19 June 2014
Appreciating Steve Pearce
Steve Pearce could be playing for the Blue Jays right now. The Orioles designated him for assignment in late April, and the Blue Jays claimed him. But instead of going to Toronto (or any other team), Pearce decided to become a free agent and re-sign with the O's. And they should be thrilled that he did.
Pearce is a journeyman. He was an eighth-round draft pick by the Pirates in 2005 and eventually made his major league debut in 2007. (Pearce was originally drafted by the Red Sox in 2004, but he didn't sign.) For the next few seasons, he alternated between receiving regular at-bats in Triple-A and limited work in the majors. At the end of the 2011 season, he became a free agent and signed with Minnesota a month later. The Twins released him in March of 2012; Pearce then signed with the Yankees. Then things got weird: The Orioles purchased Pearce from the Yankees in June. In July, the Astros claimed Pearce off waivers from the O's. In August, the Yankees brought Pearce back by purchasing him from the Astros. Then in late September, the O's claimed Pearce off waivers from the Yankees. So, in 2012, Pearce went from the Twins, to the Yankees, to the Orioles, to the Astros, to the Yankees, and back to the Orioles. Teams wanted him, but they didn't want him that much.
Before this season, he was essentially a replacement level player. According to Baseball Reference's version of wins above replacement, he was worth 0.6 WAR; FanGraphs' version had him at 0.2 WAR. His one calling card is his ability to high left-handed pitching. He currently has a career wOBA against lefties of .353. Against right-handed pitching, he has a wOBA of just .292. Last year, he hit well (.261/.362/.420), but he only received 138 plate appearances, with 75 of them coming against left-handed pitching
This season, Pearce is getting more opportunities to play against both right- and left-handed pitching, and so far he's taken full advantage of that. He's currently hitting .324/.377/.552 in 114 plate appearances, and his .405 wOBA is second on the team behind Nelson Cruz's .412. Pearce is a career .248/.323/.396 (.317 wOBA) hitter, and of course we're only talking about part of a season's worth of plate appearances. Also, Pearce currently has a .392 BABIP (career .294) and his HR/FB rate of 16.7% is more than double his career mark (7.9%). So Pearce probably won't continue to be this good (which is hardly a revelation). But what he's done so far can't be ignored, and he's given the O's a boost considering Chris Davis and J.J. Hardy aren't putting up the kinds of numbers they're capable of, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop aren't hitting, and Matt Wieters has been out of the lineup for weeks and is now out for the season.
From May 1 to May 10, with Davis on the disabled list with an oblique injury, Pearce batted .314/.385/.629. Since then, he's mainly filled a left field/designated hitter role, while also receiving time at first base and getting some pinch-hit opportunities. As long as Pearce keeps hitting, it won't be hard for Buck Showalter to find ways to get him in to the lineup. David Lough's struggles at the plate (.250 wOBA) have also made playing Pearce more a no-brainer.
Pearce, 31, could simply be on a hot streak and may never play this well again. But Nate McLouth was a solid contributor for the Orioles for a season and a half, and no one saw that coming. Surprises happen, and players don't always perform how we expect them to. Pearce could be the O's McLouth in 2014. His high level of production may be somewhat flukish, but it's worth enjoying while it lasts.
Photo via Keith Allison