Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Aug. 1, 2018 – Source: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images North America)
Over the last six games, Steve Pearce has been in the starting lineup just once. In his stead, Mitch Moreland has been manning the first base position with regularity. Now, this is probably the byproduct of the Boston Red Sox facing a slew of right-handed pitchers. Moreland and Pearce have been essentially platoon partners since the latter’s arrival in Boston.
Pearce is the lefty masher while Moreland is the reliable cog against righties, at least as far as conventionalism goes. Upon further examination, however, it appears Steve Pearce should get the lion’s share of the work at first, even against right-handers.
Have you heard of xwOBA (expected wOBA)? Basically, it is stat that quantifies how well a player should be producing runs based on his quality of contact and strikeout and walk numbers. It is one of the most illuminating stats insofar as a player’s true talent, striping batted ball luck out of the equation.
Well, do you know leads all of baseball in xwOBA with at least 150 plate appearances? Mookie Betts is second and J.D. Martinez is third but Pearce has the best xwOBA in the entire league. His .466 xwOBA is considerably higher than his actual .404 xwOBA, suggesting he has been getting pretty unlucky. With how he’s hitting the ball, he should be producing even better than the 157 wRC+ and .952 OPS he has accumulated this season.
This is important because it shows that there is more signal than noise to what the right-handed hitter has been doing this year. It seems like a safe bet he will continue to produce at a similar level going forward. Moreland has also been getting unlucky this season , with a .386 xwOBA and .336 wOBA. Still, his .386 xwOBA is significantly less impressive than Pearce’s .466.
Perhaps Pearce’s league-best xwOBA is the byproduct of him being selectively used against southpaws? While the answer to question is a resounding “yes,” he has been good against both handed pitchers in ’18.
In 82 plate appearances against lefties, the 35 year old (!) has churned an otherworldly 188 wRC+ and 1.066 OPS. Intuitively, most people know he has made a career out of hitting left-handers incredibly hard but it is still very nice to see any split have an OPS over 1.000.
Meanwhile, facing righties this year, he has featured a 136 wRC+ and .876 OPS in 95 plate appearances. That is also very good, especially when one considers Moreland has a 117 wRC+ and .821 OPS against right-handers in a much larger 284 plate appearance sample this season.
To reiterate, the argument is about whether Pearce should be the starting first basemen against right handed pitchers. With the samples we have been given, Pearce has fared better against righties on a rate basis. Then again, the sample is so paltry that we need to expand it to get a better assessment of the right-handed hitter’s true talent against his right-handed counterpart.
As such, let’s look at how Moreland and Pearce have done versus righties over the past three seasons. Moreland has come to plate against righties 1,152 times and has compiled a .764 OPS and 98 wRC+. Pearce, on other hand, has batted 555 times and has collected a .795 OPS and 114 wRC+. Point Pearce.
In fact, from an offensive standpoint it makes entirely more sense to have Pearce as your primary first baseman. At the very least, he should be getting the start more than once per week. With that said, there’s the defensive element that needs to be taken into consideration.
Moreland is a renowned Gold Glover at first while Pearce is regarded as a “meh” defender. While defensive metrics are pretty volatile, Pearce and Moreland have been graded roughly the same, with a big discrepancy in their opportunities (Moreland has played more). Mitchy 2 Bags has a -2 DRS and a 4.9 UZR/150 this season, as he has dropped off in his defensive production this year. His range score has taken a big hit but it is difficult to tell how much substance there is to that.
Moving to Pearce, he has a 1 DRS and 8.3 UZR/150 in a much smaller sample this season. For their respective careers, Moreland has garnered a 16 DRS and Pearce a 14 DRS. They’re probably much similar in defensive value than one would initially surmise. Still, it seems like Moreland is the slightly better defender but not enough where it would close the offensive gap between two.
Further, Pearce has been a much better baserunner in his career with a 3.8 lifetime BsR, compared to Moreland’s -12.1. There’s also value in that.
Moreland has come to plate 380 times in 2018 while Pearce has come up 176. Despite the obvious opportunity difference, Moreland has a 1.0 fWAR and Pearce has a 1.3 fWAR.
The more I dig in, the more I am convinced Pearce should get more reps. With all the information we have access to, it is apparent Pearce is the more valuable player versus left and right-handed pitching. The guy the Red Sox traded a middling prospect to the Blue Jays for was not expected to hit three bombs against the New York Yankees in a single game, but he did. He also was not expected to lead the MLB in xwOBA on August 21st, yet here we are. It is just weird that this guy is riding the bench when, by and large, it is pretty evident he is better than the guy taking at-bats from him.
People could use the argument that “the Red Sox are nine games up in the American League East, so it does not really matter, these marginal gains” but Steve Pearce deserves more opportunities. Placing Pearce in the lineup more consistently provides a more optimal lineup. They are not resting him for the postseason or anything.
Anyway, the logical conclusion here is “free Steve Pearce.”