ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 23: Steve Pearce #28 of the Toronto Blue Jays reacts after hitting a three-run homerun during the ninth inning of a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium on June 23, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Things just didn’t quite work out like Steve Pearce or the Blue Jays had hoped for him in Toronto, mostly because of a big surprise in his first season.
When the Blue Jays signed Steve Pearce to a two year, 12.5 million dollar deal before the 2017 season, it was met with a mixed reaction. That was mostly because it was pretty much the end of dreaming of returning to Toronto, especially after the front office had already signed Kendrys Morales to be the primary DH.
The original plan when he was signed was to have Pearce play a lot more first base, and perhaps spend a bit of time in the outfield. That was before Justin Smoak turned into an All-Star calibre first baseman, much to the surprise of pretty much everyone.
With Smoak tearing the cover off the ball at first and Morales unable to play a defensive position, John Gibbons had no choice put to start Pearce in the outfield, likely way more often than anyone would have expected or hoped. In 92 games played around a variety of injuries in 2017, Pearce appeared in the outfield in 85 games, and started at first just 10 times that season.
It wasn’t an ideal scenario, especially because he was recovering from a forearm injury from the 2016 season, and didn’t have his full arm strength when he came to camp. He’s also never been a strong defensive outfielder, and hadn’t played out there a lot, making just 12 starts in 2016 with the Orioles, and 40 the season before.
It’s not as if he’s incapable of playing the outfield, it’s just that there’s clearly a different comfort level for him at first base, which makes sense as a less demanding position on the body, and one that is more suited to his skillset. It’s hard to say whether or not that played a factor in his struggles to stay healthy while he was a Blue Jay, but it probably didn’t help. It’s also easier to perform at the plate when you’re completely comfortable with your defensive position. Again, Pearce wasn’t a terrible outfielder, but he’s certainly a better fit at first base.
Since his trade to Boston earlier this year, Pearce has been showing what he’s always been capable of, but had a hard time putting together in Toronto, aside from a few significant stretches where he got hot. In 50 games with the Red Sox he slashed .279/.394/.507 with seven home runs, eight doubles, and 26 RBI in just 136 at bats. He also earned 1.2 bWAR in Boston after the trade, bringing his season total to 1.4 in just 76 games.
He’s clearly valued by Red Sox manager Alex Cora right now as well, as he’s been a fixture in the playoff lineup and has even hit third against lefties, helping set the table for J.D. Martinez. He also made a crucial play at the end of Game Four of the ALDS, stretching at first on a Eduardo Nunez throw in order to secure the win. He’s been at his best, and it’s been begrudgingly fun to watch, only because he’s doing it for the Red Sox right now.
The Blue Jays were very fortunate to see Justin Smoak turn into the hitter he’s become the last couple of years, but it definitely changed the plan for Pearce’s time in Toronto. We’ll never know if being the regular first baseman would have made the difference, or if injuries would have left him in the same boat anyway. He wasn’t exactly a fixture of health in Baltimore or Tampa Bay either, but he also moved around a lot back then too.
However, as I watch him flourish in Boston lately, I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different for him if he didn’t end up in left field. Them’s the breaks I guess.