Can You Trust Steve Pearce to Repeat His Fantasy Baseball Success in 2015?
Steve Pearce was one of the more positive surprises in baseball last year.
The Orioles outfielder came into the 2014 season with a lifetime slash line of .238/.318/.377 (good for a wRC+ of 87), with an average of 10 home runs per 162 games and 121 plate appearances per season. He posted a healthy 9.4% walk rate, but Pearce was hardly on the fantasy baseball radar.
Then last season happened.
Pearce posted a .293/.373/.556 line (and a 161 wRC+, which was sixth in the majors among players with 350 plate appearances) to go along with 21 home runs in 383 plate appearances (all career highs).
Let’s start with the obvious: Don’t expect this again in 2015. We are talking about a player with more than 800 mediocre plate appearances, so we should not overreact to 383 great ones.
But you knew that already. The better way to approach this is to question to examine just how much stock we should put into last season.
While we’re getting the obvious out of the way, yes, Pearce had a higher than average batting average on balls (BABIP) in play last season (.322 compared to the league average of .299 and his .283 career average from 2007 to 2013).
There was no obvious uptick in hard-hit balls, either. His 19.4% line drive rate marked an increase from his previous career rate of 17.5%, but was still below the league average of 20.8%, according to FanGraphs. Also, his infield fly rate of 9.2% was almost identical to the 9.3% rate he had heading into the season, so we can infer there was some good fortune in his high BABIP.
Still, good luck certainly does not explain everything involved in a season that marked a .097 increase in his previous career wOBA, and there certainly appear to be elements of his breakout year that are sustainable.
Power and Walks
For example, there is his ability to hit for power. Pearce has always profiled as a fly ball hitter, with a 43.5% career fly ball rate (his fly ball rate was 45.6% in 2014), but last year he tied for sixth in the majors in isolated power among players with at least 350 plate appearances (.263).
His career ISO is .178, so we should expect some regression, but this is still an above average mark (the big league average ISO was .135 last season and has been between .135 and .155 since Pearce entered the league).
Pearce also posted a 17.5% home run to fly ball (HR/FB) rate, up from his career average of 10.3%.
ISO and HR/FB tend to be fairly reliable statistics. Russell Carleton found that ISO takes about 160 at bats to stabilize, while HR/FB stabilizes after 50 fly balls. (Pearce hit 120 fly balls last year according to FanGraphs; note that HR/FB is different for hitters than for pitchers, as for pitchers, it is an extremely flukey stat and is usually associated with luck.)
As mentioned, a high percentage of Pearce’s career balls in play have been fly balls. In 2014, he put more balls in play thanks to a more aggressive approach at the plate, and thus, hit more fly balls.
Pearce made contact on 76.3% of his swings last year, right in line with his 76.2% career contact rate. The difference, though, was that he swung more often, posting a 47.5% swing rate (up from his 44.0% career percentage and the first time since 2007 he was above 45%), according to FanGraphs.
With his contact and fly ball rates remaining roughly the same as his career averages, more swings meant more balls in play, and more balls in play meant more fly balls. All things being equal, fly balls lead to a higher wOBA and are thus very valuable.
While isolated power and ball in play stats tend to be stable, they have nothing on strike out or walk rates in this department (Carleton says they stabilize after 60 and 120 plate appearances, respectively). While much of 2014 was new for Pearce, his strikeout and walk rates stayed the same.
Before the 2014 season, his career walk rate was 9.5% and his career strikeout rate was 20.1%. Last season, he walked 10.4% of the time and struck out 19.8% of the time, and because of this profile, Pearce has more fantasy value to those in on-base percentage leagues than standard ones.
A New Stance?
As for his overall approach, it is possible Pearce may have figured out how to hit right-handed pitching, but we need more data to say this with any kind of certainty.
The right-handed hitter has a career 138/93 lefty/right wRC+ split, and had never had a wRC+ higher than 80 against same-sided pitching until 2013. That season, he posted a wRC+ of 109 against righties, before posting a .279/.360/.496 slash line in 272 plate appearances against northpaws last season (good for a 142 wRC+, which stilled paled in comparison to his 209 wRC+ in 98 plate appearances against lefties).
Being the stat-savvy reader you are, I don’t need to tell you this is a small sample and that we need to use caution when looking at these numbers. Still, for what its worth, Pearce did make some mechanical changes that could, at least partially, explain what is going on here.
As Mike Petriello of FanGraphs notes, Pearce closed his batting stance in 2014, and said it helped him “see the ball longer.” It makes sense, then, that this new stance would help him against same-sided pitching. Then again, its hard to say this with certainty, given the sample size issues.
What the Projections Say
Projections models don’t know anything about batting stances, and in the case of Pearce, they don’t care. They like him a lot anyway.
While they don’t foresee a repeat of his 2014 season, the formulas judged enough of what happened in that 4.9 fWAR campaign as sustainable to forecast another strong season.
Our numbers forecast an .831 OPS season, which would be 11th-best among outfielders. Here is a closer look at what our model and some others project for Pearce in 2015 (we’ll include runs and RBI for fantasy purposes).
All four systems project similar production in terms of rate stats, and ZiPS only stands out in terms of counting stats because it projects less playing time. One other thing of note is the low RBI totals, which have less to do with Pearce and more to do with a lack of opportunities (as I wrote in our third base preview, no team had fewer plate appearances with runners in scoring position than Baltimore last year).
All things considered, there appears to be enough evidence that Pearce’s 2014 was not a fluke, so you can be comfortable owning him in fantasy this year.