The Boston Red Sox lineup has given us plenty of reasons to be concerned but perhaps none more so than first baseman Steve Pearce.
From World Series hero to the unemployment line? That may be where Boston Red Sox first baseman Steve Pearce is heading if he doesn’t pull out of his season-long slump.
Pearce has been arguably the biggest disappointment in an underachieving lineup this season. The veteran is slashing a putrid .103/.167/.154 in 39 at-bats this season. You know something is wrong when your batting line gives Sandy Leon bragging rights over you.
The last hit that Pearce recorded was 10 days ago and he’s mired in a 0-for-12 streak in his nine appearances since then. His one double this season stands as his only extra-base hit and he’s driven in only one run.
The Red Sox brought in Pearce to do one thing – destroy left-handed pitching. He lived up to his billing as a lefty masher following a mid-season trade last year but that hasn’t been the case in 2019. Pearce is a meager 2-for-16 (.125) against southpaws.
Pearce was meant to serve as the right-handed half of a first base platoon with Mitch Moreland but injuries have forced the Red Sox to shuffle their lineup to occasionally include both first basemen at the same time. The result has been Pearce seeing more at-bats against right-handed pitching (23) than left-handed (16). He hasn’t produced against either but Pearce has been much worse against right-handers (.087/.125/.130) and has no business being in the lineup against them.
Boston made the trade for Pearce last year at a point when the lineup was struggling against lefties. Now Pearce’s own struggles have made facing lefties a weakness for the Red Sox once again. The Red Sox are tied for 21st in the majors with a 79 wRC+ and 20th with a .298 wOBA against left-handed pitching.
This lineup needs Pearce to start mashing lefties again but are there any reasons for optimism that he can turn it around?
On the bright side, we’re still dealing with a relatively small sample of plate appearances. A slow start shouldn’t be all that surprising for a player who saw limited action in spring training and opened the season on the injured list with a sore calf. A platoon player who doesn’t get to play every day may take longer than most to find his groove again.
Pearce is also the victim of some bad luck with a .182 BABIP that sits more than 100 points below his career rate. Even if his skills are starting to deteriorate, some positive regression in this area is a certainty.
It will take more than better luck on balls in play to fix Pearce though. His 27.3 Hard Hit % is by far a career low and well under the MLB average of 34.1, per Baseball Savant. Pearce has recorded only one Barrell in 22 Batted Balls for a career-low 4.5 Barrell Percentage (MLB average is 6.2%). BABIP only explains away a low batting average to a certain extent. Pearce’s average won’t rise to acceptable levels until he starts making harder contact with the sweet spot of the bat.
Which leads us to an even greater concern – Pearce isn’t making contact very often. He’s struck out 17 times in 39 at-bats for a staggering 39.5 K% that would easily rank dead last in the majors if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. This hasn’t typically been a concern for Pearce. The current league average for strikeout rate is 21.4%, a figure Pearce has been below in every other season of his career. For his strikeout rate to suddenly double from last year screams anomaly.
While his track record suggests he should bounce back, there may be some legitimacy to his decline. Pearce is 36 years old, an age where hitters tend to lose bat speed. That would explain the increase in strikeouts and weaker contact.
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The time he missed this spring and unsteady playing time are also factors that should eventually correct themselves but these negative trends at his age indicate he’s unlikely to regain his peak form. Pearce will improve, but how much and how long can the Red Sox afford to wait?
Roster spots will soon be in jeopardy with Dustin Pedroia, Brock Holt, and Eduardo Nunez all working their way back from injury. All three of them have been disappointing in their own right yet it’s hard to make a case for Pearce being more worthy of a spot based on what we’ve seen this season.
Someone is going to be left out once everyone gets healthy and it better not be Michael Chavis. The rookie has given the Red Sox a desperately needed spark since getting the call up for his big league debut. Chavis has mostly been used at second and third base but playing time will be hard to come by at those positions when the injured players return. If Pearce doesn’t heat up, perhaps Chavis takes over his role platooning with Moreland at first base.
Pearce isn’t the only hitter on this team struggling but his performance has been the most troubling. When Jackie Bradley Jr. or one of the catchers goes through a cold spell, at least they still bring value to the table with their elite defense. Pearce isn’t a poor defender but his glove isn’t the caliber of the former Gold Glove winner, Moreland. If Pearce isn’t hitting – especially if he’s not hitting against lefties – then there’s no reason to put him in the lineup.
We should be cautious about jettisoning players early in the season. If the Red Sox designated every player for assignment after a few bad weeks then they wouldn’t have anyone left by September. Pearce hasn’t quite reached the end of his rope yet but he should be on a short leash.