Is Baltimore's Steve Pearce the Most Underrated Player in Baseball?
Most people don't know his name, but he's been one of the most important players for the Baltimore Orioles in 2014.
Baseball has always loved versatile players. Managers love guys who can play all over the diamond and give them options and versatility, and Orioles 1B/OF Steve Pearce is the type of player every manager would love to have. And at age 31, he is surprisingly having one of the best seasons of anyone in the American League.
Pearce has done it all for the Orioles this season. He's played 42 games at first, 33 games in left field, three games in right field and eight games as the DH. And now, with first baseman Chris Davis suspended for the rest of the regular season and part of the postseason as well, the O's are asking Pearce to be the everyday first baseman for a team that is steaming toward the playoffs for the second straight year.
So far, so good.
Pearce hit a solo home run in Saturday's loss to the Yankees and hit a game-tying, RBI double in the 9th inning of Sunday night's comeback victory over the Yankees in Baltimore. He's having by far the best year of his career, giving manager Buck Showlater versatility and production whenever he's been in the lineup.
In his eight Major League seasons, this is only the third year in which he's had a positive nERD, generating 1.89 runs per game more than a league average player during a 27-out contest this season. His previous best nERD total was last year, at just 0.27. His fWAR is 16th in the American League, accomplished in only 353 plate appearances. By comparison, of all the players with a higher fWAR in the AL, the next closest number of PAs is Yan Gomes' 473. And everyone else ahead of him has at least 550 plate appearances.
Among 145 batters w/ 5 WAR in Age 31 season, lowest WAR through age 30: STEVE PEARCE 0.6 George Davis 4.9 Ken Williams 5.3 Scott Brosius 7.4— High Heat Stats MLB (@HighHeatStats) September 15, 2014
Is this season a fluke? Perhaps. Do you think the Orioles care? They do not.
His slash line is .290/.365/.532 is terrific, and his 17 homers in 353 PAs would equate to 26.5 homers over a 550-plate appearance season. Among AL players with at least 350 PAs, his weighted runs created (wRC+) of 151 would be tied for fifth (meaning he's created 51% more runs than a league average player this season), trailing only Jose Abreu, Mike Trout, Victor Martinez and Jose Bautista. He ranks 13th in on-base percentage, sixth in slugging percentage, and fifth in weighted on-base average (wOBA).
He's done more in fewer plate appearances than any other player in the American League.
Pearce has also been an above average defender, according to defensive metrics. His 10 Defensive Runs Saved at first base and in the outfield would be 15th-best in the AL, with positive numbers for his range and arm strength factoring into his high wins above replacement number.
The O's are going to miss the power provided by their slugging first baseman Chris Davis, who broke through in a big way last year. And while Davis is still a good home run threat and the Orioles would certainly love to have him at first base or at the DH spot, Pearce actually appears to be the better option as the everyday first baseman this season.
According to our nERD metric, Davis has actually cost Baltimore .31 runs a game versus a league average player, and has been barely better than a replacement-level player, according to Fangraphs. Aside from home runs, Pearce has been the superior player by far this year.
It's likely 2014 will go down as the best season of Pearce's career. He had never played more than 61 games in a season before this year and, outside of Adam Jones, he's been the most valuable player on the Orioles. But he's never flashed this kind of production before and, at age 31, 2014 seems to have the makings of a career season for him.
Not that Pearce, or the Orioles, are complaining. For a team looking to win its first world championship since 1983, the O's will be relying on him even more as the calendar flips to October.