Understand that no one’s Plan A would be putting Steve Pearce into the lineup at second base. It would be nobody’s Plan B, either. Understand that the Orioles have been forced into a position, with J.J. Hardy hurt, and with Jonathan Schoop hurt, and with Ryan Flaherty hurt. What the Orioles have been confronted with is a situation in which the middle infield is in dire need of at least temporary help. Under these specific circumstances, Pearce at second base has become Plan A. Even that feels strange, like the sort of thing no other team would dare attempt.
Pearce, as it happens, is actually out of the lineup Tuesday, because he’s feeling under the weather. But that’s not a performance concern. Over the weekend, Baltimore played three home games in a city that isn’t its home, and in all three games, Pearce started at second. There’s a graphic for it and everything.
This is a post that leans on some assumptions. What we can’t know is how other teams would’ve behaved, if in the Orioles’ situation. We can only guess, and the guess is that other teams would’ve been far less willing to teach Pearce a new position on the fly. Pearce is a first baseman and a corner outfielder, if he’s not a designated hitter, and last year he slugged .556. He doesn’t fit the usual second-base profile. The Orioles called up Rey Navarro. He does fit the usual second-base profile. And Navarro did get four starts at second. But then things were turned over to Pearce. And Pearce played second, while more experienced second baseman Jimmy Paredes slotted in at DH.
Pearce had never before played second base as a professional. He’s 32 years old, so while, like many players, he has a distant history of playing shortstop, it’s been an awful long time. He did get a handful of innings at third base as recently as 2012, but it was hardly anything of an opportunity. How much time did he get to pick up second base, last week?
Steve Pearce has always embraced – and taken pride in – his utility role with the Orioles, but even he was a little surprised when he was approached Wednesday about playing second base.
And as the Orioles opened their three-game “home” series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on Friday, Pearce saw his name in the starting lineup at second, marking the first time he has played there in his career.
Pearce first heard about the idea Wednesday. Two days later, he was given a start at second base in a game against a division rival. Pretty clearly, the Orioles were confident, desperate, or both, and here’s a little footage of Pearce learning to turn a double play at something like half speed:
Ignoring Navarro for a moment, it would’ve been perfectly understandable for the Orioles to put Paredes at second and Pearce at DH. Paredes, at least, had played second before. But the team seems to think he needs a lot of work in the field, and on the other hand, just last year, Pearce got a lot better defensively as a first baseman. It’s about versatility and protection, experimenting with ways to keep Pearce in the lineup in case, say, Schoop is out for even longer than projected, or if Flaherty needs more time off. Every team has an emergency catcher. They’re just about never used. Pearce is serving as something of an emergency second baseman, but he’s been pushed into playing, and out of this, the Orioles can learn something about a guy who ought to be one of their better bats.
What did Pearce look like in the field over three games? He didn’t mess anything up. He didn’t do everything perfectly, mind you, but he was given a job and he did it. He handled a routine groundball:
He handled a slightly less-routine groundball:
He caught a throw down and applied an easy tag:
He confidently handled a weak pop, calling off a teammate:
Pearce was also the middle part of a double play, looking perhaps better than one might’ve expected:
The footwork was good enough. The throw was good enough. Pearce kept himself out of danger. Watch that clip, and you wouldn’t think you’re seeing a guy playing out of position. When you imagine a 1B/OF being told to play the middle infield, I think there’s an inclination to exaggerate. You figure they won’t be athletic enough. Certainly, none of them would ever resemble Andrelton Simmons. But, we understand there’s not a huge difference between third base and second base. And, a good defensive first baseman should in theory be able to handle a more difficult job. Steve Pearce is a good defensive first baseman.
Over his career at first, Pearce has been worth 12 Defensive Runs Saved. UZR puts him at +7, and based on indications, in 2014 Pearce was better than ever. The Orioles certainly believe it. And while our Positional Adjustments that go into WAR are open to be debated, the given adjustment between first base and second base is 15 runs. An excellent first baseman, then, might be expected to be an average second baseman. Maybe Pearce is fine, moving up the defensive spectrum. Maybe the most surprising thing about Pearce at second is it shouldn’t be surprising if he’s adequate.
For fun, last year, Orioles fans gave Pearce a 46 overall rating in the Fan Scouting Report. Asdrubal Cabrera got a 47. Omar Infante got a 46. Jedd Gyorko and Marcus Semien got 45s. Jason Kipnis got a 41. The FSR shouldn’t be confused with inarguable science, but the more you think about it, the more willing you are to believe that Pearce moving up in the infield isn’t even that weird. Why not try it? Why not try to maximize your roster’s versatility, just in case?
Brady Anderson just talked about Buck Showalter’s intelligence and mastery of strategy. Now, Anderson works with Showalter, so that’s one thing. And for another thing, you don’t want to overstate the brilliance of trying Pearce at a new position. It could’ve been a failure, and maybe this’ll never come up again in the long-term. But this feels like a particularly Orioles kind of move. This feels like working to build an extra layer of protection, where it would’ve been easy to just give second base to one of the guys who’s played second before. Showalter wants his Orioles to be a roster with moving parts, such that flexibility might allow them to negate another team’s potential talent advantage. It’s a small thing, but a seemingly real thing, and Pearce at second is an example of this. It seems bold, until you think about it more and realize it’s actually perfectly sensible.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.