26 August 2014

Steve Pearce, Masher of Lefties and Inside Pitches

If you were going to make a case for the most valuable Orioles player of 2014, you'd consider names like Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, and J.J. Hardy. Jones and Hardy shouldn't be surprises, and Cruz has demonstrated in previous seasons the ability to post impressive power numbers. But another name needs to be included in that group as well, and it's one that couldn't have been predicted: Steve Pearce.

Steve Pearce
Adam Jones
Nelson Cruz
J.J. Hardy

Pearce has been an important piece for the Orioles, who boast a 73-55 record and a six-game lead in the American League East. His .380 wOBA (best on the Orioles) and competent defense have been vital to a team dealing with Chris Davis's floundering bat, Manny Machado's knee injuries, and Matt Wieters's season-ending Tommy John surgery. He's essentially been the O's version of a Swiss Army knife, filling in at first base, left field, and designated hitter, and instead of hitting like a mere utility player, he's been hitting nearly as well as more celebrated names like Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Adrian Beltre, Michael Brantley, and Anthony Rizzo. With only 295 plate appearances, Pearce hasn't played as much as those guys, but with Machado now lost for the season, Pearce is essentially a must-start for Buck Showalter for the rest of the season.

Imagining that the Orioles would need to rely so much on Pearce would have sounded ridiculous (and discouraging) in April, when he was designated for assignment, released, and claimed by Toronto, but he chose to stick around anyway. From mid-May to late July, Pearce knocked the cover off the ball, forcing Showalter to keep putting him in the lineup. He slowed down in August, barely playing for more than a week, but he's currently riding a seven-game hit streak during which he's homered three times.

Throughout his career, Pearce has excelled at hitting left-handed pitching. That's something we brought up before the season when discussing the wisdom of signing Delmon Young to a minor league deal. Of course, the Orioles have been able to find roles for both Pearce and Young (or, more accurately, they've been forced to find roles for them), who has been a useful DH and bench bat (.338 wOBA). Unfortunately, Young has started 11 games in left field for the Orioles, which is precisely 11 too many.

Young is a lefty masher himself, with a career wOBA of .345 vs. left-handed pitching (and .312 vs. right-handed pitching). This season, however, Young's splits look like this:

vs. RHP: 128 PA, .359 wOBA
vs. LHP: 71 PA, .300 wOBA

So, obviously note the sample size, along with Young's .361 BABIP (career .323). But Pearce is not only superior against lefties, but he's taken things to a whole other level this season. Here are his numbers against right- and left-handed pitching both for 2014 and his career:

.344 wOBA
.296 wOBA
.462 wOBA
.372 wOBA

(Again, note the sample size: 2014 vs. RHP: 204 PA; vs. LHP: 91 PA. Career vs. RHP: 692 PA; vs. LHP: 450 PA.)

Pearce's numbers against left-handed pitching this season trail only five other major leaguers who have had at least 90 plate appearances vs. lefties. Those five hitters are Troy Tulowitzki, Justin Upton, Giancarlo Stanton, Paul Goldschmidt, and the Orioles' own Adam Jones. That's not a bad collection of players to be grouped with.

Throughout his career, Pearce has been a hitter that pitchers can retire by keeping the ball low and on the corners both inside and outside and by throwing him pitches up and away. But pitching him inside-middle, let alone elevating those pitches, can be dangerous. Here are his career slugging percentage numbers for various pitch locations:

In 2014 against right-handed pitchers, he has maintained that skill-set, even on pitches inside that are not strikes.

Up-and-in pitches are still his bread and butter, but against lefties he's exceeded those numbers.

Not only has Pearce been outstanding against lefties on pitches up and in, but he's also been excellent on pitches in the middle and down. He appears to favor the ball there instead of pitches right down the middle of the plate. Overall, pitchers have also been trying to throw him fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches, which is a good plan considering that he hits fastballs better than both breaking and offspeed pitches. But Pearce has been so good at hitting fastballs in 2014 that it hasn't mattered. For instance, 12 of Pearce's 14 home runs have come against fastballs (and they've all been to left field or left-center).


You'd be crazy to think that Steve Pearce will produce these same kinds of numbers in future seasons. He is likely putting together his best major league season, and he's doing so when the Orioles desperately need the production. But as a player who can play multiple positions and can at least wear out left-handed pitching, he's certainly useful, and at 31 years old still has one year of arbitration eligibility left before he can become a free agent in 2016. Expecting that Pearce will be this fantastic next season and beyond would be foolish, but having him around is a nice backup plan considering Davis's struggles and the decisions the Orioles have to make on Nick Markakis, Cruz, and Hardy.

Stats (as of August 25) via Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs. Photo via Keith Allison.


Phil said...

Markakis' option of $17.5MM for next year is obviously too much, but I am curious about the chances he can be signed for less. I don't think the interest from other teams will be that great, so hopefully we can re-sign him for less?

Cruz is likely gone and I am OK with that. I would assume/hope that we can get a competent defensive OF with ~3.0 WAR potential for less than Cruz will demand after this year.

Hardy I think we need to keep. We have either the largest or second largest negative gap between team ERA and FIP (about 0.5) and the fourth lowest BABIP against in the MLB. If we cannot count on better pitching, then we need to retain the most important defensive elements. Plus, his offense has been rounding into shape (ISO up to .193 in second half with wOBA of .358) to be in line with previous output. He's a 3 - 4 WAR player whose defensive skills impact the overall team, if I may say, more than the numbers show.

Oh, and since this article is really about Pearce, I think the most amusing idea is that if the BBWAA using WAR as they should, Pearce might actually get MVP votes.

all stats from FanGraphs

Philip said...

How is Pearce's defense in comparison to Chris Davis's?
He is made perhaps 10 or 12 really outstanding plays in the field, but I don't know whether his basic defense is superior to Davis.
Either way, he is one of the three wonderful surprises this season, along with Caleb Joseph and Brad Brach.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Chris Davis is an average to below average defender at first base, while Steve Pearce appears to be pretty good (and good in left field, too). Davis has logged many more innings than Pearce at first, though, so we can probably count on that sample size more than Pearce's.

Lee said...

Matt you are probably the first person I have seen claim that Davis is an average at best defender at 1st. At other positions yes he is average at best. But almost everyone says he at worst an average defender and most would say above average at 1st. He did almost win a gold glove there last year

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I'm not sure being a finalist for a gold glove, or even winning a bunch of gold gloves (Derek Jeter, for example), means a player is unquestionably a great defensive player. Davis has his moments. But for his career, he's a negative defender at first according to some of the advanced fielding numbers (-6 DRS, -3.4 UZR). Perhaps he's improved tremendously this season (for 2014, he's at +9 DRS and 2.2 UZR). But looking at any single season of fielding data can be misleading.

I don't think it's an insult to suggest he's average defensively at first. Some fans thought Mark Reynolds was other-worldly with the glove a couple seasons ago, but that wasn't really the case, either.

Lee said...

I'm with you on reynolds. He was not other worldly I don't think it's a stretch to say he was at best average. He was good at making it look like he was very good but messed up way to many routine plays.