I guess I can’t ignore it any further, can I? If there’s one thing that you could ever, ever take away from this blog, it’s that we hated the signing of Juan Pierre more than any other move the team has made in years. It’s better off for everyone that this blog didn’t exist yet when Pierre was signed, because I’m pretty sure the internet would have collapsed under the wright of the 400,000 word missive that we surely would have spewed. In fact, our 2007 CF recap is still one of the most highly-visited posts this site has ever done, and remains one of my personal favorites, if only for this section:
Let’s preface this by saying that from absolutely everything I’ve heard, Juan Pierre is a fantastic human being and an exceptional teammate. He’s the first one there in the morning, and the last one to leave – no one outworks him. He kisses babies and rainbows and then the babies love rainbows and then the sun smiles and drops sugar cubes on everyone, and the sugar cubes turn into kittens who then frolic in dandelions. Juan Pierre is Mother Teresa reincarnate.
Juan Pierre (D-)
(.293/.331/.353 0hr 41rbi 64sb 15cs)
A D-? Oh, that’s right. We’re not paying him to be goddamn Bono. We’re paying him to do one thing: play baseball. And despite all of his superb human attributes, there’s one thing he’s really not all that good at: playing baseball.
Since then, we’ve put forth dozens of posts lamenting his signing and presence, from highlighting his complaints about playing time to trying to find places to trade him to basically blaming him for having to trade Delwyn Young.
Yet, in the interest of fairness, the time has come to admit: Juan Pierre has been awesome in his 11 starts since taking over for Manny. He’s been hitting for average (.435 in that time); he’s been getting on base (.527 OBP), and hell, he’s even hitting for “power” (.630 SLG, though of course no home runs). In the field, well, his arm is still awful, but he has made several outstanding catches that Manny likely doesn’t get to.
How good has he been? So good that even I, of all people, picked him up in my fantasy baseball league the other day. Granted, it was only after injuries sidelined Josh Hamilton, Rick Ankiel, and Pat Burrell from the outfield of the vaunted ”Cock Man Oppressors“, but still – in years past, I’d have picked up Juan Valdez before Juan Pierre.
But you didn’t need me to tell you that Pierre’s been playing well; his triple slash stats are obvious and when he’s going well, it’s pretty clearly visible to the naked eye. What I want to know is, why? Let’s delve into the numbers, as always supplied by the invaluable FanGraphs.
His plate discipline is much improved.
What’s the easiest way to both help out pitchers and make sure you don’t get on base? Well, that’d be to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. Unless you’re vintage Vladimir Guerrero, that approach just isn’t going to work for anyone.
It’s with this in mind that I present you with the chart on the right, which should jump right off the page at you. Notice the OPS+ peak in 2004 and the steady drop every single year since? OS% is the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that Pierre swung at, and I’m sure it’s just a BIG COINCIDENCE that as he swung at more balls outside the zone, his OPS+ productivity has dropped. Yet in 2009, that OS% has dropped to just 13.5%, which would be the lowest of his entire career.
Does it really take a rocket scientist to realize that if you swing at balls outside the strike zone, you’re more often than not either going to miss entirely or not make good contact? Since Pierre is an excellent contact hitter, usually getting a bat on 80-90% of balls he swings at outside the zone, that’d sure explain a goodly amount of those weak grounders to second and the pitcher we’ve been watching for two years. But there’s another benefit of not swinging at balls, and that’s…
He’s walking more. Much more.
You know how when you were a kid in Little League, and the coach would say, “come on, walk’s as good as a hit!” That’s only true to a certain extent. It’s not true for a slugger like Manny, because there’s not too many walks that are going to land in the bleachers, score three runs, and knock a pitcher to the showers. But for a guy like Juan Pierre, whose entire value is tied to his being on base and using his speed? Hell yes, a walk is as good as a hit.
Oddly enough – and stick with me here – when you don’t swing at balls that aren’t strikes, and you can manage to do that four times in one at-bat, they’ll just give you first base. I know! If only we’d known that sooner. Pierre obviously didn’t, because his career 5.8% BB/PA (i.e, 5.8 walks every 100 plate appearances) has been pretty consistent throughout his career, never going below 4.4% or above 7.6%… until this year, where that’s shot up to 10.5%. If you don’t think that’s much, that’s nearly double his 2008 and more than double his 2007. That’s 5 more walks every 100 plate appearances, which is 25-30 more over an entire season. Tell me you don’t want to see a guy with Pierre’s speed on base that much more often?
Oh, but there’s one more benefit to not swinging at bad pitches, and that’s…
He’s hitting more line drives.
Pitchers aren’t pitching him any different than they ever did; in fact, 55.3% of the pitches he’s seen in 2009 are strikes, which is basically identical to his career average of 55.2%. But when he’s not swinging at nearly as many of the 45% balls, that means he’s swinging at better pitches to hit. That bares itself out in the fact that his line drive percentage, which sits at 22.0% career and has fluctuated between 19.3% and 25.5%, has now jumped up to 30.1%. And – surprise, surprise – more line drives = more hits!
Wait, so you’re saying that after years of frustration, all it took was…
I know, I know… his success of late is almost entirely due to the fact that he’s no longer swinging at lousy pitches, thus giving away at-bats via weak groundouts and passing up free bases on balls he may have otherwise had. It’s amazing, isn’t it? You’d think “hey, dummy, don’t swing at bad pitches” would be pretty obvious… yet here we are.
So can he keep this up?
I have no idea, because I don’t know what spurred this change in him. Perhaps Don Mattingly took him aside and had a chat; perhaps his role as a part-time player made him savor each at-bat and wait for a good pitch (actually, I have no idea if that’s true, but I like that theory). But remember, there was only one reason and one reason only I was so anti-Pierre in the past, and that’s because he wasn’t helping the team to win on the field. Right now, he is. So long as that keeps up, I’m a big fan. If and when it doesn’t? Well… hopefully by then, this hot streak will have convinced some other GM to accept him via trade.
Hey, a man can dream, can’t he?