When asked who the funniest guy on the team was during a Jays Care event in late July, Marcus Stroman answered “Steve Pearce.” This assertion only added to the level of intrigue one might have over a self-proclaimed Ping-Pong champ who can hit two walk-off grand slams in four days but cannot maintain tidy eye black past the first couple innings.
Preliminary Google searches only revealed more questions, at which point it was concluded that a deeper dig must be done in an attempt to unravel the mystery of Steve Pearce.
“THIS SHOULD BE A VERY POSITIVE DEAL FOR THE JAYS” - Paul Swydan (FanGraphs)
After denying their waiver claim in early 2014, Steve Pearce signed a two year, $12.5 million dollar contract with the Blue Jays in December of 2016, leaving the Boston Red Sox as the sole American League East team he has not played for.
Pearce was very high on the Blue Jays’ list for a couple reasons; primarily, his strong offense spanning over five years in the AL East (Pearce has a career .852 OPS vs. left-handers, and the Jays struggled to hit lefty pitching in 2016). He also had the ability to play both first base and the outfield (the front office planned to platoon Pearce at first with Justin Smoak, but could move him to left field if needed).
Pearce had recently undergone surgery at the time of signing, leaving many questioning his health, but Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins was confident he would be good to go by opening day. Atkins admitted they weren’t expecting the 33-year-old to be an everyday player, but they had hoped a year of good health would allow him to play on a regular basis.
Pearce was healthy enough to compete on opening day in 2017, but his April numbers left much to be desired. He batted .167/.211/.167 with no home runs in 17 games. Furthermore, Pearce manned first base, the only position he was considered to be above average defensively at, three times before being relegated to left field for the foreseeable future.
Pearce finally started mashing in May. He put up a 1.092 OPS in 10 games before straining his calf muscle legging out a double in front of a home crowd on Mother’s Day. After missing a month, he hit .270/.341/.461 with nine home runs in the next 65 games (good for a 119 wRC+), but sat out the last three weeks with a back injury. Defensively, Pearce’s performance in left field was underwhelming, posting a -7.0 UZR and a -6.0 DRS. However, Pearce looked more than competent when filling in at first base, even diving into the stands to make an incredible catch.
“HE’S DONE IT AGAIN!” - Buck Martinez (Sportsnet)
Pearce’s personal highlights of 2017 are also strong contenders for the team’s best moments of the season; the two walk off grand-slams. The first one came against the Oakland Athletics, in the tenth inning, to break a tie. The latter came just three days later against the Angels, as the finale to the largest ninth inning comeback in Blue Jays history. After the first, Pearce became the third player in Blue Jays history to hit a walk-off grand slam, and after the second, he became the third player in MLB history to hit two walk-off grand slams in a single season.
“[FOLLOWING PEARCE, JUSTIN] SMOAK HAS SOME BIG SHOES TO FILL” - South Carolina 2005 Baseball Media Guide
Steve Pearce spent two years at Indian River Community College, leading the team in batting average both years. He was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 45th round of the 2003 draft during his sophomore year, but chose to instead enroll at the University of South Carolina.
Pearce was a Gamecock triple-crown winner in 2004, and set a school record for a 1.000 fielding percentage at first base. The Boston Red Sox drafted him in the 10th round of the 2004 draft, but Pearce elected to return to South Carolina where he dominated for a second straight year. The Pittsburg Pirates drafted him in the 8th round of the 2005 draft, and this time he signed, receiving a $40,000 bonus.
By 2007, Pearce was Pittsburgh’s third best prospect, ranking behind only Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen. After hitting .333/.394/.622 with 31 homers, Pearce earned himself a September call-up, and made his Major League Debut on September 1st, 2007.
Pearce was optioned back and forth many times over the next few seasons, often hitting well in AAA, but struggling with consistency at the MLB level. Furthermore, a myriad of different injuries prevented him from playing more than 60 major league games in a single season. Some wondered if he would ever be more than a AAAA player.
“DID I EVER THINK ABOUT JUST GIVING UP? OF COURSE...BUT BASEBALL IS ALL I HAD KNOWN” - Steve Pearce, to Jerry Crasnick (ESPN)
2012 was a wild year for Pearce. He started out the year on a minor league contract with the Twins, but they released him on March 27th. Two days later, he signed a minor league contract with the Yankees, but was traded to the Orioles in June for cash. The Orioles tried to sneak him through waivers in late July, but the Astros claimed him. One month later, the Yankees re-acquired Pearce for cash from the Astros. This time, he played on the major league team, but he was once again designed for assignment in late September. The Orioles claimed Pearce on September 29th in the same manner in which they lost him, off waivers. To recap, Pearce played for six teams, four organizations, and two leagues in 2012. He accumulated a 92 OPS+ and a 96 wRC+ in the majors during that span.
After his nomadic year in 2012, Pearce spent all of his playing time from 2013-2015 with the Orioles. He made the major league roster out of Spring Training in 2013, but only appeared in 44 games due to recurring left wrist tendonitis.
After agreeing on an $850k deal to avoid arbitration over the winter, Pearce secured an opening day spot with the Orioles again in 2014, but he struggled to find playing time and he was designated for assignment on April 22nd. The Blue Jays made a claim, but Pearce chose to elect free agency and remain with the Orioles, largely because a sudden injury to Chris Davis opened up a role for him. Normally a player would have to wait 30 days after being released to re-join the releasing team’s active roster, but because the Orioles did not immediately fill Chris Davis’ spot, they were permitted to bypass this rule.
This turned out to be a very beneficial to the Orioles, as Pearce had a career year playing first base and left field in 2014. In 102 games, he slashed .293/.373/.556, with 21 home runs, accumulating a 157 OPS+ and a 5.9 bWAR. His defensive numbers were also solid, posting a 9 DRS/4.9 UZR at first, and 9DRS/6.3 UZR in left field.
Pearce also got his first (and only) taste of playoff experience that year, participating in all games in both the ALDS (the Orioles swept the Tigers in three games) and the ALCS (the Orioles were swept by the Royals in four games). Pearce went 4-for-27 in that stretch, with one extra base hit (a double).
Pearce received a significant raise to $3.7M in 2015, a figure that was negotiated to the exact midway point between his request of $5.4M and the Orioles’ counter of $2.0M. However, Pearce’s 2015 campaign was a disappointing one as an oblique strain took him out for a month in late July, and he only managed a 93 wRC+ in 92 games.
After three seasons with the Orioles, Pearce signed a one-year, $4.5M deal with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016. His deal included a $1.25M bonus for plate appearances, and a $250k payout if he was traded. Pearce slashed .309/.388/.520 with 10 homers in 60 games with the Rays, and he was once again traded, on August 1st, back to the Baltimore Orioles. Pearce elected free agency in November, and signed his current two-year deal with the Blue Jays in December.
“...IF YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE CELEBRATION, DON’T DO ANYTHING GOOD” - Steve Pearce, to Hazel Mae (Sportsnet)
Based off his career defensive numbers (9.5 UZR at first, -5.7 UZR in the outfield), it is clear Steve Pearce would be best suited to play as a first baseman or designated hitter, but Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales won’t likely be moved off those positions anytime soon. Depending on which outfield acquisitions the Blue Jays’ front office makes over the next few weeks, Pearce’s role on the 2018 Blue Jays could be in question. Many would argue he is a likely trade target. If Pearce could replicate his 129 wRC+ from May through August in 2018, he could be a very valuable contributor. If he wanted to keep hitting grand slams, that would be welcomed too. At the very least, perhaps he can sort out his eye black issues.