Only 3.5 More Years of This, Right?

Note: This post is going to be about an article that appeared on Dodgers.com by Sarah Morris, detailing how valuable Juan Pierre is. Before I start getting angry emails, yes, I’m aware of Sarah’s story (it’s here, if you don’t) and of course, I think the way she’s overcome the difficulties life has thrown her way is beyond admirable. Yes, I feel a little awkward about posting such a negative reaction to her viewpoint, and in that light I won’t be as flat-out mean or snarky as we can often be towards jokers like T.J. Simers and Tracy Ringolsby. But the reason I’m going ahead with this post is not only because I think this viewpoint is flat out wrong, but because that entirely too many Dodger fans feel the same way, especially the casual ones. I’m really responding to all of those fans – her article is just the catalyst. You may now return to your regularly scheduled storming of the MSTI control center with pitchforks.

So, the season is quickly circling the drain, and as we all know, blame can be assigned just about everywhere. The offense is a disaster all over (really, there’s no one on offense who you can’t point at even a little, other than Russell Martin), the decisions of management – both front office and on the field – continue to frustrate Dodger fandom, and even the pitching, which has been relatively good, is facing major question marks with Brad Penny’s coming MRI and Chan Ho Park’s implosion just one day after returning from what was ostensibly “minor” shoulder pain – not to mention the continued debacle that is Scott Proctor. With that in mind, it’s unfair to point the finger at any one player, and although Juan Pierre has been our favorite whipping boy around here for quite some time, I’ve really tried not to harp on him as much lately – partially because I don’t want to keep repeating myself, and partially because it’s certainly not as though it’s all his fault. I even accept that most casual fans don’t see his true ineptitude because of his great speed, high stolen base totals, and the general acknowledgement that he’s a hard worker, great teammate, etc.

But what I can’t accept is the argument that not only is he not a detriment to the success of the team, he’s actually a player of high value. So when I see an article entitled, “Pierre a true asset for Dodgers”, with a subheader of “Speedy outfielder unjustly criticized in time with Los Angeles”, I can’t help but stop in my tracks and see how this argument is going to be portrayed – while myself and other Dodger bloggers may be somewhat unjust in heaping a larger portion of the blame for the failures of the team than he deserves, I don’t think we’ve been in any way unfair in the criticisms of his performance since joining the club. Let’s take a look:

Since the Dodgers signed Juan Pierre to a five-year lucrative contract, some Dodgers fans have delighted in criticizing Pierre. Every day I receive an e-mail saying the Dodgers must get rid of Pierre if they want to win. These so-called die-hard Dodgers fans seem to blame Pierre for everything that is wrong with the Dodgers.

I’ve said many, many times on this blog – and in this post, already – that Pierre is obviously not to blame for everything that’s wrong with the club. He can only control his own performance, and in that there’s plenty of fault to find. I mean, he’s currently on pace to have the second-worst full season of his entire career with that 71 OPS+ he’s rocking (just barely above 2004′s 68), which makes him 29% worse than the average National Leaguer. And that doesn’t even take into consideration his well-below average arm and subpar defense.

I don’t understand why they can’t see Pierre is an asset to the team. I know general manager Ned Colletti might have overpaid him, but Pierre has given his all to the Dodgers. I want these kind of players on the baseball team that I watch every time. Yes, they might not have the best physical abilities on the field, but they want to do anything to help the team win.

Everyone who watches the Dodgers regularly knows Pierre won’t hit a home run. If he does, I will be amazed. Although he does not have power, he gets about 200 hits a season. Most Major Leaguers don’t get more than 150 hits a season. Getting hits regularly helps the offense. Since 2001, Pierre has the most hits of any Major Leaguer except Ichiro Suzuki, who probably is going to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I have no complaints with his dedication level – as we’ve discussed ad nauseum, he’s an incredibly hard worker. Unfortunately, the “gets a lot of hits” argument doesn’t really fly, because as a leadoff hitter whose remarkable durability keeps him in the lineup every day, he gets a ton of at-bats – more than 700 plate appearances in 6 out of the last 7 years, and over 600 in the other year. Getting such a high number of hits is more a measure of the opportunities given to him. For example, no one would argue that Pierre is superior to Manny Ramirez, yet Pierre always collects more hits than Manny simply because Ramirez bats lower in the order (3rd or 4th) and usually misses a few games here and there with minor injuries. The pure number of hits is much less important than the percentage of at-bats in which you can get on base (i.e., OBP%), and what you can do with those hits when you get them (i.e., SLG%) and it is in these areas that Pierre is so deficient. In 2007 (a down year for Manny), Pierre got 53 more hits, although it took him nearly 200 more at-bats to do it. But while Pierre only had 32 extra base hits, Manny had 54, not to mention drawing 38 more walks. I would much, much rather have the guy who gets on base more and adds much more power, than the guy who gets more hits simply because he gets the chance more often.

Pierre doesn’t strike out much. This is unusual for Major Leaguers nowadays. To me, striking out is the worst thing that a baseball player can do, because usually no one needs to do anything to get the out. I know fans will say grounding into a double play is the worst because the team gets two outs. Although getting two outs is awful, the opposition must field the ball cleanly to get the outs. Over my years of watching baseball, I have seen many botched double plays. Speedy players don’t hit into as many double plays as slower players.

Okay, he doesn’t strike out much – this is true. Hardest in the league to K for the last 5 seasons, and he’s running 2nd this year. This is actually one of his better qualities, I will agree. It’s just too bad that too many of the balls he gets his bat on don’t help him get on base, because he’s also been in the top 3 in “outs made” in the NL for the last 5 years.

Pierre has blazing speed, his greatest asset to his team. I know “Moneyball” said that baseball teams shouldn’t pay much for players who are fast and can play good defense. I highly disagree with this, especially for the National League. The National League teams don’t have as much power as the American League teams. Speed makes things happen offensively and defensively. “Moneyball” was written about the Oakland A’s. How many wins in the playoffs and World Series do the A’s have in the last 15 years? I don’t know, but this means they don’t have many. The Dodgers are a different team who play in a different stadium and league. I don’t listen to “Moneyball” to find out what the Dodgers should do to go the playoffs and beyond.

Pushing aside the fact that Moneyball was less about specifically Billy Beane and the A’s hating speed and defense than it was about him exploiting the market inefficiencies that existed in baseball at the time (which have changed greatly since then), there’s one big problem with this assumption: Juan Pierre simply does not play good defense. If I may quote myself from last year’s season wrapups:

Juan Pierre can’t field. Fielding stats are notoriously wonky and hard to evaluate. You can’t really read a fielding stat and say “this player is good or bad” the way you can with hitting stats. But what you can do with them is compare players to other guys at the same position and at least get an idea of who’s showing up. In 2007, there were 18 MLB CF’s with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title (a good way of sorting everyday players from part timers).

18. Remember that.

Juan Pierre, 2007 fielding stats:
Fielding %: 15th
Range factor: 17th, next to goddamn last
Zone rating: 11th

And again, these don’t even mention his abysmally weak arm, a fact which I don’t really have any stats to back up, other than the empirical evidence that just about every fan and scout who’s ever watched a runner tag from second on a short fly to him in the outfield have seen.

Also, Oakland playoff wins over the last 15 years: 11. Ten more than the Dodgers’ one. Just based on that track record, I’d love to have Billy Beane as the GM of the Dodgers.

In a day and age when most Major Leaguers don’t attempt many stolen bases, Pierre has averaged 55 stolen bases a year. Since 2001, Pierre has stolen at least 45 bases a season. Although people don’t think stolen bases are that important, I think they are crucial for the success of any team. Besides getting into scoring position without getting another hit or sacrificing an out, a true base stealer can distract the pitcher. I have seen more errors caused by a catcher attempting to throw out a base stealer than on any other play. Although the Dodgers have many speedy runners, Pierre is the only true base stealer with Rafael Furcal on the disabled list. This season, Pierre leads the National League in stolen bases, and this helps a poor Dodgers offense.

Actually, I think stolen bases are great, and to his credit, Pierre’s been pretty successful so far, grabbing 26 while only getting caught 6 times. The only problem here is that while his stolen bases do help “a poor Dodger offense”, it’s the fact that he’s hitting just .250 (58 OPS+) from the leadoff spot that’s playing such a large role in this offense being so unproductive. As the saying goes, “you can’t steal first base.” If he was on more, he could steal more, and help the team out a whole lot more effectively.

Defensively, Pierre has improved over the last year. Pierre had trouble adjusting to Dodger Stadium. Often, he didn’t get good jumps on fly balls in center field. As last season went on, he got better. Although he will never have a strong arm, it is not that important if he catches the ball. Many outfielders don’t have strong arms and fans don’t criticize them.

This season, Pierre has played left field exclusively until Matt Kemp served his suspension. Though he was not excited about the move, Pierre has played an awesome left field. Many times he has made highlight catches. His weak throws don’t seem as important as they were in center field.

As always, ranking defense is a pretty subjective pursuit, since the stats aren’t as effective as they are at the plate. But I do have to take issue with the idea that not having a strong arm “is not that important if he catches the ball,” because that’s just not true. First of all, even if he does catch the ball, we’ve all seen base coaches around the league take unimaginable liberties with allowing runners to tag up and advance. As for fans not criticizing other outfielders with weak arms, let me just say that I’ve lived in the two cities Johnny Damon has played in for the last seven seasons, and even though he’s been a very productive hitter and a popular figure – yeah, he still gets ragged on for his lousy arm. While Pierre’s weak throws may not “seem as important” as they were in center, they’re still hurting the team. Let me put it this way: outfielders with really strong arms don’t always rank near the top of the league in assists due to simple lack of opportunities, because when their arm is respected runners won’t take chances on them. On the other end of the scale, runners go wild on Juan Pierre because they have no respect for his arm, giving him a multitude of chances to throw them out. How many assists does he have in 2008? One.

Pierre is one of the hardest workers in the Major Leagues. During Spring Training, he is the first player in the clubhouse and usually the last one to leave. He views every Spring Training the same way as he did when he wanted to make the team.

Many people complain the Dodgers don’t have veteran leadership, but Pierre provides this. He always is ready to play. He doesn’t argue with management when it wants him to do something that he doesn’t like. He accepts it and tries to do his best. Unlike many professional athletes, Pierre understands that he is a role model for the younger generation. He tries to make friends with his younger teammates.

No matter if the Dodgers are in the middle of a losing or winning streak, Pierre approaches baseball the same way. He usually has a smile on his face. Most people can tell he enjoys playing baseball.

Again, no argument about his work ethic, but I don’t know that we can say whether he’s providing leadership, friendship, or not. Frankly, I can’t recall hearing anything about him in that area either way. Plus, when he was originally benched to start the season, I don’t think we can say he took it all that well. No, he didn’t start throwing things in the clubhouse, but it was clear from the way he carried himself for a while that he wasn’t dealing very well. Here’s a story from March 24th entitled “Pierre Sits, Not Happy,” where he wouldn’t even speak to reporters about his situation.

Although Juan Pierre doesn’t have the most God-given talent on the Dodgers, he gets the most out of what he has. I would rather have nine Juan Pierres on the team than nine players who have more talent, but don’t care how the team does.

I wish every player worked as hard as Juan Pierre. I wish every player cared as much as Juan Pierre. But if we had nine players with the skill of Juan Pierre, then we’re looking at a 62-100 season.

To reiterate: Juan Pierre is hardly the only reason for the downfall of the 2008 Dodgers. But the fact that so many Dodger fans still feel that he’s an above-average player is mind-blowing to me. This is the perception that I’ve been trying so hard to change.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

0 comments

Trackbacks

  1. [...] outfield and had a .756 OPS last year. Varitek hasn’t been worth more than 1.0 fWAR since 2007. June 16, 2008 (this is actually in reference to Juan Pierre): As for fans not criticizing other outfielders with [...]