The unlikely rise of Steve Pearce fuels Orioles' AL East resurgence
Back in late April, facing a roster crunch, the Orioles told Steve Pearce something he had heard several times already in his major league career: We're letting you go. The 31-year-old Pearce had been serving as Baltimore's backup first baseman, but had received just seven at-bats in the season's first three weeks, buried behind Chris Davis at first and stuck behind Delmon Young at designated hitter. Needing an extra bullpen arm after some long games, the Orioles' front office figured it could do without Pearce, designating him for assignment on April 22 and ultimately releasing him on April 27.
For Pearce, being cut was nothing new. A former eighth-round draft pick of the Pirates in 2005, Pearce had been released by five different teams already in his career, including two separate times by the Yankees and once previously by the Orioles. His second stay in Baltimore — he was picked up off waivers in September 2012 and lasted the entire 2013 season with the Orioles — was his longest stint with one organization since the end of the 2011 season, but that wasn't enough to avoid a release, and it wasn't hard to see why. In eight years, Pearce had gone from an intriguing power prospect in Pittsburgh to a well-traveled journeyman with a career line of .238/.318/.377. So when Baltimore cut ties with him in late April, it looked like Pearce would be trying to find a new home in yet another city.
But then Pearce got an unexpected second chance with the team that had just sent him packing. The same day Pearce was released, Baltimore placed Davis on the disabled list with an oblique strain. Suddenly finding themselves without a first baseman, the Orioles brought Pearce back three days after handing him his walking papers.
Since then, Pearce has definitely made the most of his opportunity. With a four-hit game against Texas on Thursday night, Pearce is now batting .338/.397/.618 with a team-high 1.015 OPS in 174 plate appearances. If he had enough PAs to qualify, his 179 wRC+ would be just ahead of Troy Tulowitzki for second-best in all of baseball, behind only Mike Trout. Pearce's torrid 2014 has been a big reason why the Orioles, who were 6 1/2 games out of first in the AL East just a month ago, are now tied atop the division with Toronto following Thursday's win against the Rangers, the team's fourth straight victory.
In that month's time, Pearce has more or less carried Baltimore's entire offense. Since June 6, Pearce has hit a ridiculous .382/.451/.716 over 81 at-bats, including six homers and 17 RBI. Thursday's effort was his 12th multi-hit game in his last 22 outings, and the four hits Thursday — two doubles and two singles — were a single-game career high. That hot streak has moved Pearce from backup first baseman to a starting role in leftfield, pushing Nelson Cruz into the starting designated hitter position, and his offense has helped pick up a lineup that's lost Matt Wieters for the season and is getting down years from Davis and Manny Machado.
Looking at Pearce's stats, it's tempting to write him off due to what appears to be an unsustainable batting average on balls in play of .361. But while Pearce has likely been a little lucky, he's earning those hits, with a line-drive rate of 22.9 percent and an isolated power of .276, both career highs. The trick is that Pearce is making pitchers pay for throwing strikes; he's swinging more and making more contact with pitches in the zone than previously in his career while laying off outside pitches. That aggressive approach has been especially effective against fastballs: On the year, Pearce is hitting .455 on four-seamers and .343 on sinkers.
Moreover, the right-handed Pearce has improved dramatically against same-side pitchers. Always a good hitter against lefties, Pearce had never been able to solve right-handers, with an anemic career OPS of .662 against them. This year, however, that's risen to a far more useful .889, including five of his 10 homers. That newfound ability to mash against righties is tied in to his better results against fastballs; Pearce has hit .483 with an .828 slugging percentage on four-seamers thrown by right-handers, compared to a career mark of .273.
The emergence of Steve Pearce has been a boon for Baltimore, but the Orioles aren't without a little luck. Had Davis not gotten hurt, Pearce was reportedly all set to join the team now sitting just ahead of Baltimore in the division: Toronto. On the verge of joining yet another team, Pearce instead came back to one he already knew, and it's made all the difference for both.