Baseball, you will often hear, is a game of adjustments. Especially in this data-driven age, if you show any kind of strong tendency to do something, opposing teams will shift (pun intended) their tactics to counter you. Hit a lot of balls to one part of the field? Expect defenders to position themselves there. Show that you swing and miss a lot of pitches up in the zone? You’ll start seeing more balls at the letters. It’s on you as a player to counter these adjustments, to either deal with the new tactics being used against you or reinvent yourself so that they no longer work.
This is the situation Steve Pearce finds himself in to begin the 2015 season: adjusting to adjustments. In 2014, Steve Pearce crushed fastballs. In particular, among players with at least 350 PA, he was the second-best in baseball when it came to hitting two-seamers. In terms of runs above average per 100 two-seamers seen, the list was:
- Andrew McCutchen: 4.98 runs above average
- Steve Pearce: 4.92 RAA
- Justin Morneau: 4.87 RAA
- Nelson Cruz: 4.50 RAA
- J.D. Martinez: 4.24 RAA
Pearce was above-average against four-seamers, cutters, and sinkers too. The only pitches he had trouble with were sliders and curveballs. Which may be why, in 2015, he’s seeing fewer and fewer fastballs:
This is Steve Pearce’s brand-new baseball game: one in which he sees more and more breaking and offspeed pitches. This is the adjustment opposing teams are making against him, one they’ve been making since 2012.
It’s very early in the year and Pearce has barely faced any pitcher twice, but so far in 2015 he’s struggling to adjust. Through Saturday's game his strikeout rate is up 4% and his walk rate is down 1%. He’s hitting .167/.259/.292, with two home runs, for a 52 wRC+.
You saw above how Pearce is seeing more offspeed pitches than last year. Unfortuantely, so far he's not handling them well. In 2014, his ISO against offspeed pitches was .167. So far this year it's 0. Yep, you read that right. Zero.
Why? He’s swinging more at these pitches than ever before:
But he’s missing them 38% of the time, up from 36% last year. That kind of plate discipline will lead to a lot of strikeouts.
When he does connect with an offspeed pitch, he's usually pulling it foul. Look at the drastic change in spray angle against offspeed pitches so far this year:
In 2014, he was able to stay back on offspeed pitches and hit them roughly up the middle, In 2015, it seems he's champing at the bit to send offspeed pitches over the wall.
He's not doing well on breaking pitches either. In fact, overall, he’s not lofting the ball as much. His ratio of ground balls to fly balls is 1.08, the highest it’s been since 2011. That's not good when you have above-average power like Pearce has. You want him to put balls in the air.
Compared to last year, his groundball rate on breaking pitches is high:
You can see how in 2014, Pearce mostly avoided hitting grounders on breaking balls. In 2015, not so much. These kinds of results will net Pearce more curveballs and sliders and will hurt his offensive production.
However, there are some positive signs. His line-drive rate is above his career level, and his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio is not far off the mark from where it was last year, indicating he can still put a hurting on a baseball when he gets ahold of one. As the season goes on, pitchers will hang change-ups and curveballs in his wheelhouse, and he'll wallop them over the left-field wall as he's been doing his whole career.
Moreover, his BABIP is a putrid .182. As the season continues, fans should expect more batted balls to fall in for hits, especially if he keeps hitting ground balls. Pearce is a dead-pull hitter who’s faced some good defensive pairs to his left: Pablo Sandoval and Xander Bogaerts/Brock Holt on the Red Sox, Josh Donaldson and Jose Reyes on the Blue Jays, and Evan Longoria and Asdrubal Cabrera/Tim Beckham on the Rays.
Pearce’s struggles have gotten him benched, inching closer towards the part-time role he played in 2012 and 2013. On a team with regular outfielders and DHs Travis Snider and Delmon Young, and a regular first baseman in Chris Davis, he can easily be dropped from the lineup.
But one month does not a season make. As he cycles through the league, it's likely that more of his batted balls will fall in for hits and more of his fly balls will go over the wall. Steamer projects him for a 123 wRC+ for the remainder of the season; ZiPS, 119. Those are respectable figures. Indeed, on Sunday against Boston he got two hits and a walk without striking out.