08 July 2014

Examining Steve Pearce's Fantastic, Unexpected First Half

Weird things happen in baseball. Remember when Nelson Cruz tried to steal home last month? Yeah, weird.

Here's another weird thing: Steve Pearce has been one of the Orioles' best hitters in 2014. No, he doesn't have the same number of plate appearances as the O's regulars, so of course there's a sample size issue. At the moment, Pearce has only stepped to the plate about 190 times this season. Still, his .326/.381/.581 batting line is a whole lot better than his career line (.255/.329/.415), and his .416 wOBA is the highest among all O's players. Nelson Cruz comes in second at .399. But Pearce isn't just doing well compared to O's hitters. Among all MLB players with at least 180 plate appearances, Pearce's wOBA is tied for sixth with Victor Martinez. Defensively, Pearce has been above average in his limited time at both first base and left field (according to UZR data at FanGraphs and DRS data at Baseball-Reference).

Pearce's hot hitting has made the loss of Matt Wieters, Chris Davis's continued struggles (.310 wOBA), and some other O's team issues easier to deal with. A popular talking point among fans is how worse off the Orioles would be if the team didn't sign Cruz this past offseason. And yes, they would be a few games worse; Cruz has unquestionably been a major factor in the O's everyday lineup. But the emergence, or simply the overperformance, of Pearce has been nearly as important. In about 180 fewer plate appearances, Pearce (2.3 fWAR, 2.9 bWAR) has essentially been Cruz's equal (2.5 fWAR, 2.7 bWAR), thanks to Pearce's superb offensive numbers and the advantage of not being bad defensively.

So what seems to be driving Pearce's production at the plate? Overall, he's walking (about 9%) and striking out (about 20%) the same as his career averages. He's chasing 28.8% of pitches outside the strikezone, which is about the same as last season but still higher than his career average (24.5%). But he is attacking more pitches thrown inside the strikezone (66% vs. 60% career) and making about the same contact on those pitches while also connecting with 61.5% of pitches out of the zone (career 54.4%). Perhaps Pearce has been better this season at spoiling difficult pitches, though saying anything definitive about part of a single season's worth of data would be foolish.

It's hard to ignore two things with Pearce's numbers: his high BABIP and his elevated HR/FB rate. Pearce's career BABIP is .298, and his 2014 BABIP is .365. A few weeks ago, his BABIP was closer to .400, so it's come down a bit and yet his production has been about the same. I noted as much last week:
It helps that he's hitting the ball hard: His line drive percentage right now is 22.1%, which would be the highest of any single season in his career and is also about 4% more than his career average.

As mentioned above, Pearce's HR/FB rate of 16.7% is very high -- a bit less than double his career average (8.8%). That high of a rate probably is not sustainable.

Still, even if he keeps hitting the ball as hard, his BABIP will likely keep dropping somewhat; he's also not likely to keep hitting for nearly as much power. But he's going to keep getting plenty of chances, and he's always been particularly adept at hitting left-handed pitching (.368 wOBA) -- and in 61 plate appearances this season, he has been even better (.475 wOBA). It's certainly possible that in these last couple months, we've seen the best Pearce has to offer. He may never play better. But he has played so well when the O's needed another steadying offensive force, and like Cruz and others, he's a big reason why the O's are in first place right now.

Photo via Keith Allison. Stats as of July 7.


Anonymous said...

you need better graphics so that your articles are readable

Jon Shepherd said...

It certainly is a delicate balance thst we try to strike here. You make be surprised, but several of our readers wish for our articles to be less readable.