BRADENTON, Fla. -- It was no place for a young pitcher, not even a wide-eyed wunderkind.
It was Denver's Coors Field, the hitters' paradise of baseball with its mile-high air and mammoth gaps. To boot, it was a brisk 39 degrees on a mid-May night. And into the box for a fourth-inning at-bat stepped Vinny Castilla, revving up his resurgent 2004 season with the Colorado Rockies.
Somehow, this scenario was on the verge of turning into a laughing matter in favor of Oliver Perez.
Humberto Cota, the Pirates' catcher, does not make a habit of hey-batter-batter bantering. But he makes the odd exception for a fellow Mexican, and he found that he could not resist offering a playful prediction to Castilla.
"He comes up to the plate, and I tell him in Spanish, 'You know, you're not going to hit my guy today.' " Cota recalled. "He says, 'Oh, yeah?' I tell him, 'No way. Wait till you see what he's got coming here. No chance.' He just shook his head."
Three pitches later, Castilla still was shaking his head.
Still speaking Spanish, too.
Only he was muttering to himself on the way back to the dugout after a failed, flailing attempt at a patented Perez slider that nosedived violently under his bat.
"As a catcher, you try not to laugh," Cota said. "But some of the stuff that hitters say after Oliver gets them is pretty funny."
He grinned at the thought.
"We hear all kinds of bad things about Oliver, you know? And then, the next day in the paper, they're comparing him to Randy Johnson."
Perez went the distance in the Pirates' 11-2 rout that night. No other opponent pitched a nine-inning complete game at Coors last season.
Still, by year's end, that performance would blur into so many others of equal or superior caliber. Enough to convince more than a few in the baseball fraternity that, at age 23, Perez is on the fast track to joining the game's elite.
Not the current elite.
The elite of Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove and Steve Carlton, the greatest left-handers in history.
And no one laughs when they say it.
Perez did not emerge as a consistent major-league starter until last season, but his talent was discovered much earlier.
The San Diego Padres paid $40,000 in 1999 to gain his rights from Gustalvo Ricaldi, owner of the Yucatan Leones of Mexico's top professional league. Perez was 17.
Shortly after that, Mike Brito, the Los Angeles Dodgers scout who signed Fernando Valenzuela, advised Padres general manager Kevin Towers that he had just landed Mexico's most gifted pitcher since Valenzuela.
The opinion was shared by many.
"Everyone could see he had a great arm. But what set him apart was that he was so confident," said Ricardo Gama, a teammate of Perez at the time and now a member of agent Scott Boras' company that represents him. "We knew he could be great. Everyone in Mexico did."
When Perez made his San Diego debut June 16, 2002, he was 20, the youngest player in the majors. He hardly looked out of place, though, earning victories in his first two starts against the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, the opponents in the American League Championship Series the previous year. In the latter, he outdueled David Wells before a home crowd of 55,858, prompting Padres pitcher Alan Embree to tell reporters: "You had Fernandomania. How about Olliemania?"
Perez struck out 13 in Colorado a month later, stuck out the year in San Diego, and his future appeared golden.
But an erratic opening to his 2003 season contributed to the Padres demoting him to Class AAA by May, just after he was pounded for seven runs in three innings by the Pirates. He came back up in mid-June but fluctuated from brilliance to butchery.
After an 0-3 run, the Padres traded him to the Pirates Aug. 26, along with future National League rookie of the year Jason Bay and prospect Cory Stewart, for All-Star Brian Giles. San Diego management, preparing to move into a new ballpark, coveted a veteran standout.
The move mostly was panned in Pittsburgh as yet another salary dump by the Pirates, and the immediate reaction was little better from Perez, who was disappointed to leave San Diego. He even made the naive offer to Padres manager Bruce Bochy to stay for one more night after the trade and fulfill his next scheduled start.
"It was a surprise," Perez said. "I didn't know what to expect from the Pirates."
The Pirates did not know what to expect from Perez, either.
"We knew we gave up a good player in Giles, and we weren't sure how Ollie would work in the majors," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "But we knew he had great talent."Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
What do batters see when Oliver Perez is on the mound? A blur is a common answer.
Click photo for larger image.
Bob Veale, 1962
Click photo for larger image.
Oliver Perez: Big "O"
Oliver Perez's numbers for 2004 -- his first full season with the Pirates:
Earned run average
Perez's 2004 Highlights
Ranked 6th in the NL in earned run average (2.98)
Ranked 4th in the NL in strikeouts
Recorded his first career shutout April 25 vs. the Reds, 6-0.
Struck out a career best 14 batters Sept. 9 in beating the Astros, 3-1. The 14 strikeouts were the most by a Pirate pitcher since April 1985 (Jose DeLeon, 14 vs. Mets).
More than Oh-K
The top 10 strikeout seasons in Pirates history:
Bob Veale, 1965
Bob Veale, 1964250
Oliver Perez, 2004
Bob Veale, 1966
Bob Veale, 1969
Larry McWilliams, 1983
Kris Benson, 2000
Bob Friend, 1960
Bert Blyleven, 1978
Bob Veale, 1967
Spin and polish
No one was more eager to work with Perez than pitching coach Spin Williams, although it did not take long to realize that he was facing perhaps the most significant challenge of his career.
Perez had a blazing fastball that regularly hit 98 mph on the radar gun, rare for a left-hander, along with a devastating slider and blossoming curveball. He overflowed with confidence in his ability to attack hitters. The raw material, without question, was there.
But the control was not: The mechanics were a spastic mess. The problem was not that Perez did not know how to pitch. It was that he did it so many different ways, mostly without reason. He had multiple arm angles, motions, release points, even leg kicks.
Variety can be a pitcher's friend in the sense of mixing up pitches, but it does no good to have inconsistent delivery. Not in getting the ball to the catcher's mitt. And certainly not in terms of preventing wear on the arm, which was the Pirates' primary concern.
"I could see an injury coming if he kept going the way he did, and something needed to be done about it," Williams said. "For him to move his arm angles, really, was the big worry. If you drop your arm below where you're used to pitching, that creates a drag in your motion and, as a result, more strain on your elbow. A pitcher's elbow needs to be strong and healthy, needless to say."
Management closely monitored Perez for the rest of 2003 -- he went 0-3 with a 5.87 ERA in five starts -- and again in spring training, but advice was limited to minor suggestions.
That changed March 19, 2004, in Fort Myers, Fla., where Perez blew up in an exhibition against the Boston Red Sox by allowing five runs in 1 2/3 innings.
Williams pulled Perez aside that day and told him it was time for a fresh start. He instructed Perez to be at Bradenton's McKechnie Field early the next morning and every morning thereafter for the duration of spring training.
Together, they worked on rebuilding every aspect of his pitching motion. Using a white towel in place of the ball at first to minimize strain, Perez followed through again and again in an attempt to make his deliveries uniform. Then, he did more of the same while holding a ball and with different pitches.
"I wouldn't call it a total reconstruct of his mechanics," Williams said. "But it was an adjustment to just about everything."
The timing complicated the process. The Pirates were two weeks away from opening the season, and Perez was no better than an even bet to make the major-league roster.
"I had to make a lot of changes, and I still wanted to make the team," Perez said. "I was thinking about both of those things at the same time."
The angst could have mounted with his next exhibition outing, March 25 against the Cincinnati Reds in Sarasota, Fla. He gave up four runs in three innings, and his fastball was clocked 10 mph slower than usual.
"That outing right there told me a lot about him," Williams said. "He could have been discouraged by the results and decided that his old way was better. But that's not what happened. He realized that he did everything we wanted from him out there. His mechanics were terrific, even if the results weren't. And he stuck with it."
The rest of the season, as Pittsburgh baseball fans would come to know, was magical.
He became the staff ace with a 12-10 record, a 2.98 ERA that ranked sixth in the National League and a total of 239 strikeouts that ranked fourth. His average of 10.97 strikeouts per nine innings was highest in the majors and a figure that only seven other pitchers in history have matched. He struck out 10 or more batters in a game nine times, including a career-best 14 against the hard-hitting Houston Astros Sept. 9 at PNC Park.
All that, and he managed to limit his walks to 81, a reasonable average of 3.7 per nine innings.
The transformation impressed those who share a uniform with him significantly more than it did his head-shaking opponents.
"You look at where Ollie was last spring, and you didn't know what you were going to get," fellow starter Josh Fogg said. "But, just like that, it seemed, he got as sound mechanically as you can be. And when you're a guy throwing 97-98 mph with a dirty slider, if you can locate your pitches the way he was, that's a heck of a package."
Fogg is one of many in the organization who credit Williams.
"Spin deserves the credit for that," McClendon said. "I think my pitching coach is as good as anybody in this league as far as teaching. He does a fine job with all our young pitchers, and he did a great one with Ollie."
Williams wants none of it.
"That kid attacked the problem," Williams said. "He went after it the same way he goes after hitters."
Mining for more
The foundation for a great pitcher, naturally, is a great arm. Not a strong arm, necessarily, but the one with the ability to pass through the pitching zone with the greatest speed.
Which is why Perez can throw 98 mph while pitchers who can bench-press twice as much struggle to hit 90 mph.
"Bigger, stronger has nothing to do with it," said Will Carroll, author of "Saving the Pitcher," a book that studies pitchers' anatomies. "Perez, like so few others, has a natural ability to control the entire kinetic chain and move his arm at 2,300 degrees per second, placing the ball at spots inside a rectangle roughly the size of a book. It's part genetics, part luck, and part practice, but all magic when it comes together."
Even if it is immaterial in terms of velocity, Perez is visibly bigger this spring, having bulked up his once spindly frame to 6 feet 2, 205 pounds in the past year. As McClendon observed in the opening week of camp, "Look at him. He's a man now." That could help his coordination and consistency.
Another element that separates great pitchers from good is their deception factor.
That is how baseball insiders describe the ability to prevent the batter from seeing the ball until late in the motion. It can be the arm coming across the body late or the wrist flicking in a manner that keeps the ball hidden a fraction of a second longer.
Versatility is important, too.
Perez threw 65 percent fastballs last season, which is understandable given that his average of 93 mph was sixth-best in the league. But he was no less effective with his slider, which many opponents have compared to Randy Johnson's. It has a dramatic bite that often leaves batters looking like golfers whiffing in sand traps. He also has a reliable curveball that can travel as slow as 75 mph and make for a dramatic shift in the batter's timing, plus a two-seam fastball that offers more movement than the conventional version.
He is tinkering with a changeup, too, but it might not be used regularly for a while.
Add all that to the command Perez displayed last season, plus his palpable comfort with being an ace, and the result would appear to be an advantage for the pitcher that borders on unfair.
"It's fair for us," Williams said, smiling. "It's nice for the Pittsburgh Pirates to have that guy who has all that. And make no mistake: Ollie has it all. He's got a tremendous amount of talent, something very few guys can say. He's so good that it's essentially up to him to be what he can be. If he continues to grow ... it's scary where he can go."
To get there, though, Perez will need to show that his command of 2004 -- the first sustained span of his career without control trouble -- was no aberration.
"He's not out of the woods by any means," Williams said. "When you pitched the way he did for as long as he did, you have to stay on guard."
Perez also must invest more time analyzing batters' tendencies, those close to him say, through scouting reports and video breakdowns. He has done little of that in the past.
"What's the most impressive thing about what Oliver's done, in my mind, is that he doesn't think about who the hitter is that he's facing," Cota said. "He thinks he doesn't need to study hitters. He thinks he can just overpower them."
Cota, Perez's closest friend on the team, paused and shook his head.
"Well ... he's right, OK? He can do it without those things. But he needs to do better. He's a No. 1 pitcher now. We need him. He's going to be lined up against the other team's best pitcher most of the time. Hitters are going to learn more about him. He works hard on getting himself prepared physically, but he needs to do more of this to get even better."
Perez did not dispute Cota's assessment.
"I must continue to work hard and do more to help the team. I know that," he said. "I'm looking more at the things I did bad last year, so I don't do them again. I don't like to make mistakes."
Perez, however, is resisting the Pirates' wish to see him sacrifice strikeouts to keep his pitch count low and last longer in his starts. He pitched more than seven innings only six times in his 30 starts last season despite averaging 104.5 pitches per outing, fifth-most in the league.
Williams is urging Perez to expend less energy to record outs.
"I don't care about strikeouts. I care about zeroes every inning," Williams said. "Strikeouts are Oliver's thing, and I know that. He loves them. But, as I've told him many times, he can't strike somebody out until he gets two strikes."
Sometimes, of course, a strikeout is best, particularly when men are on base. Perez allowed batters to hit just .180 against him with runners in scoring position last season.
"There are some pitchers who give up a couple of runs and go back to the dugout and say, 'OK, guys, pick me up.' Ollie tries to strike everybody out," Cota said. "I keep telling him, 'You can't do that.' But he does it."
For all the adjustments Perez has embraced at the Pirates' behest, he is not convinced of the need to lower the strikeout total.
"I can't change that. I don't want to change that," he said. "I have to go out there and think I'm going to strike out the batter. Sometimes, I can think about the ground ball, if I need a double play. But I think about strikeouts. I always will be like that."
One advantage to being a strikeout pitcher is that people remember your name. And, as was evident last summer in Pittsburgh when his starts were drawing record walk-up crowds, people want to watch you work.
Both of which could contribute to a legacy of greatness in years to come, should Perez fulfill the enormous expectations that surround him.
Some, including Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, are cautious when predicting Perez's future.
"Let's not forget: We were here, a year ago in spring training, all kind of scratching our heads that this talented guy is continuing to show his inconsistency," he said. "Well, this guy regrouped, got it together and had a fantastic year. Can it revert back to some degree? Sure. We've seen too many examples. My belief is that it's not going to go that way, but there's a possibility."
One National League scout called Perez "an outstanding young pitcher" but cautioned that trying to rifle each pitch through the catcher's mitt is no way to establish the longevity or effectiveness needed for greatness.
"Oliver needs to use his off-speed stuff a little more to take some pressure off his arm," the scout said. "His changeup is a good pitch. He just doesn't use it enough. He tends to take the challenge of the bigger hitters, the better hitters -- Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, those guys -- and say, 'Here, see if you can hit this.' As he matures, I think he'll realize that changeup's probably going to be his best friend. My big concern about Oliver is his health in the future because there's a lot of effort in his delivery."
Others, however, already are comparing him to the most decorated left-handers in the game's history. And the numbers help their case.
Derek Jacques, contributor to the Baseball Prospectus online site, produced the following:
Perez's 2004 showing was the ninth-best by any 22-year-old left-hander since 1900, when statistics are adjusted for differences in the various eras. The top two: Frank Tanana in 1976 and Babe Ruth in 1917.
Of the six 22-year-old left-handers the Pirates have had in their 118-year history, Perez took second to Frank Killen, who went 36-14 in 1893.
Perez's strikeout pace of 10.97 per nine innings was the third-best in history among players his age -- only Kerry Wood and Dwight Gooden were better -- and the 22nd best since World War II when adjusted for eras.
Some of the greatest left-handers of all time -- Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Whitey Ford and Randy Johnson -- were not even in the majors at age 22.
Ask Perez's teammates, and they tend not to hesitate in predicting greatness.
"What he did last year was pretty impressive," shortstop Jack Wilson said. "But if he can improve -- and I think we all believe he can -- the sky's the limit for him."
"There won't be anyone in our league who is more dominant, not with Randy Johnson pitching for the Yankees now," Fogg said. "There's nothing he can't do."
Ask the old-timers of the organization, and their answers are much the same.
"I compare Oliver to John Candelaria, and I consider Candy to be one of the best pitchers in the history of game," said Chuck Tanner, manager of the Pirates' 1979 championship team and now a scout for the Cleveland Indians. "On top of all that talent, he's a real competitor. Can he be great? Oh, yeah, why not?"
"I know he has the stuff to be great," said Bill Virdon, center fielder on the Pirates' 1960 championship team and a lifelong baseball man. "To be able to say he's Koufax? I can't do that yet. I know Koufax, saw him for a lot of years. As Pirates, we can all root for Oliver to be that type of pitcher. And we can be realistic in doing so because he does have that type of talent."
Ask Perez, though, and the concept of greatness gives way to a discussion of improving for his next start.
"I hear about all those names ... Koufax ... Randy Johnson. I had one good year," he said. "I am having fun. I used to try to put too much pressure on myself. Not now. It's a good game. You have to enjoy it. I am going to enjoy my next game."
That would be the Pirates' home opener Monday against the Milwaukee Brewers, his first chance to start a season as staff ace.
No pressure there?
"To me, it is fun. I love to pitch in Pittsburgh, how they came to see me last year. If you know people are coming there to watch you, you feel happy. It's an honor that people come to watch me pitch. I hope they can enjoy it again. That is all I am thinking about. I'm not worried about Koufax or Randy Johnson."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1938.