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July 3, 2009
You Could Look It Up
The Difference a Manny Makes
With Manny Ramirez about to return to the Dodgers' lineup, having completed his suspension, there has been much grumbling about the supposed great injustice about to be suffered by Juan Pierre. Despite having done such a fine job substituting for Ramirez, the speedy singles hitter is about to head back to the bench. This is somehow construed to be unjust, but just as was true at the start of the season, the bench is the only appropriate destination for Pierre given an outfield already stocked with Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier.
As a fourth outfielder, Pierre did his job, which was to give the Dodgers useful production in the absence of one of the starters. His performance is remarkable only in the context of the Dodgers having no alternative to Pierre himself-the fall-off from Ramirez to Pierre or a theoretical replacement-level substitute promised to be vast, and it was, but not to the degree that might have been expected given by how much Pierre outplayed his usual middling standards. He has never hit as well as he is hitting right now.
The rub is that Pierre's performance is being compared to his own sorry standards, but not to what Ramirez is likely to produce or to those of other left fielders around the majors. The average major league left fielder is hitting .268/.343/.435; Pierre exceeds them in batting average and on-base percentage, but lags this average left fielder in slugging percentage, due in no small part to his having hit no home runs. His isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is .025, and that's against .167 for all left fielders. In terms of Marginal Lineup Value, a measure of the runs generated by a batter beyond what an average player at the same position would produce on a team of otherwise average hitters, Pierre ranks in the middle of the pack (minimum 150 plate appearances), ranking eighth in the National League and thirteenth in the majors in MLV per game (MLVr):
# Player Team PA MLVr 1 Raul Ibanez Phillies 280 .457 2 Ryan Braun Brewers 331 .431 3 Josh Willingham Nationals 185 .333 4 Gary Sheffield Mets 204 .284 5 Adam Dunn Nationals 331 .259 6 Seth Smith Rockies 164 .247 7 Johnny Damon Yankees 318 .205 8 Nolan Reimold Orioles 156 .186 9 Jason Bay Red Sox 335 .185 10 Carlos Lee Astros 312 .179 11 Carl Crawford Rays 350 .168 12 Juan Rivera Angels 279 .167 13 Juan Pierre Dodgers 273 .144 14 Matt Diaz Braves 150 .133 15 Chris Dickerson Reds 190 .098
Ramirez hit hit the suspended list with 120 PAs; if he qualified, he would rank first on the list with an MLVr at .635. As a result, however well Pierre has done by his own standards, the Dodgers promise to reap an offensive windfall if Ramirez picks up where he left off. Extrapolating MLVr over the rest of the schedule is inexact, but will suffice to illustrate the vast differences between the two outfielders. As of today, the Dodgers have 83 games to go. Playing every day at his current career-best rate of production, Pierre would give the Dodgers another 12 runs above average; Ramirez would give them another 53 runs above average. Using the rule of thumb that every addition ten runs created by a player leads to one extra win, this would be worth an additional four wins to the Dodgers.
Of course, when Ramirez was banished he was hitting .348/.492/.641, numbers that he wasn't terribly likely to sustain over the rest of the season. Those rates aren't unprecedented in his career-Ramirez had been in a similar place at the beginning of the decade, but he was 30 then, not 37. After his suspension, Ramirez might be less motivated or less... energized than he was previously, or it might simply take him awhile to find his old form. Let us posit a scenario in which post-suspension Ramirez cools down to the point that the rest of the way he hits only what PECOTA initially projected for him, .295/.390/.537, which would be good for an MLVr of .242. That would result in 20 runs above average over the rest of the season. If Ramirez does indeed slump to this level, the Dodgers would face some interesting choices given the differences between playing Pierre, a former center fielder, and Ramirez, whose casual approach in the field is well known-the lost outs in the field would eat up a good deal of the offensive difference.
Instead of leaving that possibility hanging, let's put the shoe on the other foot. PECOTA projected Pierre to hit .288/.330/.340, which translates to a robust -.124 MLVr. We need hardly go through the exercise, but were Pierre to keep playing and revert to his 2005-08 norm (the very reason he landed on the bench to begin with), he would be ten runs below average over the rest of the season, meaning a loss of a win for the Dodgers compared to what an average player would have given them, and three wins compared to what Ramirez reverting to his own PECOTA projection might be worth.
The Dodgers have likely seen the best that Juan Pierre has to offer. He's 31 years old, a bit late to be breaking new ground in terms of his offensive value. Indeed, his last 30 games suggest that the golden age has already passed: since May 29, Pierre is hitting .244/.299/.283, which is not only worse than anything Ramirez might reasonably be expected to give the Dodgers, it's below replacement level. Whatever winning the Dodgers have done in that span-and at 16-14 they were way below their season line-it was in spite of Pierre. The Dodgers got lucky when Pierre gave them a hot streak just when they needed it most earlier in the season. Asking for more would be greedy, not to mention unrealistic. Fortunately, with Ramirez coming back, they don't have to.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .