The Baltimore Orioles are tied for first place in the American League East thanks to the bat of one of the unlikeliest breakout candidates in recent memory. On a roster filled with stars like Chris Davis, Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz, 31-year-old journeyman Steve Pearce has emerged as a recent sensation in Baltimore.
On Thursday night, Pearce's four-hit performance led the way in a 5-2 victory over the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards. With the win, Baltimore moved to seven games over .500. Coupled with a Toronto Blue Jays loss in Oakland, Buck Showalter's team is now tied atop the division with a slight lead due to percentage points.
Amazingly, the former Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros, New York Yankees and, yes, Orioles castoff has been front and center in the success for this Orioles team. With four more hits in the books, Pearce's season slash line is now up to an eye-opening .338/.397/.618. Prior to the start of the 2014 campaign, Pearce owned a .238/.318/.377 career line across 743 at-bats.
While baseball routinely provides breakout stories that are nearly impossible to believe, Pearce's season is truly remarkable. From 2007-2013, Pearce hit 17 career home runs at the big league level. In 157 at-bats this summer, he's hit 10 more.
If the numbers don't blow you away, consider this: Baltimore designated Pearce for assignment in April, leaving the versatile outfielder and first baseman out of work for two days. Eventually, the team actually released him before re-inking a deal.
Without those roster moves working out in its favor, Baltimore would likely be looking up at the Blue Jays and Yankees in the AL East. Prior to the first pitch on July 3, Pearce had played in 47 games for the 2014 Orioles. Over the span, he racked up 2.2 fWAR. After his big night against Texas, that number undoubtedly rose.
Although the day-by-day WAR leaderboard rankings haven't reached mainstream sports conversation, Pearce's value is undeniable. With a higher mark than Yadier Molina (2.1), Ryan Braun (2.0), Buster Posey (1.9) and Jose Reyes (1.5), it's time to take notice of what Pearce is accomplishing.
In the midst of a recent series against the Tampa Bay Rays, Pearce sounded like a player just happy to be part of a major league lineup on a consistent basis, per The Associated Press (via Delaware Online).
“And I want to keep continuing it and doing what I can do to help the team win,” Pearce said. “That’s 10 at-bats in two days, I don’t know if I’ve ever had that in my career.”
As long as Pearce continues to crush the baseball, he'll get at-bats. In fact, Showalter wanted Pearce's bat in the lineup so much that he moved Davis—one year removed from a 53-home run season—to third base for a night in order to open first for the hottest hitter in Baltimore.
To illustrate just how productive the former eighth-round pick has been, let's give some perspective to the wOBA (weighted on-base average) and wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) that Pearce is currently sporting.
With a .437 wOBA—defined by FanGraphs as an attempt to measure a hitter's overall value, weighting each hit or walk in proportion to its actual run value—Pearce is currently performing close to the level of 2011 Miguel Cabrera or 2006 Ryan Howard.
The startling numbers don't stop there. Heading into the July 4 weekend, Pearce owns a 179 wRC+, a statistic defined by FanGraphs as a measure of runs created compared to league average. Much like the popular OPS+, wRC+ uses 100 to define league average. Right now, Pearce is creating runs for the Orioles 79 percent better than an average hitter.
Over the last five completed seasons (2009-2013), here's a full list of hitters to post full campaigns with wRC+ marks of at least 179: Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Albert Pujols. That's it, folks. Not Mike Trout or Joey Votto or Ryan Braun or Josh Hamilton. At this point, Pearce is featuring a small sample size run that equates to vintage Cabrera, Bautista and Pujols.
Before the season began, it was easy to get excited about Baltimore's offense without mentioning or even thinking of Pearce's name. From Davis to Jones to Cruz to Matt Wieters to Manny Machado to Nick Markakis to J.J. Hardy, the Orioles looked poised to crush 200-plus home runs and score 750-plus runs. In the depressed run-scoring environment of today's game, that's an accomplishment.
Yet things haven't gone as planned. Wieters is out for the season due to elbow surgery. Machado, currently serving a suspension for throwing a bat at an opposing player, owns an unimpressive adjusted OPS of 83. Hardy, after averaging 26 homers per year in his first three years in Baltimore, has hit just two thus far this season.
Even Davis, the third-place finisher in the 2013 AL MVP vote, is slugging under .400. With possible lingering effects from a strained oblique suffered in May, it's hard to peg when or if Davis' 50-plus-homer bat will resurface.
Despite all that, the Orioles are hitting enough to win and keep pace in the competitive AL East. Few outside of Baltimore likely realize that Pearce, a player deemed unfit for multiple organizations and condemned to over 2,600 minor league plate appearances since 2005, is a major part of the current Orioles puzzle.