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August 6, 2008
Leadoff Follies in LA
Sometimes, you just really feel good about a read.
As it is, I'm not convinced that they won't shoot themselves in the foot. Joe Torre loves him some Juan Pierre, and Pierre has enough superficially impressive statistics that Torre may have a hard time letting go. Throw in that Pierre has led off 55 of the 56 Dodger games for which he's been active since Rafael Furcal was injured, and I am in no way convinced that Ramirez's playing time will come at the expense of Slappy. I'm not sure Torre can conceive of a lineup with the eight guys he'll have if he doesn't play Pierre, because there's not a leadoff hitter in the bunch.
Joe Torre got the yips almost immediately, saying in the wake of the trade that Juan Pierre was his guy:
To me, Juan certainly deserves the right to play. At this point in time, his experience, his consistency, the way he goes about his business. ... He brings another dimension, his basestealing ability. He gives a professional at-bat on a regular basis. He’s done it [leading off] longer than Matt. He’s willing to take pitches.
Now, the Dodgers are 2-2 since trading big pieces of their future for Ramirez, and careful observers will note that the two games they won were the two Juan Pierre starts, games in which he played center field and batted leadoff. In fact, the Dodgers scored 13 runs in Pierre’s two starts, and just five in the other two. So why am I dedicating a column to the idea that this is about as stupid an alignment of talent as you can imagine?
Let’s start with something simple and easy: Andre Ethier is a much better baseball player than Juan Pierre is:
Hitter AVG OBP SLG SB CS EqA FRAR Ethier .275 .340 .441 3 2 .273 3 Pierre .279 .323 .315 37 7 .247 6
Juan Pierre steals bases better than Ethier does, and the two players’ defense is about a wash. Ethier gets on base more, and hits for so much more power that the difference dwarfs everything else about the two—hence the 26-point edge in EqA. Ethier was also better last year, and has been the better player than Pierre from the moment he stepped into the league. This isn’t a debatable point—Andre Ethier is a better baseball player than Juan Pierre. He’s also a better player than Andruw Jones, a point that seems obvious enough that I’ll spare you a chart ilustrating the concept.
Even in the face of that kind of obvious info, Pierre starts over Ethier because Torre likes veterans and Torre likes speed. Torre genuinely thinks the Dodgers are a better team with Pierre batting leadoff than they are in other configurations. Let’s disabuse him of that notion.
The Dodgers opened the season with Rafael Furcal playing shortstop and doing a convincing impersonation of Honus Wagner; through May 5, Furcal batted .366/.448/.597, playing in all 32 Dodger games, leading off 31 of them and scoring 34 runs. The Dodgers were 18-14 and averaging more than five runs a game when Furcal went on the disabled list May 6. He has not returned, and he may never return.
Torre immdiately installed Pierre as his leadoff batter in Furcal’s absence. Pierre was coming off of a road trip in which he’d hit well (9-for-16) and he had begun getting more starts anyway. Dropping him into the leadoff spot almost made sense in that context, but it was a disaster. Pierre led off every single Dodger game from May 6 through June 29, when he hurt his knee. He batted .261/.299/.296, a truly awful line that included just 10 walks in 215 plate appearances. (Remember, though, "He’s willing to take pitches.") It’s almost impossible to bat .261 and not have an OBP or SLG above .300, but Pierre did it for nearly two months. ("He gives a professional at-bat on a regular basis.") That’s also how he led off every day, playing complete games in 46 of 49 contests, and scored 20 runs in that time. Two-zero. As Bil Burke reports, no team in the National League got worse run production from its leadoff spot during that time:
The argument that Pierre’s poor rate stats don’t accurately capture his skills is false. He isn’t a good leadoff hitter who generates runs via his speed. He’s not on base enough, and because he’s not on base enough, both he and his team are poor at scoring runs when he bats leadoff. Batting Juan Pierre leadoff is, to bring back a term, baseball malpractice.
While Pierre was on the disabled list, the Dodgers primarily used Matt Kemp in the leadoff spot. They scored 95 runs in the 20 games Pierre missed, 4.5 per game, which is in line with the expectations for this team. Nevertheless, when Pierre returned, Torre installed him as the leadoff man in five straight games (they scored 19 runs) and eight of 10 (scoring 33 runs), including the two in which he played instead of Andre Ethier, as Manny Ramirez added to the outfield logjam.
Let’s make this easy.
Dodgers offense by Leadoff Man Hitter G R R/G Furcal 31 169 5.45 Kemp 21 100 4.76 Pierre 58 195 3.36 Other 2 4 2.00
Conclusions? How about three:
If the Dodgers fail to reach the postseason, it will be in part because Furcal got hurt. You can’t just ignore that part of the equation. But it will be just as much because Joe Torre elected to kneecap his offense by putting a bad baseball player in a critical role, and stubbornly sticking with that decision despite what it was doing to his offense. No amount of geniality, experience, speed, or hustle can counter the statistics above. When anybody but Juan Pierre leads off, the Dodgers score 50 percent more runs than they do when Pierre leads off. Consistently.