Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Steve Pearce.
The Question: Will Steve Pearce hold up if given more regular playing time?
As we look forward to the 2019 season, there aren’t a whole lot of questions about how this Red Sox roster will shake out. We’re waiting to see how roles will be divvied up in the bullpen and which catchers will make the cut before Opening Day. Other than that, everything is pretty clear for now. However, one of the more underrated potential storylines to me is how things are going to work out at first base. With Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce, the Red Sox have a pair of veterans who aren’t by any means All-Stars but are solid and hit from opposite sides of the plate. The assumption is, understandably, that it will work out as a clean platoon with Moreland hitting from the left side and Pearce hitting from the right.
The more thought I put into it, though, the more I just can’t see this being a straight platoon. Obviously, straight platoons heavily favor the left-handed bat since there are so many more right-handed pitchers than lefties. Leaguewide, there were more than 2.5 times more plate appearances with a righty on the mound than those with a lefty pitching in 2018. In this case, Pearce is the right-handed bat but he has a strong argument for getting more plate appearances than Moreland. At the very least, Moreland shouldn’t get anything close to triple the playing time as Pearce. I’m not even sure Pearce isn’t a better hitter than Moreland, period, regardless of the handedness of the pitcher on the mound. That said, the former has never been more than a part-time player in his career. So, even if he was able to grab himself a bigger role, there’s no guarantee he’d be able to handle it physically.
Before we get to that, though, we should dig more into the argument that he deserves the upper-hand in first base playing time. Look at last season, for example. Pearce’s fame in Boston comes largely from his World Series performance, and for good reason. That was dope! He was great in the regular season, too, though, and that includes his time with Toronto before being traded to Boston. Overall, the veteran hit .284/.378/.512 for a 140 wRC+, and that last number wasn’t even a career-high! Pearce walked at a higher rate than he ever had before (not counting a 15-game stint in 2010), struck out at the lowest rate of his career and posted the second highest Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) of his career. He was outstanding, and none of it looked terribly unsustainable. Of course, it all also came in only 251 plate appearances. Still, even if he takes a slight step back in every area, you’re still looking at a better hitter than what Mitch Moreland has been in his career.
To be clear, this isn’t a one-year blip for Pearce. He’s been a consistently above-average hitter for his entire career and is projected for a 117 wRC+ in 2019 by Steamer. Of course, the obvious rebuttal to all of this is that he benefits greatly from being a part-time player who gets most of his playing time in advantageous situations. It’s logically a totally fair point, but not one that totally stands up. Yes, he is a lefty masher and gets to play a lot against lefties. However, that overshadows the fact that he’s pretty damn good against righties, too. In 2018, he received a few more plate appearances against righties than he did lefties, and while he couldn’t match his 158 wRC+ against southpaws he still put up a mark of 124 against righties. For context, that’s slightly better than Andrew Benintendi’s overall wRC+ in 2018. It’s not just a 2018 thing, either. He hasn’t been a below-average hitter against righties since 2012, and in 2015 and 2017 he was actually better against righties than he was against lefties.
All of this is to say that we should be so quick to assume Moreland should start against righties with Pearce starting against lefties. That may be the plan — I genuinely am not sure — but on merit the latter has a case to be made that he should be getting a good chunk of those starts against righties. Moreland does have the better defensive reputation, and that’s not nothing, but Pearce showed off a pretty slick glove in the postseason last fall. He can handle the gig when needed. Obviously, this has been a bit of an oversimplification of things and issues like a player’s stature in the clubhouse and his time in the game has some bearing on playing time, fair or not. Moreland is not going to be a bench player. The main point is Pearce should play a lot.
At least, based on the numbers he should. The issue comes up that he has actually never done it before. The veteran has been in the majors since 2007 and yet he has played in over 100 games just once, and even that year only got up to 102. Similarly, his career-high in plate appearances is 383, which is only a bit more than half of what we consider a “full season.” The biggest factor there is that he has always been a platoon hitter because of that lefty-mashing we’ve mentioned so much. He’s also had a multitude of injuries over his career, including in recent years issue with his oblique, shin, forearm and back. That he’s about to enter his age-36 season is not going to make this easier.
We saw last year that Cora is a master of getting guys in and out of the lineup, and after their long run through the postseason in 2018 it stands to reason he’ll be right back on that in this coming season. In a way, that makes this moot as both Pearce and Moreland will get time as the DH when necessary as well as first base. That being said, it’s also expected to be a close race in the American League East all year, so there’s an argument to be made that the best possible lineup should be on the field as much as possible. It’s a tough balance to strike, but Cora has earned the benefit of the doubt. As for Pearce, he is good enough to be part of that best possible lineup, the only question is whether or not he’ll be able to hold up in that kind of role as he enters the final years of his career.