Toronto Blue Jays OF, Steve Pearce started 2017 rather poorly, but will surprise you with his dramatic turn around
Steve Pearce. It’s important to preface any discussion of a player with only 114 plate appearances with a small sample size (SSS) alert. At that number, only a player’s strikeout and walk rates could potentially be considered an accurate representation of that player’s “true talent” over that period of time. It’s especially important, though, when we focus on two equal (and very different) halves of that small sample. [Statistics include all games up to Sunday’s win over the Royals.]
Pearce’s unproductive start to his Blue Jay career
In his first 57 PA with the Blue Jays, Steve Pearce was the third-worst hitter in the majors, in terms of wRC+. In fact, you can basically take your pick of any useful statistic and see that he ranked among the worst around baseball. He wasn’t hitting for average or power —he didn’t get one extra base hit in the entire month of April. He struck out way too much and didn’t walk often enough.
As you’d expect with results this poor, the usual bad luck signs were there. His BABIP was well below his career norm (.285), while Pearce’s lack of extra base hits meant that he had a 0% home run-to-fly ball ratio. That said, even if he had maintained his normal BABIP and hit fly balls for home runs at his career pace (12.1%), he would’ve still put up an OPS around .550 because of all of those strikeouts. While alarming, he has had 17-game stretches in the past in which he ran a strikeout rate over 30%, never lingering there for too long. Similarly, he has had 17-game stretches where he produced a sub-50 wRC+, never lingering long there either.
Steve Pearce: Slow starter?
His lack of power in April, combined with his low-power spring training (two doubles, no homers in 45 PA), made me wonder if he was a habitual slow starter. [Disclaimer: I couldn’t find any research on whether or not being a “slow starter” is real or just statistical coincidence. Intuitively, I would expect some players requiring more time to get going than others.]
His career performances early on in seasons do seem to fit the description. In his time playing for the Pirates, Astros, Yankees, Orioles and Rays, Steve Pearce struggled to produce in the first weeks of the season, particularly having issues generating power. There is a decent chance that the weaker March/April numbers are pure happenstance (he’s only had 172 career PA in those months), but it is an interesting Pearce fact to consider when judging the ups and downs of his 2017 season.
An over-aggressive approach at the plate might have been a key factor behind his poor April
My stab at a potential underlying issue is Pearce’s expanded strike zone. Over his entire career, he has swung at a quarter of the outside pitches he has seen and has maintained a whiff rate of 10.3%, right around the league average (roughly 9-10%). Simultaneously, he was able to generate hard contact in a third of his batted balls. The connection between O-Swing% and Hard% isn’t as obvious as O-Swing% and SwStr%, but it does make sense—swings at outside pitches lead to more weak contact. For example, since 2015, the MLB barrel rate on pitches outside the zone is 0.9% vs. 5.9% on pitches inside the zone.
His 2017 numbers show significant variation around his career norms. In April, he swung at 35% of outside pitches, whiffed 12% of the time and made hard contact only 30% of the time. In May/June, he swung at 23.5% of outside pitches, whiffed 9% of the time and made hard contact 39% of the time.
For me, the lingering image of Pearce in April was a guy taking big swings at pitches outside the zone.
Since early May, that Pearce seems to have been replaced by a version that is much more selective of the pitches he swings at.
Limiting his swings at balls may have helped him avoid whiffs and create hard contact (again, this is just one possible quasi-explanation).
Pearce has completely reversed his results
The fruits of these changes have been incredible. In his last 57 PA with the Blue Jays, Steve Pearce has been the third-best hitter in the majors, in terms of wRC+. In fact, you can basically take your pick of any useful statistic and see that he’s ranked among the best in baseball. Now, he’s hitting for average and power —his .400 ISO is itself third-best in the majors. He is striking out much less often and walking a little bit more.
He is producing both a high-quality process (.389 xwOBA) and high-quality results (.463 wOBA), each surpassing the wOBA he was projected to produce before the season (.352). His above-career average BABIP, HR/FB% and xwOBA-wOBA all definitely point to a lot of good fortune coming his way. But, fundamentally, there is a significant improvement in Steve Pearce’s hitting—his xwOBA has been very good and he’d still be a .306 hitter if his BABIP had been at his career norm (.285).
During his hot stretch, Pearce has been producing all three types of good contact (barrels, solid contact and flares/burners) at above-career average rates, while his total poor contact rate (38.6%) has been running below his career average (43.1%).
He’s only gotten hotter after coming back from the DL
One last piece of positivity is the way Pearce has produced since returning from the DL. He was hot in his 33 PA during May, producing a 172 wRC+ and .371 xwOBA. His time recuperating from his calf injury didn’t slow him down at all. In the smallest of sample sizes (24 PA), Pearce has produced a 223 wRC+, best in the majors this month among batters with 20+ PA. That terrific production has been backed up by very strong PA quality (.413 xwOBA for the month).
This run shows that Steve Pearce isn’t broken
The first month of the season is a time where rough stretches stand out like a sore thumb. The numbers over that stretch are also a batter’s full season numbers, so far, and lead to questions about the player’s future abilities. That’s especially true for a player with a negative wRC+. The hope is always that the player redeems himself relatively quickly and it seems that Steve Pearce has done exactly that.
Obviously, neither his first 17 games, nor his last 17 games are accurate reflections of who he can be over the course of a full season. Nevertheless, I wanted to write this post because I feel that if a guy is gonna get crapped on (by some) for a terrible SSS start, he should get some kudos for a fantastic SSS resurgence.
I’ll leave it to Pearce to determine what the rest of his season looks like, optimistic that he can remain reasonably healthy and productive. With Justin Smoak consistently one of the very best hitters in baseball this season, those 1B/LF worries are looking less and less concerning. With the two of them producing, the Jays could start looking more like the one-through-nine juggernaut we hoped they could still be.
*Featured Image Credit: Keith Allison UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.