Martin Perez is familiar with the class system in high schools and colleges, but the left-hander had never heard of the sophomore slump.
Maybe that’s because he has avoided, at least so far, the pitfalls that can trap major leaguers in their second season.
In a pitcher’s case, that could be not making adjustments as opposing teams make adjustments against him or taking his success for granted.
Not only has Perez avoided any slips, but he also has been the one of the two most reliable Texas Rangers starters through 21 games this season, a trend he hopes to continue Wednesday in the series finale against Oakland.
The sophomore can credit his success to becoming a terrific student of the game but only after learning how to control his emotions on the mound.
“I feel like I’m the same guy, but I’ve got more experience,” Perez said. “If you know how you need to pitch, you can have a better career and a longer career. You have to be consistent and work hard every day and work to get better every day.”
Perez is 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA after four starts and is coming off his first career shutout Friday. He has worked quickly yet takes a deliberate pre-pitch routine that has helped him control his emotions and allows him to survey what is happening in the game.
The Rangers gave him a plan that was implemented last year by Triple A Round Rock pitching coach Brad Holman after Perez made a spot start last May. The results were immediate, and Perez won 10 games as a rookie after he was recalled in June.
“Last year, he started to understand what nerves and emotions are and how to contain them,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “He’s prepared to make every pitch that he makes now as opposed to when he first came up.”
Perez also has bought into studying between starts, utilizing video and scouting reports and committing to memory what hitters do against him. But he also has a feel for what is happening during games and can apply what he has learned from one game to the next.
“He’s growing up that way,” Maddux said. “He knows what to look for now. Sometimes we watch video and we just see it as a cartoon, essentially. You have to know what you’re looking for and how to decipher the information you’re seeing.”
Take Perez’s April 8 start at Boston, where he allowed four runs in 6 1/3 innings. But three of the Red Sox’s runs came in the seventh inning after the Rangers had staked him to a 9-1 lead.
Perez admitted that he didn’t execute the pitches he needed to make because his focus had slipped.
On Friday, Perez pitched with a lead that grew to 12-0, but there was no letting up against the White Sox. Chicago got three hits in nine innings.
“I just do what the situation shows me,” Perez said. “You can’t assume the game. You have to make adjustments in any situation. You have to have good concentration on every pitch and every out. That’s hard when you have 12 runs.”
Perez, though, is making it look easy at the ripe age of 23.
He has pitched out of trouble in his past two starts thanks to the double play, nine of them courtesy of a sinking fastball and a plus-changeup that has baited hitters into 20 strikeouts in four starts.
But Perez always goes back to being focused and doing what he needs to do to execute every pitch. So far this season he has accomplished that, avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump in large part because he has become a more mature pitcher and a better student of the game.
“I just want to continue to work hard, do what I’m doing and keep doing what I’m doing,” Perez said. “I need to keep the ball down and keep getting quick outs.”