Farewell to Juan Pierre: Part One

MSTI note: this is going to be a two-part post. Part one deals with only Juan Pierre’s time with the Dodgers and his departure, irrelevant of what the trade is. We’ll deal with that when the two PTBNL are announced.

In the midst of a long, dark, winter in Dodgertown, we finally have a ray of light: Juan Pierre has been traded to the White Sox for two minor league pitchers and relief of about half of his salary ($8m savings according to Buster Olney), and I won’t lie; I can barely contain my glee.

I’ve been accused, more than once, of hating Pierre. In fact, all Dodger bloggers have. That couldn’t be further than the truth, for I love the idea of Juan Pierre. An old-school, hard-working, great teammate with the speed to wreak havoc on the bases and the durability to play every day? Who wouldn’t want that? If I hated anything, it was the absolutely insane five-year, $44 million dollar contract that Ned Colletti lavished upon him in 2007. The contract didn’t make sense at the time, and as both the economy and Pierre’s performance faltered, it made less and less sense. That’s not Pierre’s fault, though; he’d have been crazy to not accept the contract. No, that was Colletti’s fault, because Pierre was never worth that money, and he was especially not worth it on a team with young outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier having already made their debuts. 

Still, the contract wasn’t Pierre’s fault. If he’d been able to keep up his performance of 2004 (.374 OBP, 107 OPS+), I’d have been able to look past his poor outfield arm. He still wouldn’t have been worth the money, but he’d have been an asset to the team.

But that, as we know, never happened. He declined in 2005 with Florida and 2006 with the Cubs, and his first season in Los Angeles was a disaster, making the third-most outs in the league at just a 77 OPS+, while having a negative 3.1 UZR/150 rating in CF with his noodle arm. As I said at the time in our 2007 season reviews:

So I get to do center field? Sweet! I almost don’t know where to start on this one, so strap in – this one might get long, kids. 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.

You’d think that a lousy season would put most fans against him, but despite his poor performance, the divide was already growing. On one side, you’d have people like me, who saw the lack of productivity on both sides of the ball and lamented the thought of four more years. On the other, you’d have people who saw him work hard and be a good person, and play small ball like their heroes of lore, and felt that absolved him of all doubt. Keep that in mind, for it’s going to be important shortly.

To Colletti’s credit, he saw after that very first season that Pierre wasn’t cutting it, and he signed Andruw Jones to play center field in 2008. (Let’s save the discussion about how that move worked out for another time, shall we?) Still, this left us in another pickle. If Jones was to play center, how would Pierre, Kemp, and Ethier all co-exist? With Kemp seemingly having earned the right field job after hitting .342 in 2007, new battle lines were drawn: Pierre vs. Ethier in left field.

For his part, the first cracks in Pierre’s veneer of being a good teammate began to show:

“I don’t see myself as a bench player.  I haven’t accepted that. I know if they don’t want me to play out there, that’s their decision. But I don’t see myself as a bench player.”

One reporter asked Pierre if he wanted to remain with the Dodgers to which the 30-year old responded:

“I’m not going to answer that one.  It is what it is. I’m not going to touch that one.”

I, of course, took Ethier’s side in the debate, and I doubt there’s anyone who would argue that point in retrospect. But it once again put those who valued young talent squarely against Juan Pierre, which was unfair to him. Still, even some who’d been backing Pierre came around by the end of the spring, like old friend Tony Jackson.

That crisis was averted, of course, when Jones put forth the most horrendous effort in major league history before being injured. Interestingly enough, concerns about Pierre’s weak arm kept him in left rather than moving him back to center, which had become Kemp’s new domain.

Pierre, moved back into the everyday lineup with the demise of Jones, had just a .328 OBP and .648 OPS on July 31 – at which point he was replaced once again by Manny Ramirez. By the end of the season, his 75 OPS+ represented the fifth year in a row he’d declined since that 2004 peak.

Vin recapped Pierre’s 2008 astutely in our reviews that year:

In 2008, we saw a decline in nearly every statistic; his .283 average and .327 OBP were his lowest since 2005, while his .328 SLG% and 4.1 RC27 were the lowest totals he’s had since 2002.  His MLV was a ridiculous -10.1 (which means he costs his team 10.1 more than the average player), a VORP of 1.1, and an EqA of .247, also his lowest since 2002. 

For a man who will be on the wrong side of 30 next year who has a game that’s dependent on speed and has shown a steady decline since his 2003-2004 heyday in Florida… that’s not good.

For the sake of not beating a dead horse, I won’t rehash the Pierre argument yet again, but even by his own standards, which many supporters of the signing like to point to in terms of what our expectations should be, he failed to meet them. 

When Manny finally re-signed for 2009, and with Kemp and Ethier squarely in place, Pierre’s bench role seemed assured, and indeed he started just five games in the first five weeks.

Of course, Manny was suspended for 50 games in the first week of May. Pierre moved back into the lineup, and here’s where you run into the problems with the media-friendly narrative. The story basically wrote itself; on one hand you have an overpaid, distant, sometimes surly, cheating man-child who doesn’t always hustle. On the other, you have a hard-working old-school clubhouse guy whose only sin was wanting to play. It’s no surprise that lazy writers took that story and ran with it – especially when Pierre got off to such a hot start.

In my own defense, I respect performance. Pierre hadn’t given us much of that in his first two seasons, so when he did, I was more than happy to praise him for it:

Since [the signing], 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.

He was fantastic. I don’t deny it. But that sort of contributed to the problem, because based on that, how many ridiculous stories did you have to read that said that Pierre “saved the Dodgers” or was “better than Manny” or something else equally absurd? Because, don’t forget, he was horrible for more than half of Manny’s absence. I summed this up in our 2009 review (sorry for the length on this one):

Juan Pierre (A)
(.308/.365/.392 0hr 31rbi 30sb)

Nope, that’s not a typo. Perpetual MSTI whipping boy Juan Pierre gets an A. But don’t read too much into it, because it’s not due to the fact that he “carried the team” while Manny was out, which we heard far too many times from clueless announcers on other teams and national broadcasts. See, what they always convieniently forget to mention is that while Pierre was actually very good for the first few weeks of starting (even earning his own post here dedicated to his nice play and improved plate discipline), he was worse than ever after that. Of course, most of the media was so involved in the “feel good story” to notice, but the stats make it pretty clear:

This is a pretty common misconception, because if you remember what actually happened:

Games 1-20: .425/.495/.598  1.093 OPS
Games 21-50: .244/.299/.283  .583 OPS

So if by “such a great job” you mean “had a killer hot streak for less than half of Manny’s absence and was worse than ever for the majority of it,” then yes – great job.

It’s worth nothing that while the Dodgers were 13-7 while he was going good, they were just 16-14 when he was killing the offense. So no, Pierre did not “carry the team” or “save the offense” by stepping in for Manny; he combined a very good stretch with an even longer very bad stretch.

So once again, despite the stats clearly stating the exact opposite of the truth, you now had an army of people supporting an inferior player. Again, though, this is not Pierre’s fault. This was the media latching on to what they saw as a feel-good story (or a Manny vendetta, whichever) and attaching far more importance to a mediocre player than he deserved.

I don’t know who the two minor league pitchers are in this trade, and for the moment, I don’t particularly care. The Dodgers have saved $8m over the next two years. They’ve instantly improved their defense, no matter whether it’s Xavier Paul or Jason Repko serving as Manny’s caddy. They’ve likely improved their offense, because now you can use Pierre’s spot on a better hitter. But most importantly, they’ve saved yet another year of controversy and unhappiness.

So good luck in Chicago, Juan. You never fit here, and much of that isn’t your fault (though better performance may have helped). It’s unbelievable what controversy your presence created, but I never thought you were anything but a baseball player trying to get on the field. I can’t argue with that. I’m just happy it’s on someone else’s field.

With his departure, Juan Pierre’s last at-bat as a Dodger will have been in the NLCS Game 5 loss to the Phillies, which ended the season. Entering as a pinch-hitter for Clayton Kershaw in the 7th inning against Chan Ho Park, he grounded out weakly to first. Fitting, really.