For the first time in his professional baseball career, Steve Pearce entered Spring Training assured of the fact that he would be going north with the big club. A minor league journeyman who finally broke through at the major league level last year, Pearce is the consummate professional baseball player, willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. In his first full season with the Orioles in 2014, Pearce endeared himself well with the Camden faithful with his hard-nosed, whatever-it-takes approach to the game of baseball.
Despite the guarantee of a roster spot, Pearce continues to go about his business as if he still has a lot to prove, and maybe he does. After all, before breaking through with the Orioles last season, Pearce had only 17 home runs in 743 at-bats spread across seven disjointed major league seasons. Last season, when finally given regular plate appearances, Pearce impressed with a .293/.373/.556 line and 21 home runs, 26 doubles, and 49 driven in. All of this was accomplished in only 102 games, as Pearce did not establish himself with the Orioles until May when Chris Davis went down with an injury.
Pearce is remaining humble this spring despite his newfound status as a major league regular. “It feels really good,” Pearce said. “Don’t have to stress as much. Little bit rewarding after having the year I had last year. But still working hard, still doing all the stuff, I’m not changing anything. Still going about my spring training the right way. I’m always going to work hard. This is how I prepare for the season every time to get my swing right for the season.”
There will be plenty of Orioles fans who will cite Nelson Cruz as the primary offensive driving force that led the team to the division title and the ALCS last season. Cruz and his 40 home runs were great, but he was wildly inconsistent, and at times absolutely dragged the offense down with him. That is where Steve Pearce rode in to save the day. While Cruz was batting .214 for the months of June, July, and August, Pearce batted .287. In that same time span, Cruz hit 15 home runs while Pearce hit 12. Pearce bested Cruz 16 to 11 in the doubles department.
So, what am I saying here?
There will absolutely be a Nelson Cruz-sized hole in the Orioles lineup. You cannot deny the fact that Cruz and his 40 home runs were a big part of the Orioles’ success last season. But, what must also be remembered is that the Orioles have been one of, if not the best, teams in baseball when it comes to unearthing deep value in previously unheralded players. From Nate McLouth in 2012 to Danny Valencia in 2013 and Pearce last season, the Orioles have always found a way to squeeze major league production from unexpected sources. I believe Pearce will continue that run again this season, and will turn a lot of heads in the process.
There have been many one-hit wonders when it comes to late-blooming big leaguers. You could argue that Pearce’s success last season was due in part to the fact that major league pitchers had not yet developed a book on him. With a full season of big league exposure, have the holes in Pearce’s swing been located?
Pearce himself worked to dispel that notion, saying, “They adjusted to me last year. There are constant adjustments. I never look back at it and say, ‘That was an awesome year.’ I felt like that is how I play. I never thought pitchers just grooved me fastballs because they knew who I was. I was still pitched pretty hard. If I play every day, I feel that is the way I can play.”
There is nothing that stands out in Pearce’s performance that would suggest his 2014 season was a fluke. His .322 BABIP is a bit higher than league average, but not exceptionally so. Pearce hit equally well against right- and left-handed pitching. He batted .279 against righties and .327 against lefties. His .704 slugging percentage against left-handed pitching may not be sustainable, but all told, it does not appear Pearce’s splits point to a regression.
For a power hitter, Pearce does a very good job limiting his strikeouts, with a K rate right at 20% for his career. He knows how to work the count as well, getting into a favorable hitting situation frequently. Pearce reached a 2-0, 3-0, or 3-1 count 132 times last season. He had only 384 plate appearances. He is a disciplined, patient hitter and swung at less than 30% of pitches outside of the strike zone, while swinging at nearly 70% of pitches in the zone. This approach works across all levels of organized baseball.
As Pearce works to repeat his breakout 2014 season, one thing that may work well in his favor is his ability to handle fastballs up in the zone. Hitters and pitchers are locked in a constant back-and-forth battle. In recent years, low-ball hitters have become a valued commodity. So, what happens? Pitchers begin attempting to work their fastballs up in the zone. No one hit fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone better than Pearce last season. Using the wonderful tools available from Baseball Savant, it becomes crystal clear that Pearce was far and away the best high fastball hitter in baseball last season. His .607 ISO on high fastballs was nearly 150 points clear of second-place Devin Mesoraco.
Pearce has a lightning-quick swing through the zone. Jerry Crasnick wrote a lengthy profile on Pearce last October after his breakout season. In it, Crasnick cites multiple tiny adjustments at the plate that allowed Pearce to produce one of the highest single-season wins above replacement in such limited playing time. Pearce moved off the plate slightly, which allows him to unleash his quick swing more effectively on inside pitches. He dives into the zone just enough to be able to handle outside pitches.
Take a look at Pearce’s second home run from last season, against David Price, no less. Here, he shows an ability to turn on a down and in fastball with ease.
Pearce cannot be written off in 2015, and I believe he holds the key to the Orioles offense as the team looks to make its first repeat trip to the playoffs since 1996-1997. Pitchers will make slight adjustments in the way they pitch Pearce this season, but he has showed an ability to maintain a disciplined approach at the plate and work himself into favorable situations. Various projection systems put him at roughly .270/.350/.470 this season with 20 home runs. These projections are not giving him enough credit in my opinion. Pearce was at one point the number three prospect in the Pirates system, behind only Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. Those two turned out to be pretty good, and now, after years of injuries and minor league wanderings, Steve Pearce is ready to join them in the upper echelon of major league hitters.
I believe Pearce has the ability to be an All-Star and hit at least 30 home runs this season. At 31, he will finally be given a chance to show what he can do over a full 162-game season. He will do whatever the Orioles need of him, whether that is playing first base, outfield, or serving as the team’s designated hitter. The Orioles are still unsure of what they are getting from Chris Davis, who has looked increasingly comfortable at the plate this spring. Matt Wieters is out indefinitely. Pearce can be the player who helps bridge the gap between Adam Jones and the bottom of the order, which will again be weighed down by Jonathan Schoop and Caleb Joseph for the foreseeable future. Players like Jose Bautista and Jayson Werth have proven that it is possible to blossom and maintain big league success after the age of 30.
I believe Pearce will be the next player to go from journeyman to All-Star, and keep the Oriole lineup humming even after the loss of Cruz. A lot of things need to break the Orioles’ way if the team is to repeat as AL East champions, and a full season from Pearce will go a long way towards making a second consecutive playoff run a reality in Baltimore. Manager Buck Showalter will be penciling Pearce into the lineup every single day this season. With Wieters out, Pearce should hit fifth for the Orioles. That will give the Orioles a lethal middle of the order. Everything Pearce showed last season gives me confidence that a statistical correction is not due this season. He hits all pitches well, especially fastballs, and works himself into counts where pitchers must give into him. Pearce will be a driving force for the Orioles lineup this season, and will make it very easy to forget about Nelson Cruz’s single season in Baltimore. It is certainly an unexpected development, but Steve Pearce will be one of the most important players on the Orioles this season. It took a while, but he is finally where he always deserved to be.