DUNEDIN, Fla. — At first blush, this would seem to be a frustrating camp for Steve Pearce. Coming off surgery last September to repair damaged flexor tendons in his right elbow, the new Blue Jay has been brought along deliberately this spring. He missed the first week of his team’s Grapefruit League games, and has since seen limited action, never on back-to-back days, and only as a designated hitter.
Ballplayers want to be on the field. They want to compete. It’s no fun watching your teammates play without restriction while you’re in the weight room diligently repeating low-impact body weight exercises. But that’s not how Pearce sees it.
"I look at the other side and think about where I was last year, playing through pain," he says. "I’m actually happy where I’m at now. If you told me you can choose between where you’re at now or playing more but with the pain, I’d say let’s stay where I’m at."
The Blue Jays way of doing things has been a revelation for Pearce, who signed a two-year, $12.5-million contract to join Toronto this winter. Well regarded around baseball as one of the biggest gamers around—or, if you prefer, an athlete who will take the field and perform through a variety of physical ailments even when it’s to his own detriment—Pearce’s entire approach to conditioning his body has been revamped.
He’s no longer playing through pain, for starters, accepting days off and letting himself fully recover from the stress of performance. Once the type to load up the Olympic bar with every plate he could find and chase a new one-rep max, Pearce now lifts lighter weights with perfect form, focusing on technique and flexibility.
And he has been meticulously following his throwing program, which started weeks ago at 45 feet. He’s added 15 feet to his throws every three days since and is now up to 150, which is about the distance from home plate to the edge of the outfield grass beyond second base.
He’s trusting the process. And while it’s slow, it’s also working.
"We’re really happy with his progress and he’s really bought in," says Blue Jays head trainer George Poulis. "We’re just building him back up. Getting him that arm strength again. He’s well out of the surgery. We just want his arm to be in good shape to withstand all the stresses he’ll face during the season."
It will still be some time before Pearce is cleared to really let his throws rip from left field, which is where the Blue Jays envision him playing a lot of innings in 2017. And because of that, Pearce is scheduled to begin playing at first base on March 19 and will likely stay at that position until a couple weeks into the regular season.
Pearce has been taking groundballs at first in preparation for his debut and working on making the turn and throwing to catch a runner on his way to second. The slow, cautious process has gone quite smoothly, which tells Pearce he’s on the right track, even if that gamer is still in his heart, telling him to push it further and further.
"I’m definitely holding back. There’s no point in trying to rush anything. But, look, if we were in the playoffs right now, you can bet your butt I’m playing the outfield today," Pearce says. "But I’ve been very pleased with how it’s been coming along. I like the track I’m on. The progress is gratifying. I just go off of how I felt last year and compare it to how I feel now. It’s nice to not have the pain."
Pearce carried that pain in his elbow everywhere he went last season, one in which he split 302 plate appearances between the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles, batting .288/.374/.492 with 13 home runs. He felt it at the plate; he felt it in the field; he felt it especially when he threw, which was what eventually did him in.
Playing left field for the Orioles at Fenway Park in mid-September, a ball was hit over Pearce’s head and off the green monster. He chased it down, turned around, threw it as hard as he could back to the infield, and felt the familiar pain in his elbow amplify to an extraordinary degree.
This pain was different than the pain he’d been carrying, leaving Pearce bent over and grimacing as he returned to his position. Baseball being baseball, the next ball was obviously hit in his direction, and Pearce ran dutifully off to retrieve it.
Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy knew just how much pain Pearce was playing through and ran all the way out to the heart of left field to give his teammate a shorter throw, which Pearce still struggled to make. That was when he knew he couldn’t play through it any longer. He had surgery nine days later.
The discomfort Pearce was playing with lends context to the .217/.329/.400 batting line he put up over his final 25 games with the Orioles. It was well below his career standards, and considering the discomfort began earlier in the season, it’s pretty remarkable that Pearce still managed to finish 2016 with an .867 OPS. It gives him hope that he can be even better in a Blue Jays uniform.
"Right now, I’m able to swing the bat the way I want to swing it," Pearce says. "Last year, I wasn’t able to do that."
He’s certainly looked like himself at the plate this spring, with hits in five straight contests, including a pair of loud doubles. He’s struck out just twice to go along with two walks and while he admits he’s capitalized on some mistakes, even he’s a little taken aback by the success.
"I’m doing a heck of a lot better than I thought I’d be doing, I’ll tell ya that," he says. "You’re shut down forever, you have to start slowly off the tee and all that stuff. So, it’s coming along. It’s coming along really well. I’m hoping I can come into the season the right way and feel comfortable and be ready to rock and roll."
Pearce can’t do that if he’s not healthy and right now, for the first time in a long time, he is. Over his 10-year career, Pearce has never played more than 102 games in a season, but he’s still managed to hit double digit home runs four times and has three years with an .800+ OPS. Teams have long wondered what kind of numbers he could put up in a full season’s worth of plate appearances. With Pearce now conditioning the right way, the Blue Jays might be the team to find out.