sent to the Arizona League, where he played in just seven games. Perez raised some eyebrows, however, by batting .280 with four extra-base hits, including a pair of home runs. The entry level league, at least for most of the D-backs’ Latino players, was also where Perez started to hone his craft as a catcher.
The heady Perez sums up his catching philosophy.
“I’m trying to do to the hitter what he would expect the pitcher to do to him,” says Perez through Herrnberger. “If I call a fastball and the pitcher doesn’t want it, OK, well I’ll call a curveball. I’ll let him do his game, but if I’m real confident in a pitch, like if we need to throw an outside fastball right now because that’s what’s going to get this guy out, I’m going to say fastball. You gotta throw a fastball here. I’m trying to think like a hitter while I’m catching.”
One of Perez’s favorite things to do is watch major league games on TV, but really study what the catchers are doing on each play.
Perhaps one day, future Osprey players will be watching Perez play on TV.
And talking about it.