There are plenty of reasons why the 2015 Orioles won fifteen less games than the 2014 Orioles. Obviously, the severe regression of the starting rotation was a crippling blow to the Birds' chances of repeating as AL East champs. Plenty of fans will also point to the team choosing not to re-sign Nelson Cruz or Nick Markakis. But another player that played an unfortunate role in the Orioles' decline was Steve Pearce.
In 2014, Pearce was incredible. After hitting his way from the bench into an everyday role, Pearce finished with a batting line of .293/.373/.556 in 383 plate appearances and hit a career high 21 home runs. He finished 9th in OPS and 6th in wRC+ among MLB players with at least 350 plate appearances. In short, he was really good.
This year was a disappointing follow-up to Pearce's breakout season. He started off with an extended slump, which was partially just due to some bad luck. Unfortunately for Pearce, that slump coincided with the hot streak of Jimmy Paredes, and the team started to give away more and more of Pearce's at-bats at DH to Paredes instead. As we expected, Paredes came back to earth, but just as Pearce was starting to hit a little and earn those at-bats back he was sidelined with an oblique injury. He returned in late August, and by the time he was able to get into a bit of a groove, the season was basically over.
This was an utterly lost season for Pearce and it really hurt the Orioles. According to Fangraphs, Pearce was worth 4.9 wins above replacement in 2014, and Baseball-Reference liked him even more at 5.9 WAR. This season, he was worth 0.3 fWAR and -0.4 bWAR. Compare that to Nelson Cruz (3.7 fWAR / 4.6 bWAR in 2014) and Nick Markakis (2.4 fWAR / 2.0 bWAR), and you'll start to see how big a deal this was. WAR is admittedly not my favorite statistic, but based on that alone both sites agree: Pearce's regression from a goliath in 2014 to a replacement-level player in 2015 hurt the Orioles as much or more than the loss of either Markakis or Cruz. Put another way, Pearce finished 2014 between Jose Abreu and Giancarlo Stanton in the rankings for wRC+. This year he finished between Ryan Howard and Anthony Gose.
No matter how you slice the numbers, they make Pearce's 2015 season look terrible. That's because it was. But I still personally believe Pearce is better than this, and that there's a place for Pearce on this team next season. First of all, after posting an usually high BABIP in 2014 he did the exact opposite this year. In fact, his .232 BABIP on the year ranks 262nd out of 268 players with at least 300 plate appearances. The guys down there with him mostly make sense and have obvious reasons for why their BABIP is so low. There are a few left-handed Yankees in Brian McCann and Stephen Drew whose BABIPs were suppressed by the short porch in right field. There are a few players who are complete statues on the basepaths like Albert Pujols and Carlos Ruiz, and you'd expect their speed to turn infield hits into outs. But there's no obvious reason why Pearce would be so low in this department other than the fact that balls simply weren't falling in.
Between bad luck and an oblique injury that can really affect performance at the plate (see: Chris Davis), there's good reason to think Pearce can bounce back next season. No one expects him to repeat his 2014 performance, but I still believe Pearce's "true talent" is at least a league average hitter, if not slightly better - that's the level he performed at after his return from the DL (108 wRC+) and the level he performed at in 2013 before his breakout (115 wRC+). Considering the amount of guys the team flat-out released this year with wRC's in the 70s or 80s, we should know as well as anybody that league-average offense is not something to be taken for granted.
As we discussed a few weeks ago, I'd like to see Pearce back next year. He's a good candidate for a platoon outfield / pinch hitter role given his far better career numbers against lefties, and he can hold his own with the glove out there too. Depending on what the team does with Davis, Pearce could see quite a bit of time at first base as well. He even gives the team some flexibility with their bench, since he can fill in at second base (and possibly third base) in an emergency. Most importantly, his results this year probably ensured that he can be had pretty cheaply on the free agent market.
Steve Pearce certainly had a bad year in 2015, and the Orioles suffered for it. Injuries and bad luck will do that. While he'll probably never have a season like 2014 again, Pearce can be a useful player going forward. If he's going to bounce back next year, let's hope it's in an Orioles uniform.