Steve Pearce breaks the analytics mold by flourishing at age 35
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Steve Pearce has become the hero for players over 32.
That seems to be the magic age now, when the analytics departments feel you’re over the hill. Pearce is a big “take that!” after performing so well in the 2018 postseason and earning World Series MVP honors (though some thought they should have at least been shared with David Price).
Pearce hit huge home runs in Games 4 and 5, and the 35-year-old (he’ll be 36 April 13) was the last Red Sox player to walk off the field at JetBlue Park Wednesday.
Pearce signed a one-year deal in November to come back to the Red Sox, but he could have gone elsewhere on a multiyear deal, he knows. Three years was going to be a stretch because of his age; no modern-minded organization would ever do it, even though he has broken the analytics mold.
And let’s face it, the Red Sox probably wouldn’t have done it either. If Pearce had demanded two years — which would have been well within his rights after a stunning postseason — the Sox likely would have walked away and found some other righthanded hitter to platoon with Mitch Moreland at first base.
But Pearce loved the Red Sox. He loved them growing up. He loved them throughout his career, even when he was playing in different places. He wanted to stay in Boston and defend the World Series title. So he accepted the same salary — $6.25 million — that he had made the previous year.
OK, that’s still a lot of money, but it could have been more. World Series MVPs usually cash in. Because of his age, however, he probably wouldn’t have gotten much more elsewhere.
“I’ve gone year to year my whole career,” said Pearce as he geared up for the team golf tournament Wednesday afternoon. “I’m used to it. It’s not that I chose to go year to year, but it’s always been forced upon me in my situation.”
It’s because he’s always been labeled a “platoon player,” better against lefties than righties. That’s what the analytics said. It has been a source of major frustration for Pearce throughout his career. Alex Cora knows that Pearce can hit righties well too.
Last season, because Moreland got hurt, Pearce wound up with more at-bats against righthanded than lefthanded pitchers.
In 113 at-bats vs. righties, he hit .265 with 6 homers, 22 RBIs, and an .828 OPS, while he had 102 at-bats against lefties, hitting .304 with 5 homers, 20 RBIs, and a .959 OPS.
“I’ve always been able to hit lefties, but I’ve had to prove I can hit righties, even though I’ve always thought I could,” Pearce said. “That’s the way I’ve been perceived, so there’s nothing I can do about it.
“I think in some ways it’s probably kept me around for a while because they know I can hit lefties really well.
“I love to play. I love the big leagues, and it’s kept me around, so there’s nothing I can complain about in that sense.”
His former manager in Baltimore, Buck Showalter, wasn’t afraid to use Pearce at different positions, including second base.
“You just loved the fact that he was on your team,” Showalter said. “One of the greatest team players I ever managed. He was the most selfless guy you’d ever want to be around.
“He killed lefthanded pitching. He was a kid you could depend on every day to do something for you to win a baseball game. I loved him on my team, and obviously the Red Sox saw what he can do for you in the postseason and World Series.
“He’s just a player who gets it. He understands the game and the moment. He’s someone I always root for.”
Pearce is certainly aware of the many players who have been forced out of the game because of their age. He hates to see it happening.
“It unfortunate,” he said. “There are good ballplayers who get overlooked because they’re looking for the next young phenom.
“There are so many players in this game and they’re getting them from all over the world, a line of talent. But it kind of stinks when they go by projections over guys who have been there and done it.”
There are guys like Pearce’s former Orioles teammates Adam Jones (33) and Matt Wieters (32) looking to hook on. There’s a two-time All-Star in Josh Harrison (31) and a very good player in Logan Forsythe (32) still looking for work. Could Jose Bautista (38) still hit home runs for someone? Probably. Jose Reyes (35) has always been a good hitter for an infielder, except for last season with the Mets (.189).
The older players bring intangibles such as leadership and clubhouse karma, and become extra coaches who are able to school younger players on how to play the game right. Their role is invaluable. Mark DeRosa was kept around because teams knew they were getting a good clubhouse guy. Sometimes you sacrifice a little ability to get those intangibles that can make a world of difference.
It’s a good thing the Red Sox weren’t into age discrimination, or Pearce would have been out of luck. After they dropped Hanley Ramirez, they still needed a righthanded complement to Moreland. They entertained players such as David Freese.
But even though Pearce played for the AL East rival Blue Jays, Dave Dombrowski executed a deal to get him by trading good-hitting infielder Santiago Espinal. Pearce felt as though he had died and gone to heaven.
The Red Sox identified the right guy. Not only because he was a good hitter vs. lefties, but because of what they had learned about him as a person. It was the ultimate analytics-meets-scouting moment.
Even though he grew up in Lakeland, Fla., Pearce had family in New England. He was once drafted in the 10th round by the Red Sox in 2004 but chose to go to the University of South Carolina instead. He wound up going to the Pirates. The Red Sox, his first love, are his seventh team.
“This is what baseball is all about,” Pearce said. “I’ve been a lot of places. When you find that perfect place to play baseball, you know it. This was it for me.
“For me, it was a no-brainer. If they wanted me back, I was willing to do what it takes to do it. I didn’t have to look around very long. In fact, I didn’t have to look at all. We worked it out and now I get to defend a title with the team I want to be with.”
And the Red Sox, throwing age aside, got themselves an MVP. Most Valuable Player and Most Valuable Person.