Baseball is a sport that celebrates looking backwards, with its sometimes crippling need to observe, adhere to and proclaim fealty to the past. We turn legends into deities in these parts — sometimes on these very pages — continuing to write about, speak of and dress like Don Mattingly circa 1985, while the man himself shows up to Yankee Stadium wearing Blue Jays gear. If you see a fan in a Thurman Munson, Elston Howard or Lou Piniella shirt, it’s not because those old-timey fashions were somehow cheaper. It’s because we all like playing the hits around here.
None of this is new or novel. It just is.
But it goes the other way, too. We’re also ambi-observant, which may not be a word but is definitely a mood. Looking ahead might violate the unwritten rules of a sport that tells its players to focus on the moment at hand, but (spoiler alert) we do it literally all the time. Count the days on your fingers to figure Gerrit Cole’s next starting assignment … Look at the standings and calculate a magic number … Game out potential playoff matchups … It’s impossible not to consider the possibilities.
Sometimes it gets harder. It’s one thing to pencil in your ace for a potential Game 1, but tougher to commit to a starter in a winner-take-all elimination game. You might know who you want on the mound with everything on the line, but sometimes, that guy had to pitch the day before.
Again, none of this is new. And it’s not novel. It just is.
Occasionally, this exercise — the simultaneous backward and forward glances, like an infielder handling a textbook relay throw — leads to a wholly unexpected point of focus. Take the morning of Oct. 17, 2022. Leading an NJ.com article previewing Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Guardians, writer Brendan Kuty posed four questions for fans to ponder as they awaited the first pitch. The first and thus, presumably, most pressing:
Would Wandy Peralta be available?
Hold that thought and drift back to April 27, 2021. The Yankees had just sent outfielder Mike Tauchman to San Francisco in exchange for a 29-year-old left-handed reliever with a 4.72 ERA over 220 appearances. Asked about his new bullpen option, Yankees manager Aaron Boone was measured with his words.
“We’re excited about Peralta,” Boone said in a tone that betrayed his chosen adjective. “We’ll just see how the days unfold and how we start to integrate him.”
Somehow over the next 18 months, Wandy Peralta, who climbed the mound in each of the first four ALDS games, became a crucial X-factor for a winner-take-all contest.
That’s … kind of novel, isn’t it?
But it’s more than that. He became beloved, essential, hilarious, feared, fearless. If, in October 2022, it was hard to look back and recall the journey, it was surely impossible to project all that Peralta might become when he first arrived in April 2021. That’s baseball, Suzyn …
Game 5 ended up getting postponed due to rain, and the next day, Peralta did, indeed, pitch. He recorded the final three outs to book the Yankees on a late-night flight to the ALCS. Notably, he insists that he was ready to go even without the rainout, and there’s no reason to doubt the guy who became the first Yankee in history to pitch in all five games of a Division Series.
“He loves winning,” said Clay Holmes. “He also loves helping the team any way he can. It just shows that he was willing to do whatever it took.”
Pitching coach Matt Blake stands in the Yankees’ clubhouse and gazes left and right along the wall of lockers belonging to most of the team’s pitchers. He says that each of those hurlers would likely answer “Yes” if asked whether they could pitch in five straight postseason games. He also knows that there’s a reason no Yankee had done it before.
“You’re always asking the guys to be honest with you about how they feel,” says the 38-year-old pitching coach, who has climbed the ranks of an industry that is at least a generation removed from the old-school “suck-it-up-and-play” mentality. “I think [Peralta] was honest, but at the same time, he knows that he can perform at a level even when he’s a little bit sore. He knows what his body needs to feel like to execute, because I know he didn’t feel great every day in the postseason. He knows what he’s capable of doing, and he knows that line between pain and soreness at a high level.”
For his part, Peralta moves the conversation to territory that seems, at first, a bit more primal. “We’re like hungry dogs out there looking for food,” the pitcher said, assisted by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. Except his point actually is in keeping with the Yankees’ — and really, all of this generation’s — mentality. Batters are prey, and information is the separator between starvation and survival.
“We’re just constantly moving and looking — looking and looking and looking — ready for that call,” Peralta said. “That’s the mentality that you need to have as a reliever. You’re always moving. Hungry. Looking for food.”
As the 2022 Yankees awaited their Division Series opponent, the team knew that Peralta would need to play a huge role in a potential Guardians matchup. Cleveland won the AL Central with a 92-70 record, buoyed by an offense that leaned left-handed. On the season, the team’s hitters posted a .717 OPS against righties, but that number dropped to .646 against southpaws. (For context, the 2022 Yankees’ figures were .745 and .768, respectively; the Astros, whom the Yankees faced in the ALCS, held a .726/.783 split.)
The easy answer to such a challenge might have been to load up the postseason roster with left-handers, but the Yankees didn’t really have that option. While the concept of reliever platoon specialization has mostly gone away with the rule, instituted in 2020, that forces pitchers to face at least three batters or finish an inning (a change that killed the beloved-in-some-circles LOOGY — lefty-one-out-guy), there is still often the inclination to attack batters with same-armed pitchers.
The 2022 Yankees, though, were thin from the left side. Zack Britton missed almost the entire year and struggled in his three September outings. Lucas Luetge was mostly moved to low-leverage situations as the season moved on, saw no action in the ALDS and was left off the ALCS roster. Meanwhile, Aroldis Chapman closed out his Yankees career by skipping a workout before the ALDS; the team did not add him to the postseason roster.
That left Peralta as Boone’s best left-handed option out of the ’pen. The Dominican Republic native rose to the occasion by throwing in seven of the team’s nine postseason games in ’22, a total of 8 2/3 high-leverage innings during which he surrendered just three earned runs. In the Division Series, he pitched six frames, striking out seven batters against zero walks and allowing just four baserunners.
“I was just so locked in on winning,” Peralta said, while also acknowledging that there is an inherent difference between being available and being fresh. “I pitched in those games and immediately after the game, I said, ‘Hey, I’m ready to go for tomorrow.’ Next game came by, ‘I’m ready to go for tomorrow.’ I wasn’t waking up the next day to see if I was ready to pitch. I just told them, ‘I’m here. Whatever you need of me and whatever I need to do to be ready to pitch tomorrow, I’m going to be ready. And I will be pitching.’ It’s a mentality that you put together over the years, that desire to get the ball.
“That’s what it’s all about. I want my teammates to be on that same page. We want to be there together as a unit, having the same idea that if today’s my turn, I’m going to get the ball, and I’m going to go and do my job.”
It’s so simple, right? The guy just wants to throw. Peralta suspects that if he could design his own workload, he’d pitch about six days a week. Or how about this for burning desire: Given the option between enjoying a starting pitcher’s shutout to clinch a World Series Game 7 or having the chance to enter the game and face three lefty sluggers in a row with everything on the line … Wandy wants the ball.
“I mean, immediately you say, ‘This guy’s psycho,’” said fellow reliever Michael King.
King understands both sides of the question. On the one hand, he admits that he, too, wants the ball every day.
“Oh my God, yeah!” he said excitedly at that prospect.
But the reliever, who was pitching hurt last year before his elbow finally gave out on a pitch thrown in Baltimore, knows that it’s not about pure will.
“I will definitely give you my best effort,” King said, nodding toward the diminishing returns.
What King also knows, though, is that Peralta isn’t your ordinary pitcher. Not just because he’s willing to put in the work to get on the mound on days when most relievers would be 100 percent not available. There’s also the role he plays in loosening up the entire relief corps, somehow balancing his unyielding commitment to excellence with a similarly ceaseless ability to crack up everyone around him.
Ask any Yankees pitcher, and he’s bound to offer a story about something Peralta said, something Peralta did, a face Peralta made. The last example is plainly visible to anyone watching games; the pitcher can emote like a stage actor shifting seamlessly between comedy and tragedy. He seems at once to be having a full conversation on the mound, at times grimacing, or maybe he just ate something spicy? It’s a whole show up there.
Peralta is well aware of his reputation, even if — for a perfectly practical reason — he’s unable to offer too much insight into the various faces he makes during games.
“I don’t like to watch video,” Peralta said. “And honestly when you get your job done, it just comes naturally, you know? I don’t know what kind of expression I’m making; I don’t know what I’m saying. It might be a funny face, it might be a serious face, it might be me saying something to the air. But they’re always asking, ‘What is it that you’re saying?’ And I just reply back, ‘I don’t know. I just got the out!’”
And it’s not all directed inside. Every Yankee knows to be on guard around Peralta. With so much down time in the bullpen, Peralta is always talking, always laughing, always pulling pranks. He projects as an incredibly fun-loving and happy person, jovial in all circumstances except for one: the team plane.
“I would rather be in a car for 20 hours than fly for one,” Peralta said. His teammates save much of their retribution for flights, when they test the limits of the Geneva Conventions with the way they treat the left-hander.
Peralta conducts interviews with an interpreter’s help, but even as he works on a second language, he has no problem dishing and receiving jokes in either English or Spanish (and, as Cole told the New York Post in April, “He speaks fluent gibberish.”)
“It’s honestly his delivery,” King said. “He doesn’t know all the words. But if you had somebody else that knew the exact same English and said what he says, it would not be funny. But because of how he delivers, it’s just great.”
Peralta’s biggest target is bullpen coach Mike Harkey. Part of it is practical: The joyful pitcher knows that the limits are a bit more blurred when it comes to the rare character in the bullpen that won’t ever have to enter in a tight spot. But the show must — and does — go on, and the relievers all love having front-row seats to the performance.
“Harkey and him just go at it in the bullpen,” King said. “And it just makes it so that we’re in there in such an intense moment, but you never know when there’s going to be some type of comedic relief from Wandy and Harkey going at each other.”
The silly, pranking, emotive Peralta wouldn’t be much of a story if the output didn’t match the outlandishness. No worries there. Now 31 years old (he’ll turn 32 on July 27), Peralta was one of Boone’s favored options through the 2023 season’s first eight weeks, appearing in a team-high 22 games through May 22. The pitcher relies primarily on a changeup and a sinker to neutralize opponents, a major change from before he arrived in New York, when he leaned on a four-seam fastball and a slider.
“It seems like he’s got the switch in his head that he’s able to turn on and off more than most guys are able to,” said reliever Ron Marinaccio.
Or, as another reliever, Jimmy Cordero, said, “He’s always ready to get into a game, no matter what time or what situation they want to put him in.”
Any talk of the 5-in-5 stretch during last year’s ALDS needs to acknowledge the obvious: In a lot of those situations, it was more than Peralta wanting the ball. He was the best option. King notes enthusiastically that the Yankees’ analytics gurus do tremendous work to put pitchers in situations where they can thrive. Peralta was a perfect foil for the Cleveland offense; even if the Astros series had gone longer, there wouldn’t have been the same need for the left-hander to throw as often.
“They know what lanes we work best in,” King said.
Peralta, though, might not agree that there’s any situation for which Peralta wouldn’t be the perfect option. Boone regularly calls the pitcher “fearless” and notes the example that he sets for his teammates in the bullpen. And as with so many wildly successful outliers, there’s a method to Peralta’s … well, if not madness, then certainly eccentricity. A lot of it boils down to the strangeness of the relief role.
A starting pitcher can look five days ahead to his next start. Each day has a rhythm and routine: Some days are throw days, others rest, others weights, you name it. Everything is geared toward being ready to take the hill every fifth day, and the pitcher can leave his house that day and head to the ballpark with a game plan mapped out in his head.
A reliever has to be ready for anything. There’s no way to know what situation might arise, so you have to be prepared at a moment’s notice.
“Once the game starts,” Peralta said, “the mentality is, ‘I’m in the game.’ That’s the starting mentality for any reliever. You do your routine, you get yourself ready, you do your stretches, you do everything that gets you ready to pitch, ready to enter that game.”
Yet even Peralta won’t pitch every night. Forget about the regrettable situations when a reliever gets warm and then sits down without entering the game. It’s more than those few warmup tosses. Pitchers have to be in the head space to compete, and if they don’t get in, they have to turn it off and become normal humans again, navigating traffic along the Deegan with the rest of us on the way home after a game.
No one is suggesting that Peralta is anything but a serious student of the game. But what his teammates do notice is that his ability to stay easygoing and light pays dividends for the entire staff.
“Wandy definitely is beloved,” Boone says, with a lilt in his voice that was missing in April 2021. “But certainly respected.”
And the way he says it makes clear that the manager understands the difference between — and also the mutual benefits shared by — the two traits.
“We have a job to do,” Peralta said. “But I’m trying to create an environment where everybody’s relaxed and enjoying laughing. It’s very important for me that they understand that I enjoy this a lot, too. All the laughing and everything about the job, I’m enjoying it, too.”
Again, this isn’t particularly novel, and it’s not new. Baseball history is filled with characters; it’s part of what makes the game so special. The Hall of Fame and the internet are packed with much more than data from Baseball Reference and Statcast; the human-interest color is a huge part of what keeps us engaged. The record books will show that Peralta was the first Yankee to enter five ALDS games in a single season, but when his teammates are old and gray, that won’t be the story they tell about Wandy Peralta.
Baseball, though — for all the backward glances, for all the prognostication — is still often about the moment. For the 2023 Yankees, the future is unknown, and the past doesn’t really matter. When the bullpen phone rings and it’s Peralta’s turn, the pitcher will be ready. And he’ll laugh, he’ll smile, he’ll yell, he’ll make a crazy face even he can’t explain. The only thing you can expect is that he’ll be there, in the present, ready for his time, every time.
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the June 2023 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.