Why the Steve Pearce breakout was inevitable

Coming into Tuesday’s game against the New York Yankees, Steve Pearce wasn’t just struggling – he was one of the worst performers in baseball.

The Toronto Blue Jays first baseman/outfielder had yet to post an extra base hit in 57 trips to the plate, he was slugging .167, his defensive metrics were poor, and Ezequiel Carrera was not only starting over him against right-handers, but pinch-hitting for him with some regularity. When you’re primary job is to hit for power, and a guy with a career .259/.315/.354 line is seen as a better offensive option than you, you’re not in a great place.

Although Pearce was plenty early in his two-year contract, his significant struggles gave rise to questions about whether he lost his manager’s trust or inspired buyer’s remorse in his front office.

On Tuesday, however, Pearce came to life against Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka. He started his day unremarkably enough with a groundball single up the middle, but in the fifth inning he took a fastball up-and-in and put the kind of swing on it the Blue Jays have been waiting to see all season.

Just two innings later, he took a hanging first-pitch slider and yanked it down the line for his second home run of the year, and in the eighth he added a double for good measure. In four innings, he managed 10 total bases – equalling what he had compiled to date this season.

The massive 4-for-4 day isn’t enough to definitively say that Pearce is out of the woods. He still needs to string a few good games together to put his awful start in the rearview mirror, but as indicators that he might be coming out of it go, it’s hard to find a better one – unless he went full Anthony Rendon.

Even so,  the dominant performance is enough to consider what Pearce’s poor first impression in blue really meant – if anything at all. While his struggles were profound enough to contemplate whether his offseason elbow surgery, or simply his age (34), was dragging him down, that line of thinking fails to consider his history as a hitter.

Since Pearce broke onto the scene as a regular contributor in 2014, he’s been fairly volatile – running hot and cold. During a 17-game stretch – like his extra-base hit drought to start the season – he’s slugged as much as .836 and as little as .163. Falling into slumps of that length is far from unprecedented for the veteran.

Pearce has had two 17-game stretches that bear some resemblance to what he went through at the beginning of this season – one from mid-July to Mid-August in 2014, and one from mid-April to mid-May in 2015. Here’s how they compare to his first 17 contests as a Blue Jay:

If you really want to get into the business of splitting hairs, then his 2017 slump is technically the worst because he drew fewer walks and didn’t manage an extra-base hit. Trying to make serious distinctions here misses the forest for the trees though. The point is, Pearce has been through this before.

Now, his ugly periods in 2014 and 2015 have different stories to tell. In 2014 he recovered from his struggles to hit .271/.317/.610 in August and .315/.464/.685 in the midst of a career-best 4.9 WAR season. In 2015, his ugly stretch was part of a disappointing .228/.293/.398 first half and he finished the year with an uninspiring 0.4 WAR.

Despite a monster performance Tuesday that suggests he’s back, it’s difficult to project where Pearce goes from here in 2017. However, what we do know is that his struggles aren’t unprecedented and he’s emerged from them before unscathed.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of putting too much of a premium on the beginning of the season, but it’s just a piece of the puzzle like any other. Pearce has been here before, it just wasn’t as obvious because he didn’t have to look at his rock-bottom numbers on the scoreboard every day. If his manhandling of Tanaka is any indication, those statistics say very little about what kind of hitter he is.

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