The Baltimore Orioles are good at many things. Their greatest skill is probably confounding expectations. The rest of the league zigs and then the O’s zag their way into the playoffs, twice in the last three seasons.
While the rest of their division — the rest of baseball, really — gears up for a run at the playoffs, the Orioles sat back. Their off-season to date can best be described as “somnambulant”, They lost Andrew Miller, Nick Markakis, and Nelson Cruz to free agency, declined some options and added, um, Wesley Wright? That’s it.
Considering the state of their disabled list at the end of the season, returning Matt Wieters and Manny Machado from injury (and Chris Davis from suspension) will go a long way to improving their club. But there’s another reason the Orioles haven’t rushed out to apply quick fixes to their club – the unlikely emergence of Steve Pearce.
Peace came out of nowhere to give the Orioles 4 WAR in just 100 games last year. As Mike Petriello noted in September, he made some key mechanical changes that allowed him to pound fastballs into submission. As an out-of-options quad-A hitter coming out of nowhere, some comparisons to Jose Bautista are inevitable. Like Bautista, Pearce is a pull-crazy and fastball-hungry former Pirate who found success after 30.
The Orioles, when they look to 2015 and beyond, are surely considering the repeatability of Pearce’s breakout. They don’t need for him to turn in a 50-homer season like Bautista but he currently sits atop their right field depth chart. They need, or believe, he can carry some of his 2014 production into 2015.
Our Steamer projections think quite highly of Pearce’s three true outcome style, forecasting a .270/.349/.464 followup season, good for a 129 wRC+. His age and his patience make him a good candidate to retain some of the over-the-fence magic powering his 2014 breakout.
So the Orioles happened upon a bag of found money in Pearce which reduces their need to get involved in the hot stove action, this is one takeaway. Other than simply taking his breakout on its face, there could be another key element fueling his success, one Baltimore believes is increasingly valuable.
There is constant “tick tock” to trends in baseball. This offseason saw teams prize lowball hitters are more and more pitchers are instructed to pound the bottom of the zone. Then we see pitchers like Madison Bumgarner thrive by working up in the zone, exposing the treat of the week in specialization.
Enter Pearce. Does he represent the pendulum swinging back in the other direction? Using Baseball Savant’s marvelous search tool, we find Pearce produced the highest isolated slugging in baseball on pitches in the upper third of the zone, a whopping .607 ISO. If we expand to include those pitches thrown about the strike zone, Pearce still ranks fourth.
He clouted nine of his 21 home runs on pitches in the upper third, turning around fastballs and even taking one out to center field, the only non-pull side homer of his big league career.
So now we arrive at the chicken-and-egg scenario. Does Pearce stand out as a high-ball hitter in a low-ball hitters world or were these results in 2014 inconsistent with his “true talent” skills? In an October profile of Pearce, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick quotes a scout who praised his ability to “get the bat head through the zone”, opening the inside half and yes, the upper reaches of the strike zone. Fewer than 400 plate appearances into his breakout, the onus remains on Pearce to prove he’s for real.
The Orioles could be taking the temperature of the league and seeing increased value in a player who can handle the ball up in the zone at a time when every pitcher’s goal and dominate the ever-stretching bottom of the zone. Or is it probably much simpler: he worked to become a better hitter and the O’s identified the potential and are now happy to reap the benefits.
Next season is surely going to be one of adjustments for a player like Steve Pearce. The book will be out on him – he should see fewer fastballs and perhaps fewer pitchers at his belt and above – though his 2014 success didn’t prevent teams from throwing him more fastballs as the year went on.
For whatever this tiny sample is worth, the Royals held Pearce in check during the ALCS by pounding him down in the zone, though their great defense turned three sure hits into outs during the four-game sweep.
On December 18th, we only know what we know. The Orioles haven’t made any significant upgrades to their team. Right now, Steve Pearce is their starting right-fielder. That may well change between now and April 1. But if Pearce is still their guy when the season starts, let’s consider it a tacit endorsement of his ability to sustain the power and strike zone control he showed in 2014. Handling the upper part of the zone is part of this, but probably not all. Though with the Orioles, you never really know. Zigging where others zag – it’s worked for them so far.