Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Steve Pearce.
The Year in a Sentence
Steve Pearce was only in Boston for half a season, and he was only a part-time player in that half-season, but against the odds he made himself a legend in the city’s sports lore forever.
So, yeah. Like I said, Pearce was a part-time player for half of a season and still managed to become a legend around these parts. You don’t do that without being a positive pretty much all the way through. Still, we have to start with the postseason, and particularly with the World Series. Pearce was able to start for the majority of the postseason after Mitch Moreland suffered an injury that rendered him into a pinch hitting role, and he was unbelievable. Over the entire month of October, the journeyman hit .289/.426/.658 with four homers and a near never-ending supply of clutch hits. In the World Series, he hit three homers over the final two games, one of which was the second most important play of Game Four (per Baseball-Reference) and another the most important play of the championship-clinching Game Five. That’s how you win a World Series MVP.
Pearce is obviously, and deservedly, going to be remembered for his performance in the postseason, but don’t sleep on what he added to this team in the regular season as well. The veteran was actually added fairly early for a trade acquisition, coming over from the Blue Jays for Santiago Espinal in the final week of June. He didn’t stop hitting after coming to the Red Sox. After the trade, Pearce finished off the regular season with 165 plate appearances in a Boston uniform while hitting .279/.394/.507 for a 143 wRC+. That final number, while over a much smaller sample, puts him on the same level as guys like Paul Goldschmidt and Manny Machado over the course of the entire season.
Pearce was, to put it simply, good at just about everything. He hit for power, finishing his Red Sox portion of the year with a .228 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG). He struck out only 16 percent of the time at a time when the league-average hitter is striking out over 22 percent of the time, and with much less power. He walked over 13 percent of the time, way over his career norms and five percentage points higher than the league-average. He was even an above-average base runner!
Narrowing the scope a little bit, there were two major areas in which Pearce’s presence in the lineup was particularly key. For one thing, and this was the biggest reason he was added to the roster in the first place, is his ability to hit against left-handed pitching. I think his prowess against southpaws overshadows the fact that he’s pretty damn solid against righties as well, but the Red Sox were having major issues against lefties in the first half. Pearce was exactly what the doctor ordered, and he posted a 171 wRC+ against lefties with the Red Sox. He was also tremendous against the Yankees, who you may not be surprised to learn was the team’s biggest competition in the division and arguably in the American League as a whole. It was only eight games, but Pearce hit five (5!) home runs and posted a 269 wRC+ against New York. Not only was it important, but it was rad as hell to watch as a fan.
Finally, I have to give a shoutout to his defense, particularly in the postseason. When Moreland couldn’t play more than a pinch hitting role in the playoffs, the biggest concern was with how it would affect the infield defense. Pearce didn’t and doesn’t have the defensive reputation of Moreland, to put it lightly. If anything, though, he had a positive impact on everyone else. Pearce made a number of great plays, saving bad throws and and showing off absurd flexibility for huge stretches that created outs on their own. His bat was the headliner, but he was no scrub in the field either.
Honestly, there isn’t much of anything I can put in this section. Pearce ultimately didn’t play all that much with the Red Sox, and over the small-ish sample size he was essentially exclusively good. Everything about his offensive profile was tremendous. His baserunning rated positively despite his status as an aging position player who can only play in the corners and really should only be playing first base. His defense, as mentioned, was surprisingly solid. There’s nothing he was really bad at!
If you want to squint, you would be surprised by the couple of real negatives I could find looking through his splits with the Red Sox. Granted, these are all over small enough sample sizes that they should be thrown out, but I feel guilty not putting anything here. So, here it is. Pearce was pretty bad in high-leverage spots! Obviously this didn’t carry into the postseason, but according to Fangraphs at least he posted a 55 wRC+ in high-leverage situations. That’s almost Sandy León-level bad! Of course, it was also over 19 plate appearances. Pearce was also pretty bad as a pinch hitter — which isn’t ideal as a lefty-crushed — with a wRC+ of 13. This was over a whopping ten plate appearances. Like I said, this is Extreme Reaching.
The Big Question
The Year Ahead
The first order of business for the Red Sox this winter was bringing Steve Pearce back on a one-year deal, a move that was almost unanimously loved by Red Sox fans. Obviously a large part of that love was due to his postseason heroics, but that wasn’t all of it. Pearce is also still a productive player on a team-friendly deal who will play a key role in 2019 again. First base is going to be described as a platoon between Pearce and Moreland, and that’s only partially true. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this 100 times already so sorry for repeating myself, but it’s not going to be a straight platoon. As mentioned above, Pearce is better against righties than he gets credit for, and I think he’ll end up being the guy who ends up with the most playing time at first base. He’ll also be in contention for the loudest cheers for every game at Fenway next year.