Obituary: Odalis Pérez (1977-2022)

RIP to Odalis Pérez, an All-Star left-handed pitcher who spent 10 years in the majors. He died at his home in the Dominican Republic on March 10. The initial reports started that he had fallen off a ladder and suffered a head injury. However, journalist Héctor Gómez reported that Pérez had suffered a heart attack, which caused the subsequent fall. He was 44 years old. Pérez played for the Atlanta Braves (1998-99, 2001), Los Angeles Dodgers (2002-2006), Kansas City Royals (2006-07) and Washington Nationals (2008).

Odalis Amadol Pérez was born on June 11, 1977, in Las Matas de Farfan, Dominican Republic — Baseball Reference listed his birth year as 1978 as of this writing, but other online sources including put it at 1977. I do believe that most contemporary news stories about Perez have his age off by a year.

Pérez’s ascent to the major leagues was a quick one. He was signed as an international free agent by the Atlanta Braves in 1994. After graduating from high school in 1995, he debuted in the United States as an 18-year-old in the Braves’ Gulf Coast League team. In 65 innings of work across 12 starts, Pérez gave up just 48 hits and 18 walks while striking out 62 batters. He moved up to Eugene of the Low-A Northwest League, but some elbow problems temporarily took him out of the starting pitcher role. He appeared in just 10 games for Eugene in 1996, with 6 starts, and he had a 2-1 record and 3.80 ERA.

Pitching exclusively out of the bullpen in 1997 with the Macon Braves of the Sally League, Pérez picked up 5 saves and had a 1.65 ERA, with 4 wins in 9 decisions. Though still young, he showed excellent control, with 27 walks in 87-1/3 innings. In 1998, Pérez began the season in Double-A Greenville as a starter, was promoted to Triple-A Richmond as a reliever, and joined the Atlanta Braves’ pitching staff in September.

See Odalis Pérez at Baseball Almanac

Pérez was just 21 years old when he made his debut against the Houston Astros on September 1, 1998. He threw a scoreless inning in a Braves 6-4 win. In fact, he threw many scoreless innings for the Braves over the final month of the season. He appeared in 10 games and was unscored upon in eight of them. Pérez had just one bad performance, and it happened on September 13. He took over from Greg Maddux with a 1-0 lead over the Florida Marlins and gave up singles to Mark Kotsay and Cliff Floyd, a 2-run double to Derrek Lee and a 2-run homer to Kevin Orie. Wipe that performance off the books, and he would have a sub-1 ERA with the Braves. As it was, he ended the season with an 0-1 record and 4.22 ERA, but he pitched himself onto the postseason roster anyway.

The Braves faced the Chicago Cubs in the NL Division Series, and Pérez picked up the win in Game Two. He entered the game in the top of the tenth inning with one out and runners on the corners. He struck out Jeff Blauser, and catcher Javy López threw out Mickey Morandini, who was trying to steal second base, to end the threat. Chipper Jones hit an RBI single in the bottom half of the inning to end the game, giving Pérez the win. He became the first pitcher to pick up a win in the postseason before he got one in the regular season. Pérez also pitched in the NL Championship Series, which the Braves lost to the San Diego Padres. He gave up 2 runs on 4 hits in 1/3 of an inning in the second game and failed to retire either of the two batters he faced in the fourth.

The young lefty came into the Braves’ spring training in 1999 with a chance to make the team as a reliever, but when pitcher Bruce Chen struggled, Pérez put himself into the starting pitcher role. Though he was still 21, he showed no fear.

“If you have the ability to pitch, you don’t have to be scared. It’s why you are here,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitition. “If you are scared, you’d better stay home. I’m just 20 years old, but if they hit against me, let’s work. I’m here. I’m Odalis Pérez and I came to get you out.”

Pérez started the season in the Braves’ rotation, and for a while, he held his own. He picked up his first regular-season win on May 2 against the Reds, striking out 7 in 5-2/3 innings for a 5-3 win. He had occasional rough outings, but he usually struck out batters at a high rate, so he stayed in the rotation despite an ERA over 5.00. On July 17, Pérez gave up 8 runs to the New York Yankees, including home runs to Chuck Knoblauch and Bernie Williams. He later said that he felt a twinge in his elbow during the outing. His next start against the Florida Marlins lasted just 4 outs before he was taken out of the game. Discovered a partial tear of the ulnar ligament in his left elbow. Pérez finished the season with a 4-6 record and 6.00 ERA. He underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, which kept him out for the entire 2000 season.

Pérez pitched in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic in November of 2000, and he reached the upper 90s with his fastball. He was given a chance to rejoin the Braves starting rotation in 2001, partly because ace John Smoltz was still recovering from his own elbow surgery. He was roughed up in his first start against the Mets but picked up his first win in 1-1/2 years with 7 shutout innings against the Phillies on April 15. “It feels real good. I needed this very bad,” Pérez said. “My other start was horrible. I want Bobby Cox to have confidence in me. I know John Smoltz will be coming back.”

Smoltz did come back, but mostly as a reliever, so Perez was able to make 16 starts in his 24 appearances in 2001. He had a 7-8 record and 4.91 ERA. His control was still strong, and he struck out 71 batters in 95-1/3 innings, but batters hit .290 against him. The Braves sent Pérez to the minors for the month of August to work on his form, and by the time he returned in September, Jason Marquis had established himself as a starting pitcher. Pérez finished the year in the bullpen.

The Braves started 2002 by making a big trade, acquiring slugger Gary Sheffield from the Los Angeles Dodgers. They sent Pérez, outfielder Brian Jordan and pitcher Andrew Brown to L.A. in return. Jordan, a former All-Star and NFL defensive back, was the big prize, but he was quick to point out Pérez’s potential, too. “He can be an elite pitcher; he just needs an opportunity to pitch every five days and not have anyone looking over his shoulder,” he said. “Sometimes he tries to be too perfect, but he has great stuff and great potential.”

Pérez demonstrated he was going to have a special season early on. He beat the Cubs 10-0 on April 26, striking out 6 and allowing just 1 hit. It was a Corey Patterson grounder in the seventh inning that shortstop Cesar Izturis couldn’t handle cleanly and was ruled an infield hit. Patterson was quickly erased on a double play, so Pérez faced the minimum 27 batters in his gem.

Source: Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2004.

“It was hard to get a grip on the ball because it was so dry and windy,” Pérez said about pitching in Wrigley Field. “But nothing is going to bother me. Whether it’s hot or cold, you have to have the same approach.”

Almost two months later — June 25 — Pérez threw another one-hitter, this time against the Colorado Rockies in Los Angeles. This time it was a Bobby Estalella single that ruined his perfect game, but Pérez still threw one of the more efficient 1-hitters imaginable. He threw 87 pitches, including 60 strikes, and beat the Rockies 4-0 in 1 hour and 55 minutes. He became just the second Dodger to have two 1-hitters in a single season, with Orel Hershiser in 1985 being the first. Pérez later took a perfect game into the seventh inning against the Mets on August 17. He didn’t get a shutout or a perfect game on August 28, but he threw 8 shutout innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks to win 1-0. The one run was a home run that Pérez himself hit off Arizona’s Rick Helling — it was the only homer of his career.

Pérez finished the 2002 season with a 15-10 record and an even 3.00 ERA in 32 starts. He struck out 141 in 222-1/3 innings, which was the only time in his career that he topped 200 innings pitched. He walked just 46, and opposing batters slashed .226/.262/.347 off him. Pérez was named to the NL All-Star Team and allowed an unearned run in 1 inning of work in the All-Star Game. Jason Giambi singled, advanced to second base on a Mike Piazza passed ball and scored on a Manny Ramirez single. In between that action, Pérez struck out both Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. That 2002 All-Star Game is the one that ended infamously in a 7-7 tie.

Pérez won 12 games for the Dodgers in 2003, but it was an unsuccessful, trying season for the southpaw. He also lost 12 games and finished with a 4.52 ERA. What’s more, the usually happy, confident pitcher criticized his team on a couple of occasions, once for a lack of run support and once for a lack of support concerning a broken fingernail that turned into a season-ending blister in late September. He skipped a start because of the fingernail, but after facing criticism from within the clubhouse, he pitched in one more game against San Diego. However, the blister developed quickly, leaving Pérez unable to grip the ball properly, and the Padres chased him from the game after a bad first inning. He later said he felt pressured into pitching. “I don’t want people to think that I don’t want to be out there because I want to be out there,” he explained. “They [the Dodgers] should want to protect a guy they know is a warrior and who wants to go out there and pitch.”

Source: Santa Maria Times, May 1, 2003.

Though his 2004 record was merely 7-6, Pérez pitched much better, lowering his ERA to 3.25. He missed some time with injuries but made 31 starts. He also started twice in the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, but he was knocked out of the game in the third inning each time. He lasted a total of 5 innings and gave up 8 runs, thanks to 4 home runs and 7 walks. Pérez was set to become a free agent in the offseason, so his postseason struggles couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The Dodgers re-signed Pérez for three years and $24 million in the offseason. Unfortunately his 2005 season was marked by multiple injuries, including a sore shoulder that put him on the disabled list for two months and a strained rib case muscle in September that almost caused Dodgers manager Jim Tracy to move him to the bullpen for the rest of the season. Pérez was limited to 19 starts and had a 7-8 record and 4.56 ERA. He started 2006 in the rotation and won three straight starts in April. However, after two poor performances against Houston and Arizona raised his ERA to almost 7.00, he was demoted to the bullpen. After taking a loss on July 13 when he gave up a 14th-inning home run to the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols, he accused Los Angeles of treating him like “trash.”

A trade had to be made at that point, and it was done on July 25. The Dodgers sent Pérez to the Kansas City Royals, along with a couple of prospects and cash, in exchange for pitcher Elmer Dessens. The Royals moved Pérez back into the starting rotation, and he was relatively better than he was with the Dodgers. He had a 4-4 record and 6.83 ERA with Los Angeles and a 2-4 record and 5.64 ERA with Kansas City. He stayed in the Royals rotation for 2007 and won 8 while losing 11. His ERA remained perilously high at 5.57, he spent more time on the DL, and his control worsened while his strikeout totals plummeted. His contract expired at the end of the season, and he left the Royals as a free agent.

Pérez went back to the Dominican Republic and began working out to show he could still pitch. The Washington Nationals, a team desperate for starting pitching, took a chance and signed him for $750,000. Not only was Pérez one of the most consistent starters the team had, but he also was named the Opening Day starter for the first time in his career. He helped inaugurate the brand-new Nationals Park on March 30 against the Braves. The Nationals won the game 3-2 on a walkoff homer by Ryan Zimmermann. Though Pérez didn’t factor in the decision, he raised some eyebrows with a strong 5 innings of work, matching Braves ace Tim Hudson. Pérez’s only mistake was a solo home run to Chipper Jones.

In 30 starts, Pérez turned in a 7-12 record, 119 strikeouts and 4.34 ERA in what was his best season in several years. It ended up being his final season. The Nationals re-signed him for 2009 but released him after he failed to show up to spring training by the February 23 deadline. He was unhappy with his incentive-heavy minor-league contract, which was virtually the same as the one he signed in 2007. “I prefer to sit in my house if the Nationals do not show more appreciation for my work,” Perez said in a statement to ESPN. “I will not accept any minor-league contracts with no safeguards. I instructed my agent to report my position to the Nationals.” He never pitched in the majors again.

In 10 seasons, Pérez had a 73-82 record and a 4.46 ERA. He started 211 of his 252 games and had 4 complete games — all during his All-Star season of 2002. He struck out 920 batters (6.2 per 9 innings) and walked 388 (2.6 per 9 innings). He had a WHIP of 1.346 and an ERA+ of 95.

According to Wikipedia, Pérez participated in baseball clinics for the Dodgers during his retirement from the game. He had one son, Odalis Jr.

For more information: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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