We keep trying to explain the Baltimore Orioles. After all, they’re destroying the American League East, up by 12.5 games at the moment over the Blue Jays. They’re likely to clinch it in the next 24-48 hours, and when the playoffs roll around, they’ll be the No. 2 seed, kicking off an ALDS at home against either Detroit or Kansas City, depending on which of the two win the AL Central. They’re doing this despite a list of things that have gone wrong this year, most of which I laid out here in July, and that was before Manny Machado injured his knee and Chris Davis got suspended. Dave Cameron made a very thorough case for the simplicity of accepting randomness, and August Fagerstrom looked into how much power the lineup has had, largely thanks to Nelson Cruz.
It’s all of those things, and it’s none of them. It’s the managerial genius of Buck Showalter, if you want it to be, and it’s also the unquantifiable magic of balls bouncing the right way. It’s Dan Duquette playing with never-ending roster moves, or it’s outstanding (and generally random) performance in clutch situations, or it’s defense that hasn’t had a single weak spot. We can argue about whether the Orioles are a good team that has had enough things go their way in the right spots to look like a great one, or if they are actually that great team and we’ve just been so wrong about them, but in the end it doesn’t matter so much. The wins are banked, and they’re headed to the playoffs, and if that sounds insane knowing that they won’t have Davis, Machado or Matt Wieters, you’re not alone.
Sometimes, though, it’s not so complicated. Sometimes there’s a Steve Pearce.
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You have to figure that on a team that’s outplaying even the most optimistic projections, someone has come out of nowhere to provide unexpected production, and on this team, that someone is Steve Pearce. He’s 31 years old, and prior to 2014 he had 847 below-average major league plate appearances for the Pirates, Orioles, Yankees and Astros. Entering the year, his career had been worth 0.2 WAR. Exiting this year, his career will be worth something like 5 WAR, because here’s the Orioles’ offensive WAR leaders:
1) Adam Jones, 5.4
2) Pearce, 4.6
It’s not just us, either. Baseball-Reference has him at 5.5 WAR. Baseball Prospectus says 4.1. Obviously, there’s some variation there, but no one disagrees that he’s been at the very least a four-win player this year. A career of 0.2 WAR in parts of seven seasons for four teams is basically the definition of replacement-level, and few players embody that term as much as Pearce has, because easily my favorite thing about him is his transaction log, which we’ll borrow from Baseball-Reference:
- June 7, 2005: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 8th round of the 2005 amateur draft. Player signed June 11, 2005.
- November 3, 2011: Granted Free Agency.
- December 15, 2011: Signed as a Free Agent with the Minnesota Twins.
- March 27, 2012: Released by the Minnesota Twins.
- March 29, 2012: Signed as a Free Agent with the New York Yankees.
- June 2, 2012: Purchased by the Baltimore Orioles from the New York Yankees.
- July 28, 2012: Selected off waivers by the Houston Astros from the Baltimore Orioles.
- August 27, 2012: Purchased by the New York Yankees from the Houston Astros.
- September 29, 2012: Selected off waivers by the Baltimore Orioles from the New York Yankees.
- April 27, 2014: Released by the Baltimore Orioles.
- April 29, 2014: Signed as a Free Agent with the Baltimore Orioles.
Twice, he was released, including earlier this very season. Twice, he’s been purchased. Twice, he was picked up on waivers. If you just look at his 2012 alone, he went from the Twins to the Yankees to Orioles to the Astros to the Yankees to the Orioles. That’s six stints on four teams in six months, and if you count the break in April of this year as a dividing point — he was, after all, claimed by the Blue Jays, which isn’t reflected here, and was briefly a free agent after rejecting the claim — this is his third different time with the Orioles.
So how do we explain Pearce? It’s true that he was the Pirates’ 2007 Minor League Player of the Year; it’s also true that we referred to him in FG+ 2010 as “basically a Chris Shelton clone” and in FG+ 2012 with “if absolutely positively everything goes right, Steve Pearce could be Ty Wigginton.” It’s easiest to say that he’s a small sample size success story, and there’s certainly some truth to that, but it’s also not particularly satisfying, because there’s never been anyone exactly like him.
No, really. Let’s try this: Pearce is having a four-win season in his age-31 year. That’s not really unique. Four other hitters, all stars, are doing the same thing this year. Since Jackie Robinson integrated in 1947, 177 other players have had a four-win age-31 season. Literally every single one of them had been more valuable than Pearce through age 30, in most cases considerably so.
|WAR through Age 30, all hitters with 4+ WAR Age-31 season|
Even Spiers, the only one even close, had enjoyed a productive season, putting up a 2.3 WAR age-25 in 1991 that he slowly frittered away with below-average years until his unexpected 4.4 WAR age-31 1997.
Pearce put up some nice numbers in the minors, and he had also dealt with his fair share of injuries, missing most of 2010 with a left knee injury, much of 2011 with injuries to his right calf and right fingers, and about two months worth of 2013 with left wrist woes. In between, he looked to be the stereotypical Quad-A guy, pounding minor league pitching and very rarely doing anything of note in the bigs. There’s a million different guys who fit that description. Few of them ever work out.
A reasonable explanation would be that Pearce, long thought of as a platoon player — understandably so, with a career 134/91 L/R wRC+ split — had simply finally landed in a place where he would be allowed to exploit his strengths and avoid his weaknesses. Far from it, though: Pearce has 253 plate appearances against righty pitchers this year, and just 104 against lefties, and while we are of course talking about smaller samples, he’s been able to hit both.
We know this, at least: Pearce has changed his batting stance. It’s not the first time he’s played with his mechanics, either, because back in 2011, there was talk of him eliminating his leg kick, while he was still with the Pirates. Now, he’s changed the way he approaches the pitcher. The below GIF has two images, one from his first home start with the Orioles back in 2012. The second is from two weeks ago. The difference is easy to see.
2012 Pearce stood up very stiff and straight, with his arms away from him. 2014 Pearce is a bit more relaxed, with his front foot much more closed than it had been.
In June, Pearce explained why, saying that it was an experiment that had allowed him to “see the ball longer”:
If that’s true, it’s showing up in how he’s produced against fastballs. 223 players have at least 350 plate appearances this year. Rank them by wFB/C, and you’ll see some pretty impressive names. You’ll also see Pearce, and the two other big unexpected breakouts of the season.
1) Troy Tulowitzki, 3.73
2) Pearce, 3.09
3) Jose Abreu, 2.67
4) Andrew McCutchen, 2.31
5) J.D. Martinez, 2.23
6) Paul Goldschmidt, 2.22
7) Nelson Cruz, 2.18
8) Colby Rasmus, 2.15
9) Josh Harrison, 2.12
10) Matt Kemp, 2.02
Pearce isn’t striking out more or less than he ever did before, nailing his career averages almost to the decimal point in 2014. He’s just hitting the ball a whole lot harder than he ever had before, while still doing what he’s done his entire career, which is to say that all 34 home runs he’s hit in the big leagues have gone to the same direction:
It’s still more likely than not that this is a few hundred plate appearances of excellently-timed production from a Quad-A guy who will never be able to repeat that performance. But for the Orioles, who turned a basically-free acquisition into more than a few wins this year, they don’t have to care what he does in 2015 or beyond. There’s no risk for them if he falls apart, and there’s at least something to try to put into “minor leaguer with some skill finally gets healthy, a chance to play, and a seemingly-useful change in mechanics.” It’s happened before — see Jose Bautista, Martinez, etc. — just not that often, and not usually to this extent. It’s at least somewhat about BABIP, but not excessively so, and he’s added some value on the bases and in the field as well.
With Davis suspended and Machado injured, the Baltimore infield going into the playoffs looks like Pearce, Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy and Kelly Johnson, or Jimmy Paredes. That’s an infield, honestly, that looks like it should be in place on a 73-win team. There’s three different Yankees castoffs in there; or, put another way, there’s two different Astros castoffs in there. It’s not a roster that looks like it should be in contention, much less on pace for 96 wins. Then again, we’ve thought that about the Orioles for a while, and look what’s happened. There’s randomness here, to be sure. There’s also a guy like Pearce, maybe making a career where before there had been none.