Right now, the most frustrating part of watching the Red Sox is their offense, Monday night notwithstanding. They aren’t consistently bad like the starting pitching was in the first couple weeks of the season, and the lineup has put together solid games here and there. However, more often than not they seem unable to get anything going, and more frustratingly they cannot come up with the big hit when a rally does get started. The frustration is compounded by the fact that the rotation has seemed to turn things around and the starters have been solid more often than not. The bullpen, meanwhile, hasn’t been great of late but they’ve more or less contributed what can be reasonably expected. If the offense could play to its expectations, the record would be more palatable right now. There is a lot to go around for the lineup’s inconsistencies and putting a spotlight on a part-time player does seem a bit unfair right now. That said, Steve Pearce has given the team just about nothing when he’s played.
Weirdly enough, although Pearce is not close to the most high-profile player on the roster he seems at least close to being the most surprising underperformer in this first month of the season. Guys like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rafael Devers play a bigger role, but them scuffling at the plate was always seen as a possibility. With Pearce, he doesn’t play an everyday role and never has, and he doesn’t provide much of any defensive value. However, over his entire career he’s been a steady presence at the plate when he does play. He’s always shown solid pop and puts together strong at bats with good plate discipline.
This year, albeit in a very small sample as a part-time player who missed time to start the season, Pearce has been totally absent at the plate. The struggles have been magnified by the fact that the team as a whole is struggling, as is the case for every individual player. That said, this isn’t just a slump. This is a player providing absolutely nothing in terms of value right now. We’re only talking about 43 plate appearances, but he’s got a -26 wRC+ and that’s not a typo.
More striking than the numbers is how it is happening. This is not a guy who is just hitting into some bad luck in a small sample size. Instead, the plate discipline he’s so often been able to rely upon has fallen apart. Pearce is currently striking out just under 40 percent of the time while walking just twice in 43 plate appearances. Furthermore, the balls in play aren’t being hit with any sort of authority. He has just three singles and a double to his name with a hard-hit rate less than half of last year’s rate. That’s when he does make contact, too.
What’s most concerning, though, is how Pearce’s discipline looks at the plate. I mentioned the strikeout and walk rates above, but that is really only part of the story. According to Statcast’s data, Pearce has regularly made contact on about 83-85 percent of pitches in the strike zone, a solid rate that can be expected of a good major-league hitter. This year, that rate has collapsed to 68 percent. On pitches out of the zone, his rate has fallen from a career rate of 55 percent down to 38 percent. Put another way: Pearce isn’t hitting anything. The main culprit has been on breaking balls and offspeed stuff, too, as he’s seen his whiff rate against both offerings more than double over his career norms.
Right now, the Red Sox don’t really have a choice but to let Pearce try and swing his way out of this. However, with each passing plate appearance he looks further and further away from figuring things out. Meanwhile, Michael Chavis is killing the ball and there is no reason to believe he will be sent back down to Pawtucket. With Eduardo Núñez, Dustin Pedroia and Brock Holt trying to work their ways back, roster spots will be needed and playing time for those three plus Chavis.
That provides a perfect chance for Pearce to get a breather and take a step back. It’s always hard to know whether repetition or time away is the best solution to any slump, but with the way Pearce is swinging right now it’s hard to see how more playing time will help anyone. When spots are needed, the best move for everyone might be a short stay on the IL followed by a rehab assignment in which he can hopefully find some confidence against inexperienced pitching. In the meantime, Chavis will get some reps at first base and his bat will stay in the lineup. The best version of this Red Sox team has Steve Pearce producing whenever he’s called upon, but that just doesn’t seem possible right now.