Two years ago, Steve Pearce was a revelation for the Orioles, hitting 21 home runs and recording a 161 wRC+ in just under 400 plate appearances. Last year, Pearce failed not only to duplicate that season, but even to maintain a league-average line, producing a .289 on-base percentage and 91 wRC+ whille playing first, outfield, and a little second base. As a result, the 33-year-old was left unsigned by the Orioles and had to settle for a one-year deal for under $5 million with the Tampa Bay Rays. Just a few months later, Pearce has returned to the Orioles, who traded young catcher Jonah Heim to bring him back.
From 2007 to 2013, Steve Pearce recorded at least 15 games played per season, but never received a chance at extended playing time, failing to accumulate 200 plate appearances in any one year. In 847 total plate appearances during that time, Pearce hit 17 homers, posting a 9% walk rate and 20% strikeout rate with a disappointing .283/.318/.377 line — good for an 87 wRC+ and 0.4 WAR. The Orioles were one of three teams for which Pearce played in 2013, and the team saw enough to bring him back for 2014, setting the table for his big season.
After that disappointing 2015 campaign, Pearce struggled to find a market for his services. The FanGraphs crowd estimated a two-year, $12 million contract, while Dave Cameron guessed a one-year, $8 million contract and labeled him one of the offseason’s biggest bargains before the signings began. Cameron justified his choice, thusly:
But for a team looking for a right-handed hitter who can play first base or the outfield, signing Pearce at a bench player price and giving him a shot at a regular job might be a risk worth taking. The underlying skills suggest that he’s better than a lot of other guys who have picked up the everyday player label, and unlike a lot of sluggers, he’s not just a one trick pony. He makes contact at league average rates, draws enough walks to be a decent on-base guy, is an above average runner on the bases, and defensive metrics have graded him out as an asset at first base and average in the outfield. When you combine those skills with a guy that has hit 36 homers in his last 682 plate appearances, that’s a player who is worth putting in the line-up most days.
The Rays took that minor chance on Pearce and were rewarded for it. This season, Pearce has played first and second base for Tampa Bay and appeared in 60 games so far. In his 232 plate appearances, he’s hit 10 homers, with a 147 wRC+ and a .309/.388/.520 line. While his .342 BABIP is likely to regress, his projections are still very positive. ZiPS forecasts Pearce for a rest-of-season 119 wRC+, while Steamer is a bit more pessimistic at 111. In either case, though, both numbers are solidly above average. Where Pearce can really help the Orioles is against left-handed pitchers, as the Orioles have recorded just an 85 wRC+ against southpaws, among the very worst in the game.