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May 7, 2013

Skewed Left

Juan Pierre's Age-Inappropriate Basestealing

by Zachary Levine

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On a Miami team that’s going to stand out on leaderboards for all the wrong reasons, Juan Pierre finished the weekend with 11 stolen bases, one ahead of Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte for the NL lead. The story of a 35-year-old with a .280 on-base percentage who might lead the league in steals isn’t bringing fans to the ballpark, but it is one of the most interesting stories on a Marlins team without many of them.

It’s been 12 years and six address changes since Pierre won his first stolen base crown. He was then a member of the Rockies, a team on which you wouldn’t expect to find a top basestealer, given the ease of hitting home runs in pre-humidor Coors.

But Pierre was 23 then, which is when you’re supposed to be an elite basestealer. Not at 35 and nearing 2000 games on his odometer. (He’ll hit that mark right around his 36th birthday in August, assuming consistent playing time.)

Stealing bases at an elite level is a young man’s game. If you look at the players responsible for the top 500 (plus ties) stolen-base seasons of the modern era, you’ll see that the average age of those players is more than a year younger than that of the top single-season home run hitters or hitters for average.

Also, there is less than half the representation on the steals list than the home run or batting average list from players Pierre’s age or older.

Statistic

N

Avg. age

Age ≥35

Batting average

502

28.61

45

Home runs

540

28.83

43

Stolen bases

536

27.28

18

Source: Baseball-Reference.com Play Index

Stealing bases after you’re eligible to run for president isn’t unheard of. Lou Brock, who had never topped 74 previously, stole 118 bases in his age-35 season in 1974.

Rickey Henderson led the American League with 66 for the 1998 Athletics, and in doing so, established the major-league record of 18 years between his first and last stolen base titles—of course with 10 more in between.

Pierre, if he does still lead the NL at season’s end, would tie Hall-of-Famer Max Carey of the 1913 and 1925 Pirates with a 12-year gap between his first and last stolen base titles. Pierre also won them with the 2003 Marlins and in the AL with the 2010 White Sox.

It is preposterously early to make a guess on whether he’ll end up on top or whether a Marte or Everth Cabrera is a likelier candidate. But Pierre’s situation with the Marlins is so strange that there is plenty to point to in trying to argue either side.

Why he will: There are no elite basestealers anymore
While basestealers are better than ever in terms of percentage, leading the league doesn’t require big totals anymore.

Last year, Cabrera very quietly led the NL with 44 stolen bases, the lowest total for an NL leader in a non-strike year since Maury Wills stole 40 and topped the senior circuit in 1963. Also, Michael Bourn and Jose Reyes, who have six of the previous seven NL titles, are both out of the league and hurt for good measure.

Why he won’t: He’ll get caught stealing too much
Last week, I wrote about a different sort of elite basestealer in Chase Utley, who has the highest success rate since such statistics have been reliably kept. Pierre, meanwhile, is pretty much the opposite.

As he has climbed on the all-time ranks in stolen bases to his current perch at 18th, he has done so at the cost of some discretion. While he has three times led the league in steals, he’s racked up seven trophies for caught stealings. That includes all three years of his first stint with the Marlins back when they played in Florida.

His 2011 was regrettable, with 27 steals and a league-high 17 caught stealings, but he’s been better since, going 37-for-44 last year and 11-for-12 so far in 2013.

A regression back to his career percentage of 75 (602-for-800) wouldn’t make it worthless to steal—that’s still a fairly acceptable percentage—but it would hurt his chances at another steals crown when the league rate is better than ever.

Why he will: He goes every time
And why shouldn’t he? Giancarlo Stanton isn’t homering, and the rest of the lineup is bad-to-awful as sluggers. Needing an extra-base hit to score is no way to go through life on that roster, so Pierre goes.

In fact among players with at least 40 chances to steal (defined as standing on first or second with no runner at the base one in front), Pierre has attempted to steal more frequently than any other National Leaguer.

Player

Chances

SB

CS

Going %

Juan Pierre

57

11

1

21.1%

Everth Cabrera

57

8

3

19.3%

Jean Segura

49

8

1

18.4%

Starling Marte

67

10

2

17.9%

David Wright

46

6

1

15.2%

Source: Baseball-Reference.com data

He also leads off, so he’ll get plenty of chances and be eager to take them.

Why he won’t: He may lose his job
Or to put it in an even simpler fashion and get back to the aforementioned on-base percentage, the major obstacle to Pierre’s quest is the fact that he’s not very good.

He exited the weekend hitting .234/.280/.261, which puts his OPS firmly between that of Braves pitchers and the league against Clayton Kershaw. And despite all the stolen bases (and 2.6 BRR, second only to Angel Pagan in the NL), he has exactly 0.0 wins above replacement player.

Hence the definition of replaceable.

The Marlins don’t have much, but if they do decide Christian Yelich or Jake Marisnick is worth a call-up or if Logan Morrison makes it back out to the pasture, Pierre is the one who goes to the bench, with both Justin Ruggiano and Stanton outperforming him. Or the Fish could ship him somewhere where he’d become an occasional player rather than an everyday leadoff man, killing his chances.

Why he will: All of his hits are singles
The .261 slugging percentage isn’t all bad. It means he’s usually on first base rather than second or in a trot, which is good for your basestealing.

Of the 241 players in the 2,000-hit club, Pierre ranks 240th in extra-base hits, ahead of only Wills. This year, 23 of his 26 hits are singles, and the others are doubles, which isn’t irrelevant for somebody who likes to steal third too.

At age 35, that’s the only place he has value any more, but he’s made a pretty nice career out of it. Despite what passes for a pedestrian percentage these days, the rest of his baserunning has made him one of the greats of the last few generations in the department.

He currently ranks 12th in career BRR, having added 81.8 runs through that aspect of the game alone, and he will be top 10 by the end of the year without much difficulty. The next active player is Jimmy Rollins at 29th, and there are few in the immediate range beyond that.

In an era when the best baserunners and basestealers make few headlines, the most valuable one of this millennium could make one more.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Juan Pierre,  Baserunning,  Basestealing

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