The 2014 season was a memorable one for the O's, and a big part of that was the ridiculous breakout performance of Steve Pearce. After being released by the Orioles and re-signed early in the season, Pearce batted his way into an everyday role. He finished with a batting line of .293/.373/.556 in 383 plate appearances and hit a career high 21 home runs. When it was all said and done, Fangraphs had Pearce as the second-most valuable Oriole behind Adam Jones with 4.9 WAR, and Baseball-Reference liked him even more, putting him ahead of Jones with 5.9 WAR. Pearce finished 9th in OPS (.930) and 6th in wRC+ (161) among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances. He finished between Jose Abreu and Giancarlo Stanton on the wRC+ list. Simply put, he was incredibly good.
This year has been a different story. Although no one expected Pearce to repeat his numbers from last year, his stats have been nothing short of awful to this point in the season. He's hitting a putrid .176/.262/.270, with only two home runs on the season and none since the first series of the year in Tampa. Of the 239 players with at least 80 plate appearances, he's 226th in both wRC+ (46) and OPS (.532).
Clearly, something has changed. Let's try and figure out the underlying cause.
We'll start with some plate discipline stats for 2013 through this year, as well as league averages from last year. A quick primer: O-Swing% and Z-Swing% are the percentage of pitches outside and inside the strike zone that he swings at. The contact percentages are the amount of those swings that result in contact.
I'm taking away three main points from this chart:
1) Pearce's strength appears to be his pitch selection - he's swinging at less pitches out of the zone and more pitches in the zone than the average hitter, both of which are good things. His superior pitch selection makes up for the fact that when he does swing at pitches outside the zone, he whiffs more often than average.
2) Between 2013 and 2014, Pearce became more aggressive at pitches in the zone without any increase in his swings at bad pitches. That's a recipe for success and it may explain at least part of his breakout last year.
3) His 2015 numbers are virtually identical to his 2014 numbers. It doesn't look like his plate vision or his ability to make contact have changed much since last season. We'll have to look elsewhere to explain his 2015 struggles.
Type/Quality of Contact
Time for some batted ball stats. Let's start with the type of contact:
Pearce has always skewed towards hitting a lot of balls in the air, and that's no different this year (league average GB% is around 44%). He's hit a few more line drives and a few less fly balls than expected in 2015, but that probably just comes down to sample size. Either way, he's keeping the ball off the ground pretty much as well as he did last year.
Now, not all fly balls or ground balls are created equal. He could be hitting the ball with less authority - a soft fly ball is nearly always an out, while a hard hit fly ball ends up as a hit more than 50% of the time. Luckily for us, Baseball Info Solutions classifies every batted ball as either soft, medium, or hard. Here are those numbers:
Noticing a theme yet? Once again, 2015 looks pretty much exactly like 2014. Moving on...
After his dominant 2014, it stands to reason that pitchers might approach Pearce differently, giving him fewer fastballs or just fewer good pitches to hit in general. Here's a look at what Steve has been facing.
Pearce has seen slightly fewer fastballs (that difference only amounts to about six on the season so far), but in general everything looks similar to last year. He's actually seen a few more pitches in the strike zone this year, so he's definitely not being pitched around any more than he was before.
So we've established that:
- Pearce isn't being pitched all that differently.
- He isn't swinging at more bad pitches.
- He's swinging at just as many good pitches.
- He's making contact just as often when he swings.
- He's hitting the same amount of balls in the air versus on the ground.
- He's hitting those balls just as hard as before.
Luck and Sample Size
Is it possible that bad luck over a small sample could account for the massive difference between Pearce's 2014 season and his start to 2015? Partially, yes.
Pearce's HR/FB ratio from last year was a major factor in his offensive explosion - fly balls off his bat left the park at nearby double the league average rate (which is around 10%). This stat tends to be pretty random and vary wildly from year to year, so it's entirely unsurprising that Pearce's ratio has snapped back to average this season in 2015.
The main story here, though, is the BABIP. Another stat that's influenced a lot by luck, Pearce's .322 BABIP was good but not off the charts last year. This year, it's sitting at exactly .200. To put that in perspective, out of all 238 players with at least 350 PAs last year, Mark Reynolds finished dead last with a .218 BABIP. Only two players were below .230, and only fourteen were below .250. Pearce's average on balls in play is impossibly low right now, and there's essentially zero chance that it will remain that low for the rest of the season. He's hitting fly balls and line drives at the same rate as last year but they're just not falling in.
Adjusting for Luck: A really unscientific exercise
Just for fun, let's pretend Pearce actually had an average 10% HR/FB ratio last year. Even leaving his above-average BABIP where it was, what would his stats have looked like? First off, his home run total would have dropped from 21 to 12. Since hard fly balls still do result in hits about half the time, I'm going to arbitrarily turn those nine homers into 4 doubles, 1 single, and 4 fly outs. That would change his batting line from .293/.373/.556 to .281/.363/.485.
Moving on to his 2015 stats, I'm going to bump his .200 BABIP up to .300, which is around average. That would add about six hits on balls in play to his current total - we'll give him 4 singles and 2 doubles. Finally, I'm going to tack 2 walks onto his total. Why? His walk rate right now is around 8%, and it's been consistently between 10.4% and 10.9% the past three years. Since we've already seen that Pearce's pitch selection and plate discipline haven't really changed, there's no reason to think Pearce is now worse at taking walks. The lower walk rate is probably just a result of sample size and sequencing.
After those adjustments, his .176/.262/.270 batting line becomes .264/.357/.389. Now, Pearce looks a lot more consistent.
- 2013: .261/.362/.420 (.782 OPS on .300 BABIP)
- 2014, "adjusted": .281/.363/.485 (.848 OPS on .322 BABIP)
- 2015, "adjusted": .264/.357/.389 (.746 OPS on .300 BABIP)