December 6, 2006
Juan Pierre is one of those players--much like last week's profiled player, Alfonso Soriano--that are probably more useful to your fantasy baseball team than a real team. Unlike Soriano, the argument for productivity has no backing in reality: Pierre steals bases and hit for high batting averages in the past, which caused many to overvalue him significantly. When you fail to take into account all of the deficiencies in a players' game, it's somewhat easy to mistakenly reason that they're productive. Apparently this is not just a problem among fans and armchair general managers, as the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Pierre to an inexcusable five-year, $44 million deal. Before delving into this too much, let us take a look back at Pierre's career thus far.
Juan Pierre was drafted in round thirteen of the 1998 amateur draft out of the University of South Alabama by the Colorado Rockies. This came after the Seattle Mariners attempted to draft him in both 1995 and 1996, to no avail. Pierre impressed at Low-A Portland thanks to a .352 batting average and a .368 Batting Average on Balls in Play. BABIP is higher in the low minors due to poorer defenses and pitchers who are not quite as skilled as their major league counterparts. The Northwest League is high-offense and above sea level, but .368 is still too lofty to be accounted for entirely by that.
Pierre would only spend two and-a-half seasons at the minor league level before reaching the majors with Colorado, and there were a few things that remained static during his minor league tenure: high batting averages, low slugging percentages, and inflated BABIPs:
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% Por.(A-) 264 .352/.396/.402 .231 12% .050 11 6.7% 3.9% Ash.(A) 585 .320/.366/.390 .215 18% .070 33 6.1% 5.9% Car.(AA) 438 .326/.376/.380 .207 14% .054 20 6.7% 5.3%
His walk and strikeout rates were steady as he progressed through the minors, as were his Secondary Averages and Isolated Power figures; the latter numbers were awful. However, his BABIP for the three stops were .368, .340 and .346, and helped to fuel his batting averages, which in turn made his on-base percentages look much more respectable than his walk rates could.
The Rockies called him up for the remainder of the 2000 season, with Pierre making his major league debut as a pinch-runner on August 7. His first major league hit was on an infield single--shocking, I know--and he managed a hit in his next fifteen contests as well, the longest streak to start a career in the majors since 1975. He recorded another 15-game hitting streak later during the year, the first rookie with two such streaks since Kent Hrbek in 1982. His hits were a bit different than Hrbek's though, in that Herbie slugged .485 that season with a .291 Equivalent Average; Pierre managed a .320 SLG and a .210 EqA. Pierre's Isolated Power in his major league debut season was .010 in 200 at-bats.
Baseball Prospectus 2001 picked out the useful parts of his game while mentioning some of the problems that come with a Pierre type hitter:
An acolyte from the Ozzie Guillen school of patience, where you're taught that you'll start drawing walks as soon as you get some respect instead of seeing so many pitches you can hit. Juan Pierre will be more annoying than John Leguizamo. He could win a batting title in Coors without coming close to a .400 OBP, and part of me wants to see if he will. There was some concern about his arm, but he's picked up the Rickey Henderson trick of unloading the ball quickly and accurately, and he can fly to the gaps.
One problem with Pierre at altitude is that he was not helped out by the thin air in the same way that many other hitters were, chiefly because he hits everything on the ground and then runs like his job depended on it. Which, looking back, it did, since it's the only thing he did especially well. Pierre stole a ton of bases, but due to the run environment at Coors, the break-even point for stolen bases was above the 73-79 percent range he had worked around in his major league career through 2002. Defensively, he was around the league average, posting FRAA totals of 0, 5 and 8 during his three Rockies years. Taking a look at his batting lines from 2000-2002…
AB AVG/OBP/SLG SecA XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 200 .310/.352/.320 .080 3% .010 2 5.8% 6.8% 2001 617 .327/.372/.415 .201 19% .088 37 6.0% 4.2% 2002 592 .287/.332/.343 .167 15% .056 25 4.8% 8.1%
…we can see that Pierre managed one decent season, 2001. His .256 EqA really is not all that remarkable--in fact, it's right around the league average for a center fielder--but it's much better than the sub-replacement and replacement level campaigns that bookend that one year.
After the season, the Rockies traded Pierre, Mike Hampton, and an armored truck full of money to the Florida Marlins for Charles Johnson, Preston Wilson, Vic Darensbourg, and Pablo Ozuna. Baseball Prospectus 2003 gives some insight into Pierre sans Coors:
It isn't all doom and gloom, Pierre has improved substantially as a center fielder. He has a Rudy Law popgun, but he covered the gaps in Coors, so he'll manage in Pro Player. He'll get to more balls than Preston Wilson. As a batter Pierre goes from the penthouse to the outhouse, but leaving Coors should hurt him less than it hurts others. The projection is right on. Jeff Torborg is going to love this guy, and never mind that he won't put runs on the board.
That projection was .275/.323/.337, but Pierre decided to mess with PECOTA and increase his BABIP from his previous season in Colorado, which is somewhat surprising. This helped him finish at a slightly better .305/.361/.373. Thanks to a slight spike in his walk rate, up to 7.4 percent, Pierre was able to finish with a .272 EqA, above average for a center fielder. The next season would see his walk rate return to six percent, and it has dipped from that point onward, as has his EqA. In the meantime, his BABIP of .341 saved the year from looking like a loss, and instead reinforced the idea that he was a useful offensive player. The Cubs traded for Pierre to fix their outfield problems after the 2005 season, which made little or no sense. A team with constant injuries in their rotation dealt pitching prospects for a nominal leadoff hitter who just the year before posted a .326 OBA and a 5.7 percent BB/PA? Such is Cubs baseball. As for why Pierre started to slide offensively…
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP 2004 3.5 23.2% 20.9% 55.9% N/A 2.3% .341 .329 2005 3.7 19.7% 25.1% 55.2% 12.8% 2.0% .294 .371 2006 3.5 23.8% 21.0% 55.2% 7.4% 1.9% .306 .330
…2004 was the only season where Pierre exceeded his expected BABIP (LINERD% + .12 = eBABIP) and he missed the figure by a significant amount in 2005 and 2006. Why would Pierre underperform his expectations by so great a margin two years in a row? Pierre popped up quite often--close to 13 percent of all his "flyballs"--and made all of six more outs on the ground and one fewer in the air while logging 22 fewer plate appearances than in 2004; that's certainly not enough to account for a .077 point difference in BABIP and his expected BABIP (eBABIP), but it's a start of sorts. The only thing besides these I can come up with that may account for some of the rest of the difference is directional; Pierre has become more of a pull hitter as his career has progressed, and this is a problem for a speedster who depends on infield hits to keep his batting average up:
From left to right are the 2004, 2005 and 2006 directional charts for Juan Pierre's groundballs. There was a significant moving away from his slapping the ball to the third base side in 2005, with a slight return in 2006. It's tough to say exactly how things shaped up, especially considering he only had six additional ground ball outs than he had in 2004, but the trend towards pull hitter on the ground is one that will eventually hurt Pierre's already dwindling value.
Whatever caused the fluctuation--and I'd love to hear reader feedback on the matter--was reduced somewhat in 2006, when Pierre's line drives and infield flies both dropped by a few percentage points while his FB% recovered. This was not enough to make him productive, and although he was below his expected BABIP, I'm certainly not confident it will remedy itself in 2007. Whereas his groundball tendencies earlier in his career appear to have helped him out significantly in the BABIP department, Pierre is now going to be 29 years of age, and while not old, he's certainly not getting any younger. He's also played in 162 games for four straight seasons, which means a lot of wear on his legs. Once he begins to lose speed, he's going to look like even more of a pinch runner and defensive replacement than he does as of now, and that is something every National League West team not based in Los Angeles can celebrate over the next five years.
Thanks to Dan Fox for directional ball-in-play data.