Steve Pearce: Fantasy Bargain Bin
In just one week the ALCS runner-up Baltimore Orioles lost baseball’s top HR hitter of 2014 and steady, long-time outfielder Nick Markakis. That’s a considerable amount of outfield production and with no free agent signings yet, it seems as if their replacements will come from within the organization.
As it stands right now, the Orioles’ outfield on opening day will be Alejandro De Aza in LF, Adam Jones in CF, and Steve Pearce in RF. Yes, you read that correctly. Steve Pearce will be the Orioles starting RF and if you play in deep enough fantasy leagues this may not come as a shock to you, but those in more standard-sized leagues may be thinking, who is this Pearce guy?
Last year, Pearce was worth 4.9 WAR which was good enough for second on the team to perennial All-Star Adam Jones. The line put up by Pearce was impressive—103 G, .293 BA, 21 HR, 51 R, and 49 RBI. His flexibility for the Orioles awarded both Buck Showalter and fantasy owners as he played 51 G at first base, 35 G in left field, and 8 G in right field. For 2015, most projections have Pearce slotted in as the Orioles starting right fielder.
Now that we know Steve Pearce enjoyed a career year in 2014, is eligible at multiple positions, and has a starting job going into 2015 the real question is can he sustain it?
For much of Pearce’s career he was adept at hitting lefties but struggled against right handed pitching. In 2014 he bucked that trend with a respectable .279 vs RHP that came with 12 HR. Pearce actually saw a bigger difference between him Home and Away splits than he did LHP vs RHP.
We know that Pearce was able to hit RHP at a respectable rate last season — nearly 40 points higher than his career BA of .240 — so what changed? If you look to Pearce’s numbers it is hard to see anything that really stands out as being markedly different from his career batted ball stats except for his LD% vs RHP which increased to 19.1% from his career mark of 17.2%. In a September article on Fangraphs, Mike Petriello attributes much of this new success to a change in his batting stance.
This new batting stance, according to Pearce, allows him to see the ball longer and as a result he has become one of the game’s best fastball hitters. Brooks Baseball classifies Pearce with a good eye against breaking pitches and an exceptionally good eye vs off-speed pitches, which allows him to wait on that fastball and work the walk if it doesn’t come. Pearce’s ability to wait for his pitch has allowed him to drive the ball with authority and in 2014 he posted a very respectable average fly ball distance of 286.6 ft — right in between perennial sluggers Carlos Gonzalez and Bryce Harper.
While the offseason is far from over, it seems like Pearce will be staring in some capacity in the outfield whether it’s LF or RF. Steamer has Pearce projected for a line of .270 BA, 23 HR, 78 R, and 74 RBI. For me, these numbers pass the eye test since I assume he will spend the majority of his time batting 2nd in the order again this season due to his strong OBP. Pearce’s steamer projection has him tied for 15th among all starting outfielders in HR.
Many fantasy owners will continue to be dismissive about Pearce heading into draft day and he will likely land well outside of the top 50 outfielders taken. For context, Pearce finished 45th on ESPN’s player rater last season and could reasonably crack the top 35 given the increase in plate appearances he expects to get.
This isn’t the type of move that wins you a league, but being able to have a guy like Pearce on the cheap gives you depth and flexibility to round out your roster.