Alay Soler or Oliver Perez?

It’s still early in the auditions, and there is plenty of time for the Mets’ starting pitching candidates to impress or flounder. However, it’s never too early to evaluate performance, and to make bold and brash predictions. How else can a Mets blogger look like a fool, and incite furious reaction?

So here is my outlandish statement for March 6th: Alay Soler is currently ahead of Oliver Perez.

Insanity? Maybe. But I do have some logic behind it.

To start, we all need to forget what Oliver Perez did in the postseason, because it’s clouding our collective judgment. And to be realistic, his heroic October performances weren’t really all that.

Yes, he showed enormous courage and fighting spirit in taking the mound in those big playoff games. And he did perform well beyond our expectations. But let’s remember, those expectations were very low, as they were based on his wild inconsistency and 6.55 ERA in the regular season. We hoped and prayed he’d get through to the third inning without walking the world or giving up two grand slams. So when he turned out six spectacular innings in Game 7 of the NLCS, we were beyond ecstatic.

Add that Game 7 to his Game 4 win and we have a #3 starter, right? Not really. Even if you look at the NLCS in a vacuum, and assume Perez will continue to pitch at that level in 2007, he still wasn’t all that great. In two starts, he pitched 11 2/3 innings — that’s a hair under six innings per start. In those nearly 12 innings he gave up 13 hits and 3 walks for a 1.75 WHIP. His ERA was 4.63. Read over those numbers again with the perspective that they represent the best, most heroic pitching he did all year. (I’m removing the shutout vs. the Braves because we’re judging Ollie on his postseason, not his 3-13, 6.55 regular season.)

Now, move from the postseason vacuum to the spring training vacuum. It’s difficult to judge performance and numbers in spring training for a variety of reasons — pitchers getting themselves into shape, not yet sharp, working on pitches, facing minor leaguers, etc. All we can do is watch the pitcher’s mechanics, his command, and the way he carries himself. Based on his first two spring training games, my evaluation is that Oliver Perez is having trouble. This goes completely against what the newspapers were saying was a “solid” outing for Ollie, but I’m not judging him by the number of minor leaguers he can get out. I’m judging what I see from Perez alone.

First and foremost, his mechanics are a mess. He’s flying open on nearly every pitch and is unable to find a consistent release point. As a result, his pitches are flat and up — nearly every pitch he throws is up and away to a RH batter. Yes, he pitched “well” in his last game, but only numerically. His command was nonexistent, as he often missed his location and could not repeat his motion. He was aided by the fact that the wind was blowing in and mostly AAA batters were chasing bad pitches. On occasion he threw a nasty, moving fastball or breaking pitch, and he did drop in one or two beautiful changeups — this is why we love Ollie, and what makes us wish he’ll find himself. When he’s on, he could be devastating. However, he’s more often off than on — that is a fact following him for two years and continuing so far this spring.

It appears that Perez is trying to keep his front shoulder closed; unfortunately, the shoulder flying open is a symptom rather than the root of his problems. If you watch him, his best pitches — the ones that dive and drop and move like hell — happen when his follow-through carries his upper body toward third base, and his face is actually looking into the third-base stands. When he forces himself to stay closed and follow through more toward home plate, his pitches flatten. Instead of trying to stay closed, he should instead start his motion more square to the plate. Take a look at him when he lifts his knee to start his motion, and you will see his shoulder is pointed toward somewhere near the first-base-side on-deck circle, instead of closer to home plate. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, so that severe angle closed is going to cause a severe angle open — hence the crazy follow-through toward third base.

Rick Peterson is getting paid six figures to coach pitchers while I hack away at a keyboard, so you may scoff at my evaluation. However, other great pitching coaches have seen similar issues, so I don’t think I’m too far off. It’s clear (to me, anyway) that Ollie needs to make a decision: either start his motion square to the plate and stay closed, or forget about trying to stay closed and shake hands with David Wright after every pitch. It’s up to Peterson which route makes more sense, and up to Perez to take that route every pitch. So far, he’s in off-road mode. Further, his inability to find the “right” motion leads him to be wild, and that lack of control is leading to confidence issues — you can see the tightness and concern on his face, as he’s nowhere near comfortable nor relaxed with himself.

In contrast, Alay Soler’s mechanics look fairly solid. They’re not perfect, but they work for him, and he repeats them easily. Every pitch he has the same timing, a consistent release point, and a good follow-through. As a result, his command has been good to very good in both of his outings this spring. His fastball has had good downward movement, and he’s been spotting it successfully on both sides of the plate. He’s also been showing a sharp 11-5 curveball with good bite, and mixing in a change-up with good fade down and away. His stuff, overall, is not outstanding, but it is solid. He’s looking comfortable and confident on the mound, and he’s been in control of the tempo — which has been quick, something that is a plus for the defense. These are all positive points, the types of things you like to see from a pitcher early in spring training. That’s why, at this point, I rate Soler ahead of Perez.

In three weeks, it could be a completely different story. The light bulb may go off and Ollie may find the groove that brings him back to 2004 (certainly, it’s what we’re all hoping and cheering for). At the same time, Alay Soler might hit some rough spots and let his emotions overtake his performance — the very thing that forced him out of the bigs last year. But right now, if I had to decide who was going north, it would be Alay and not Ollie.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.