It is no secret to Orioles fans how fantastic Steve Pearce has been since the beginning of this season. And we here at Orioles Nation are particularly big fans of Steve Pearce, just follow us on Twitter to see our freak outs. However, one will always have to question the emergence of a 31 year old journeyman. The hot streaks tend to be just that, streaks of luck and greatness that are as fleeting as they are impressive to watch (anyone remember Bryan LaHair the All Star?). Yet, some players figure out how to produce later in their careers, the Jays have been enjoying Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion mashing the baseball to death as they reinvent themselves in the seeming twilight of the their careers. Therefore, below is an analysis of the current Steve Pearce and attempting to parse out what about him to date this year has been luck driven and what has been skill/change driven.
First and foremost, Steve Pearce is batting.331/.392/.569 for an OPS of .961 with a wOBA of .418 (7th highest among batters with at least 130 PA) and wRC+ of 166 (11th best). He has an above average walk rate and an above average strike out rate. He has posted 1.9 fWAR making him the third most valuable player on the Orioles to date this season. An absolutely shocking amount of production who has a career OPS of .733. Steve Pearce has always been a useful player at the back end of the roster, but he has never put up numbers like these.
Looking beyond the surface numbers, Pearce has posted a .391 BAPIP to date this year indicating some possible luck. However, Pearce has a career high line drive rate of 25.3% which places him firmly in the top of the league. The best thing for Pearce about the increased line drive rate is that it has almost exclusively led to a decrease in ground ball rate. He has maintained his fly ball rate slightly above 40% and he has increased his HR/FB rate to 17.1%. That may indicate some luck, however with the huge jump in line drive rate it is clear that Pearce is hitting the ball much harder so that number may not be too artificially high. Basically, Steve Pearce is putting up great numbers at the plate this season because he is squaring up the ball better than he ever has in his career.
The reason Steve Pearce is hitting the ball harder than he has ever before in his career has been his ability thus far to absolutely demolish fast balls. He has a 5.02 wFB/c. That stat is a linear pitching weight divided by 100 pitches in order to even the numbers out between batters that see more or less of once pitch. wFB/c attempts to determine which pitches a batter is the most successful against. If a batter squares up a certain pitch more often than not, then his wFB will be higher. The inverse is also true. Steve Pearce’s wFB/c is 5.02, good for first in the majors by a full point among batters with at least 140 plate appearances. It is important to note that these numbers are not predictive in nature but descriptive. Also, small sample sizes can greatly affect the statistic because of pitches being misclassified. Regardless, Steve Pearce has shown a keen ability to crush fast balls better this year than he ever has in his career before. Also, just to state it, he has been just about average against all other pitches. The other key for Pearce is that he is seeing LESS fast balls than he has ever before in his career and way MORE sliders. An indication that he is showing an ability to lay off pitches he cannot hit and swing, hard, at pitches he can.
In addition, these increases in numbers have come from a change in mechanics. He has clearly and sharply closed his stance, which is a rarity these days. It is also noteworthy that not only does he close his stance pre-pitch he keeps it closed during his load and when he makes contact. Many batters will not have a straight up stance pre-pitch, think about how open Nelson Cruz is before the pitch and how he closes his stance to even during his load and at the point of contact. Batters do this for many reasons, which is why it is surprising how Pearce keeps his stance closed throughout the hitting process. Below are two pictures that show Pearce’s stance during load and during the point of contact. Notice how his front foot stays inside his back foot the entire time.
Notably, that pitch is a fast ball from Matt Garza and it is an inside pitch in which Steve Pearce still keeps his stance closed and crushes the pitch down the line for a three run home run. Keeping his stance closed even on an inside pitch is impressive. Others have noted publicly that his closed stance has allowed him to recognize pitches in particular on the inside portion of the plate. This allows him to lay off pitches he may have previously swung at and missed entirely. This gives him a better ability to turn on inside pitches he knows he can hit. Below are two .ISO heat maps (I know, .ISO again, but it’s my favorite so lay off). The first heat map is every season prior to 2014 and the second one is 2014 alone.
In the past, Pearce could barrel up the inside middle pitch and drive it. This is what made him a nice bench piece, because while he had his flaws he could still put a ride into a mistake pitch. However, to date this year, he has been able to hit pitches up and down the middle of the plate and the up and in pitches. His closed stance has allowed him to see and reach the inside pitches and given him an outside chance at slapping a double down the line on an outside pitch.
It is hard to determine what Steve Pearce will be going forward. The altered stance and improved batted ball numbers both reveal an improvement to Pearce’s game. Luck has not been the driving force behind his success to date in 2014, it has been his ability. However, it is hard to believe that Steve Pearce has suddenly turned himself into far and away the best fastball hitter in the major leagues. Pitchers and teams will adapt if he continues on his torrid pace and then the changes to his swing will truly be tested. Regardless, Pearce’s versatility in the field and ability to barrel up a fast ball will always be valuable, even if he is not the player long term he has been to date this year.