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.
Even accounting for Pearce’s pre-2014 stats, his performance against left-handers has been strong. In 576 career plate appearances against lefties — roughly the equivalent of a full season — Pearce has recorded 29 homers and .274/.357/.505 slash line, good for a 133 wRC+ when he has the platoon advantage. In his last 299 PA against lefties — since the start of the 2014 season, that is — Pearce has 18 home runs. It’s not as though Pearce can’t hit against righties, either. For his career, he’s roughly average; since the beginning of 2014, he has 28 homers and a 125 wRC+ against them in 641 plate appearances.
Pedro Alvarez is Baltimore’s primary designated hitter, but hasn’t had a legitimate hitter with whom he could be platooned. Nolan Reimold isn’t very good and he is getting time in the outfield, too. Pearce is probably a better bet to hit than Reimold regardless of the handedness of the pitcher, and what’s true for Reimold is doubly true for Ryan Flaherty, the current infield backup with a 69 wRC+ and terrible projections to match. Even when Joey Rickard comes back, Pearce will still be considerably better than the alternatives. He might be worth a win over the course of the rest of the season given the Orioles’ current sub-replacement options. Considering the race in the AL East and the low cost of acquiring Pearce, that’s a substantial improvement.
As for that cost, the Orioles are giving up 21-year-old catcher Jonah Heim. The switch-hitting backstop was drafted in the fourth round back in 2013 and is still a ways away from the majors. In High-A currently, this is what Carson Cistulli had to say about Heim when he put him in his Fringe Five back in May:
Over his first 99 plate appearances at High-A Frederick, he’s produced walk and strikeout rates of 16.2% and 10.1%, respectively, and an isolated-power figure approaching .200 — all of which figures are wildly better than league average. Moreover, the defensive reports are encouraging.
Heim has backed up a little bit since that time. His walk rate and strikeout rate have flip-flopped, but his walk rate is still a solid 10% to go along with a 15% strikeout rate and just a .129 ISO. Those numbers obviously aren’t great, but as a 21-year-old catcher, he has a lot of developing to do before making it to the majors. Pearce didn’t have a real role on a selling Rays team as a 33-year-old pending free agent, and he wasn’t going to be worth a qualifying offer, which meant the Rays were left with little recourse but to deal him for the highest return available. Determining the future value of a High-A catcher is incredibly difficult, as the defensive development at that position requires a considerable amount of time. Pearce has no role in the Rays’ future, but Heim might.
The Orioles did really well here. While Jay Bruce and Carlos Beltran were the big outfielder names traded at the deadline, Steve Pearce has hit better than both of them this year. While Pearce doesn’t have as defined a role and is most effective as a platoon player on the wrong side of a platoon, he could play a positive role for the Orioles, lengthening their lineup and helping to remove a hole or two currently holding the offense back.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.