Slugging prospect aims to prove to Pirates he should stick
March 2, 2008 10:00 AM
Steve Pearce comes off a 2007 season that saw him soar through the system while earning several minor-league player of the year nods.
If we only had to worry about such things here in Western Pennsylvania this weekend. Manager John Russell, right, applies sunscreen before the Pirates' exhibition game against the Reds yesterday in Sarasota.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Pirates threw Steve Pearce a bone, and he decided to go all piranha on them.
It was early last spring, and management had summoned this raw but riveting Class A prospect as an extra for a Grapefruit League game. He would take the field as a late fill-in, maybe take an at-bat.
He got his chance to chomp in the eighth inning.
He strode into the box, sized up the first pitch and promptly sent it into virtual orbit, the crowd at McKechnie Field gasping as the ball took off, up, up and ... way foul. Well out onto Ninth Street that runs parallel to the third-base line.
The pitcher, apparently mindful of his well-being, threw nothing else close to the plate. Pearce took his base, then animatedly stripped off his batting gloves.
In the eyes-everywhere world of baseball, one of the Pirates' veteran players would observe later, "Kid needs to settle down a little."
The Post-Gazette profiles the Pirates' top three prospects the next three days:
Today: Steve Pearce
Tomorrow: Neil Walker
Tuesday: Andrew McCutchen
Speed it up
Pearce was reminded of that scene the other day, and his reaction was much the same.
"I'm not here to walk," he said. "I'm here to drive the ball."
Trent Jewett, his manager at Class AAA Indianapolis, found a more fitting term.
"He has bad intentions with every swing," Jewett said. "He wants to punish the ball."
Pearce would spend the entire summer doing just that, riding the Lynchburg-to-Pittsburgh express in the process.
He started with the Class A Hillcats, an assignment that some in baseball circles saw as curious, given that he had homered 26 times at that level in 2006. It quickly became laughable when he hit .347 and homered 11 times in 19 games.
Trouble was, every assignment after that would look laughable, too: In Class AA Altoona, he hit .334 and homered 14 times in 81 games. In Indianapolis, he hit .320 and homered six more times in 34 games.
His four-level leap wound up with a September in Pittsburgh and, by the time all those separate statistics could be tallied, he had a cumulative .328 average, 31 home runs, 119 RBIs and an embarrassment of honors, including being named the best player in the minors by MLB.com and Topps.
He owed it all, without a doubt, to that swing.
From the time Pearce's parents were driving him to Little League games in Lakeland, Fla., those bad intentions were in place. The same held true at the University of South Carolina, where he hit 42 home runs in two seasons and led the Gamecocks to the College World Series.
Now, as then, every bulging vein of his tank-like 5-foot-11, 210-pound frame is pumped into the swing.
"I've always swung the same way," said Pearce, now a month away from turning 25. "Every time I take that bat off my shoulder, I'm going all-out."
Some see the swing as violent, but Jewett sees it simply as Pearce having an old-fashioned approach.
"Twenty years ago, it would have seemed normal," Jewett said. "Steve uses a lot more of the top hand, a lot more of his body than most modern-day players. If you watch his eyes and his lower half, he creates vision and energy in a different way than most. His eyes are very alert, very focused, and his feet are very active as far as propelling him to the ball. That's how he makes violent contact with the baseball."
Violent contact without a violent swing?
"I don't see his overall actions as violent. They're against a lot of modern-day theory, maybe. But not violent. For a lot of years, Steve's style worked in baseball. And I think he has a knack for understanding himself and his mechanics."
Pearce's teammates offer a similarly raw analysis.
"Hey, it helps that the guy has 2 1/2-foot arms and a 37-inch bat to get to every single pitch," third-base prospect Neil Walker said. "He just has a knack for driving balls. Doesn't matter how you do it. Doesn't have to be textbook."
The aspect that most players appreciate, Walker added, is that Pearce seldom fluctuates.
"It's not like he's just swinging out of his shoes on 2-0 counts. He does it every time. If you haven't seen him play and watch him doing that, you can ask yourself, 'What in the world is he doing?' But that's just how he is."
Two potential negatives to all-out swings are that they tend to bring high strikeout totals and they tend to limit the batter to pulling the ball.
How, then, to explain only 82 strikeouts in 555 at-bats?
Or the way he drove the ball more to the opposite field as last season progressed?
"I'm just trying to hit the ball," Pearce said. "When I was getting all those home runs early, they started pitching me outside. So I had to go out there to hit the ball."
"Same swing. It goes just as far."
Slow it down
There is one other drawback to the swing, actually, but this was realized: It can wear a guy down.
Pearce's 487 minor-league at-bats were one fewer than his previous high for a season, meaning every cut he took in Pittsburgh was into the bonus round. And, as he will concede, it showed: He batted .294 but had no home runs and only six extra-base hits among his 20 hits.
"I felt dead by the end of the year," Pearce said. "I know what I'm capable of doing, and I didn't really show that in Pittsburgh."
To that end, he added, he engaged in a high-intensity training regimen -- after spending November winning a World Cup gold medal with the U.S. national team in Taiwan -- aimed at improving stamina.
"I know I need to hit in September the same way I do early on," he said.
It is not easy to find shortcomings to Pearce's game, and no one in the Pirates' new management pretends otherwise, even as they continue to project that he will not make the 25-man roster out of spring training.
General manager Neal Huntington has made clear all winter that, largely because the Pirates have experienced players at Pearce's two positions -- Adam LaRoche at first base, Xavier Nady in right field -- Pearce "probably" will be back in Indianapolis rather than on the bench, where his development could be stunted.
"The question isn't whether he'd be one of our 25 best players," Huntington said. "We think the best thing for this organization and for Steve Pearce's development is to let him go to Class AAA and play every day, let him continue to mature with the bat, continue to get better in the outfield and at first base. It's not like we're talking about an accomplished, finished product who has nothing left to do at that level."
But what about all those home runs?
"He certainly mashed at every level and, if we had to, we'd feel comfortable putting him out there in the big leagues. But we think this is best."
Director of player development Kyle Stark raised another point: "Steve obviously had a great year, but he did start in A-ball and flew through the system."
Pearce, befitting his personality, is not accepting it. The way he sees it, he can force management's hand with a big spring, and he certainly helped that with a home run in the 12-11 loss to the Cincinnati Reds yesterday at Ed Smith Stadium. He extended those long arms to get all of a high 2-2 fastball from Jared Burton and send it over the left-field fence and is now 2 for 7 in the early going, including a triple to the opposite field Thursday.
"I look out there and see LaRoche and Nady. I know how it is," Pearce said. "But I'm not going to take what they say about this to heart. I'm not. I'm still going to compete and try to make the team."
If not, he will be back with Jewett in Indianapolis.
"Steve will handle whatever comes his way fine, no matter how it plays out," Jewett said. "He plans on making the big-league club, and I don't blame him for that. He's got great confidence."
"And I can see why he would."
'07 ... Oh, boy!
Steve Pearce's 2007 season -- and rise -- by the numbers