Baltimore Orioles first baseman Steve Pearce ranks 11th in the majors in home runs per at-bat this season and considerably higher in inspiration per plate appearance. He's enjoying the residual respect that comes with having established himself as a bona fide big league producer at age 31.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's a little scary to think how close Pearce came to quitting at 29.
Pearce endured a mixed bag of injuries and missed opportunities in his career until things finally came to a head in 2012. After being released by Minnesota in spring training, he drifted from the New York Yankees to the Orioles to Houston to the Yankees and back to Baltimore before the end of the season. Over a span of six chaotic months, MLB teams passed him around like a plate of hot dinner rolls.
Somewhere amid all those releases, waiver wire claims, designated for assignments, and aches and pains, Pearce sat down with his wife, Jessica, and initiated the conversation that many ballplayers dread. They discussed the possibility of him going back to school or pursuing another line of work that might not be so fraught with uncertainty.
"Every time things were going well, there would be a demotion or a trade or an injury, and I'd always have to keep re-proving myself, and I'd almost overwork myself to death to prove that I could play," Pearce said. "I'd had a very unfortunate career up to that point, and there were a lot of questions.
"Did I ever think about just giving it up? Of course. When you get kicked all the time, you're like, 'This ain't for me.' I talked to my wife, and we were like, 'What do we do now? What's next in our life?' But baseball is all I had known."
Pearce ultimately decided to stay the course because he was convinced he had too much productive baseball left in him to walk away unfulfilled. Two years and one improbable turnaround later, Pearce has become a walking endorsement for the power of self-confidence and fortitude.
As stealthily as an early morning fog, Pearce has been a savior for a Baltimore team that won 96 regular-season games, swept Detroit in the division series and will host Kansas City in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday at Camden Yards. He hit .293 with 21 homers and a .930 OPS during the regular season, and Baseball-reference.com gave him an astonishing Wins Above Replacement of 6.0 in a mere 383 plate appearances. Pearce's contribution has been vital given the season-ending injuries to Matt Wieters and Manny Machado and Chris Davis' 25-game suspension for amphetamine use.
Naturally, his breakthrough season came with a side order of rejection. In late April, the Orioles needed to clear a spot on the roster to add bullpen help, and they designated Pearce for assignment. But two days later, Davis suffered an oblique injury, and Dan Duquette, Baltimore's executive vice president of baseball operations, made a due diligence call to Pearce before exploring other options. Toronto had already claimed Pearce on waivers, but he had rejected the claim and chosen to become a free agent.
"I went to him on bended knee and said, 'Steve, circumstances have changed,'" Duquette said. "I asked him if he had left Baltimore, and he said no. I said, 'Good, we have some work for you tomorrow.'"
Pearce, too immersed in the ways of the baseball world to let his ego interfere with an opportunity, settled in at first base and became a stabilizing force between Nick Markakis and Adam Jones in the second spot in the batting order. He gave the Orioles 17 Defensive Runs Saved between first base and the outfield. And just as importantly, he earned the coveted Buck Showalter seal of approval.
"The old scouts would say, 'Book him,' which is come in hard and go soft away. If you did that against him, you could manage his bat and keep him to where he wasn't productive. Now you can't do that. Whatever he's done has allowed him to close those holes and handle both sides of the plate. That's big. That's what good hitters do." A scout, on Pearce
"When you put your head on your pillow, you know Stevie is one of the guys who's going to be as good as he's capable of being," Orioles manager Showalter said. "Those are the guys that let you sleep at night. His makeup and his whole thing fit us well. But I wish we were that smart, or we wouldn't have let him go the first time."
Pearce has always been an intriguing commodity because of his ability to handle the bat. The Pirates selected him out of South Carolina in the eighth round of the 2005 draft, and three years later, Baseball America ranked him as the organization's No. 3 prospect behind two kids named Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker.
But Pearce's list of maladies included a calf injury, a broken finger and knee surgery, and he acknowledges that he didn't do his body any favors with his relentless work routines and hyperintensity. During the 2013 season, the Orioles sent him to the disabled list with sore wrists, and they've had to ease off on the throttle once or twice again this year.
Scouts who've watched Pearce this season see a hitter who's calmer in the box and more relaxed overall. That's partly a byproduct of knowing he can have an unproductive day and it won't affect his chances of being in the lineup again tomorrow.
Pearce also made some adjustments with his setup and approach that allowed him to become more than just a platoon hitter versus lefty pitchers. A National League scout observed that he's backed off the plate slightly and is better able to get the bat head through the zone and avoid being jammed on inside balls. At the same time, Pearce dives enough that he's able to reach the outside pitch and shoot it to right field.
"The old scouts would say, 'Book him,' which is come in hard and go soft away," the scout said. "If you did that against him, you could manage his bat and keep him to where he wasn't productive. Now you can't do that. Whatever he's done has allowed him to close those holes and handle both sides of the plate. That's big. That's what good hitters do."
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Pearce took a more aggressive approach against the hard stuff in 2014. He swung 49 percent of the time against fastballs, cutters and sinkers, compared with 40 percent the previous two seasons. He also has learned how to take advantage of Camden Yards' soft spots. During his 2012-2013 stops in New York, Houston and Baltimore, Pearce hit 74 balls in the air in home games, and they produced five home runs. This year, his 89 fly balls at Camden Yards resulted in 12 homers.
He enjoyed a remarkable statistical season in a lot of ways. Only four other players in history produced a higher WAR in a season in which they played as little as Pearce did this season. The list includes Johnny Mize (1946 Giants), Ted Williams (1955 Red Sox), Mike Schmidt (1981 Phillies) and Buddy Bell (1981 Rangers).
Pearce derived encouragement through the years when Jose Bautista, Jayson Werth, Angel Pagan and other hitters took their games to a different level in their late 20s and early 30s and overcame questions about their health or ability to thrive as everyday players. Now he's the guy providing the example. He has five years of service time on his résumé and will return to Baltimore as a salary-arbitration-eligible player in 2015 before hitting the open market as a free agent. But he's eternally grateful to the Orioles for seeing enough in him to keep bringing him back.
"Sometimes it takes more than skills," Pearce said. "You've gotta have heart. You have to be willing to sacrifice everything to get what you want. I've done that my whole career. I've been through a lot, but I look at the end game. Sometimes it's a long path to get there, but I'm here, and I hope it inspires a lot of other guys who have talent and might be thinking about giving up."
The story went through a lot of twists, and it's carried Pearce to the big October stage before a stadium filled with crazed Orioles fans. He's always been adept at swinging a bat. But he's pretty skilled as a script doctor, too.