Taking A Step Back: Steve Pearce and Lorenzo Cain

Last week’s article on Danny Santana’s 2015 projected offensive decline generated some interesting feedback, so I decided to circle back and focus on a couple more players whose detailed batted-ball info suggests significant 2015 decline. I couldn’t pick two more dissimilar players if I tried; this week’s subjects are the Orioles’ 2014 everyman-savior, Steve Pearce, and the Royals’ postseason breakthrough star, Lorenzo Cain. The eyes and the numbers tell markedly different stories for a variety of reasons, but for both players, a preponderance of the arrows are pointing downward for the upcoming season.

How much of a journeyman is — make that was — Steve Pearce? Well, he played in the major leagues in every from season from 2007 through 2013, toiling for four different clubs, including two separate stints with the Orioles, never accumulating 200 plate appearances in a season. The most amazing aspect of his journey? Well, he was never traded from one club to another; he transferred from one club to the next exclusively via minor league free agency and waiver claims. Pearce not very long ago was the ultimate 40-man roster bubble guy.

That all changed in 2014, when for the first time Pearce earned material playing time against both left and right-handed pitchers. He injected a healthy dose of power into an Oriole offense hampered by the long-term absences of Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis. One could make a strong argument that Pearce, on the strength of a .293-.373-.556 line and 160 OPS+, was the O’s most valuable offensive player last season.

Let’s take a look at his plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data in an attempt to identify the real Steve Pearce. First, the frequency info:

FREQ – 2014
Pearce % REL PCT
K 19.8% 106 62
BB 10.4% 133 81
POP 9.5% 118 72
FLY 36.0% 125 93
LD 22.7% 108 75
GB 31.8% 75 7

Even prior to his 2014 breakout, Pearce’s problem had not been his K and BB rates. Still, he modestly improved on both fronts in more extensive duty last season, and his K and BB percentile ranks of 62 and 81, respectively, form a solid baseline upon which a power hitter can build.

Pearce’ popup rate is high at 9.5%, for a 72 percentile rank, but that is not abnormally high for a power hitter. His extremely high fly ball rate is concerning, however. It is very unusual for a hitter to hit more fly balls than grounders – 28.0% of all BIP were fly balls last season, 43.4% were grounders, and only 9 of the 77 AL hitters who qualified for the batting title fit that criteria. Pearce didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify, or he would have been the 10th, joining Brandon Moss, Chris Carter, Yan Gomes, Adam Dunn, Yoenis Cespedes, Jed Lowrie, Nick Castellanos, Brian McCann, and, yes, Mike Trout.

Why is that a big deal? Well, the AL regulars who hit more fly balls than grounders in 2013 combined for a 118 OPS+ in 2013, but collapsed to 92 as a group in 2014. That year’s pool of players included big plungers Raul Ibanez, Nick Swisher and Chris Davis, among others. Part of the reason for Pearce’s 2014 spike in performance was an unsustainable fly ball rate. We’ve only seen a small piece of the puzzle so far; Pearce’s production by BIP type data will give us a better feel for his batted-ball authority:

PROD – 2014
Pearce AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.356 1.057 202 203
LD 0.855 1.273 187 115
GB 0.234 0.260 93 169
ALL BIP 0.372 0.713 166 154
ALL PA 0.288 0.363 0.552 162 152

Pearce’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

Pearce destroyed the ball in the air to the tune of a .356 AVG-1.057 SLG, good for an actual REL PRD of 202, almost totally unaffected by context, as his REL PRD is an almost identical 203. That would have ranked 14th among AL batting title qualifiers, snugly between Jose Bautista and Carlos Santana. Pretty solid company; his power was not a fluke.

His production on line drives, however, clearly was. No matter how hard you hit the ball, you simply can’t hit .855 AVG-1.273 SLG, with a 187 REL PRD on liners. Among AL qualifiers, Nelson Cruz‘ REL PRD of 144 was the best; both Pearce’s actual OBP and SLG on liners were an amazing four standard deviations above the league average. Adjusted for context, Pearce’s 115 ADJ PRD on liners is still quite good, but nowhere near otherworldly.

Pearce was relatively unproductive on grounders, with a 93 REL PRD, but he hit them very hard, as his hard/soft grounder rates would suggest a 169 REL PRD, which would rank second only to Miguel Cabrera among 2014 AL regulars. However, there is a severe limiting factor applying to Pearce’s production on the ground. He is an extreme ground ball puller, subject to regular overshifting. He had a ground ball pull factor of 11.00, about double the amount needed to justify an overshift, and by far higher than any righthanded AL qualifier last season.

In fact, Pearce is also an extreme puller in the air; his 3.19 fly ball pull factor would rank third behind only Salvador Perez and Edwin Encarnacion among AL qualifiers. He is what I like to call a “harvester”; his only means of being a productive major league hitter is to cheat to pull at all times. The classic recent example would be Raul Ibanez in Seattle in 2013; his ability to hit the ball where it was pitched with authority had eroded, and he had one weapon left; pull power. He harvested every last bit until pitchers found his newly expanded holes, and put him away for good. To stick as a big leaguer, Pearce needed to harvest.

So what was Pearce, really, in 2014? The last table above says that based on authority alone, he was a context-adjusted 152 OPS+ guy. But we need to first correct for his ground ball pulling ways. Change his ground ball ADJ PRD to 93, his actual mark, and his overall ADJ PRD, which essentially is equal to OPS+, is lowered to 136. Still pretty good, but not nearly as gaudy as his actual mark. He was a true talent 136 OPS+ guy in 2014, with a two major red flags likely to negatively impact him going forward; his extreme fly ball and pull tendencies. O’s fans, this smells a little Larry Sheets-ish to me.

Now, for Mr. Cain. I was with the Brewers when we drafted him out of Tallahassee Community College, almost solely due to his athleticism and physical projection. He had almost zero baseball experience, and was the proverbial lump of clay. It’s hard for me to believe that he turns 29 this season, as his frame still screams projection, and his game still seems younger than his chronological age in all aspects.

Cain was 26 before he arrived in the big leagues to stay, and it wasn’t until the Royals’ dream run last season that he gained quite a bit of national attention. A large part of it was for his exemplary center field defense, but he augmented it with a .301-.339-.412 line and 28 stolen bases, prompting members of the national media to mark him as a breakout star, ready to take his game to another level.

As we did with Pearce, let’s peel back some layers and see what the underlying batted-ball data has to say about Cain and his offensive true-talent level. First, the plate appearance outcome frequency data:

FREQ – 2014
Cain % REL PCT
K 21.5% 116 73
BB 4.8% 62 15
POP 4.7% 58 12
FLY 24.0% 84 18
LD 22.8% 108 78
GB 48.5% 115 85

Cain’s K and BB rates are quite poor; his percentile ranks of 73 and 15, respectively, don’t provide a strong foundation for offensive success. In fact, both rates did deteriorate from their 2013 levels. If Cain is going to maintain such K and BB rates going forward, he is going to need to ride both above average batted ball authority and raw foot speed to be an above average offensive player.

Most of his BIP type frequencies are largely in line with his 2013 marks. He is an extreme ground ball hitter (85 grounder percentile rank, 12 fly ball percentile rank), who doesn’t pop up very often (15 percentile rank). The one outlier is his 2014 liner rate (78 percentile rank), way up from 28 in 2013. Liner rates fluctuate much more than those of other BIP types, though some hitters will settle in as high or low liner rate guys. It’s too early to say whether Cain has a high-liner tendency.

So far, there is nothing in Cain’s profile to mark him as an outstanding offensive player; to learn more, let’s look at his production by BIP type, to get a feel for his batted-ball authority:

PROD – 2014
Cain AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.341 0.646 110 52
LD 0.692 0.923 111 102
GB 0.331 0.373 187 81
ALL BIP 0.394 0.539 134 82
ALL PA 0.303 0.337 0.414 115 74

Right up front, we can see that Cain’s REL PRD is higher than his ADJ PRD across the board; he outperformed his context-adjusted marks for all BIP types.

He batted .341 AVG-.646 SLG on fly balls, for an actual 110 REL PRD. Cain was the king of the bloop single last season, notching 14 fly ball singles. Primarily for this reason, he significantly outperformed his 52 ADJ PRD on fly balls. Of the 40 AL qualifiers with fly ball REL PRD below 100 last season, Cain had the highest actual fly ball production, and it was attributable almost solely to good fortune.

Cain also overperformed quite dramatically on grounders, but in this case, part of it was due to Cain’s speed-based skill set. His actual .331 AVG-.373 SLG on grounders is good for a 187 REL PRD, 4th among AL qualifiers, but his hard/soft grounder rates support a much-lower 81 REL PRD. Because of his speed, one should expect a player like Cain to outperform his grounder ADJ PRD, but not by nearly the extent he did so last season.

Cain’s actual REL PRD on all BIP types was a very high 134, way, way above his context-adjusted ADJ PRD of 82. Again, he had by far the highest REL PRD among hitters with an ADJ PRD of 100 or lower. Cain’s REL PRD and ADJ PRD are then lowered further to 115 and 74, respectively, once his K and BB are added back into the equation.

So what exactly is Cain’s true offensive talent level? Let’s give him credit for his speed on grounders, at least to some extent, by giving him the .295 AVG-.329 SLG he posted on them in 2013. Let’s also give him credit for his actual isolated power on fly balls and line drives, another tip of the cap to his speed. In the other direction, let’s knock his liner rate down to the 2014 MLB average rate of 20.9%. All of these gyrations make Cain a .264-.301-.356 true-talent hitter, with an 88 ADJ PRD, or OPS+. Coupled with his speed and defense, that makes Cain a very solid player overall, if not a star. Think Garry Maddox, whose best seasons were behind him at Cain’s age.

Steve Pearce and Lorenzo Cain are both integral parts of their respective clubs as the 2015 season gets underway. Both have swung the bat well this spring, if that counts at all. Neither, however, is the star caliber offensive player that they appeared to be at times last season. The underlying data marks Pearce as a “harvesting” offensive player whose fields are likely to be picked over within a season or two, and Cain as a solid if unspectacular long-term regular that is likely to always leave you wanting a little bit more with the bat.

We hoped you liked reading Taking A Step Back: Steve Pearce and Lorenzo Cain by Tony Blengino!

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Aaron
Member
Aaron

Is it sacrilegious to make fantasy-related comments on this section of the site?

Chowjuch
Guest
Chowjuch

Not sacrilegious, but people will give you a hard time. Considering there is an entire section of Fangraphs devoted to fantasy you may just want to post your thoughts there.

You: But then I have to wait for a Steve Peace article on Rotographs and potentially site this article in my comment for that other article.

Me: Just talk about Steve Pearce in the way that you want to talk about Steve Pearce, but don’t explicitly mention fantasy, and especially avoid asking for team advice. The worst thing to do is to list your potential keepers and ask the whole community which guys you should roster.