Pierre benefits from long scope

Ozzie Guillen has heaped truckloads of praise on Juan Pierre, and while it's not entirely deserved, it is well timed.

When the White Sox traded for Juan Pierre, I fully anticipated times like this week, when one or more notable figures around the South Side would heap praise upon him for merely being a decent and highly overpaid ballplayer.
You know, quotes like this one from Ozzie Guillen:

“It’s amazing how he played for the White Sox this year. To me, it’s a privilege to manage this guy. He’s in the top five — maybe (top) one or two — to be ready to play every day.”

And this one:

“He never gives up at-bats, he always shows up to play, he’s always  positive,” Guillen said. “It’s a shame we [don’t] have more players like  him, not just White Sox, but baseball period like Juan Pierre.”

All the preparation in the world is good for a .653 OPS (and a .314 slugging percentage) from a corner outfield spot. This is one of my chief problems with the White Sox philosophy: their overemphasis on means instead of ends. You see it here with the sidestepping of Pierre’s production at the plate, and you’ll see it when they discuss how hitters strike out too much. It’s almost puritanical, like they believe runs count more if they have to work harder for them.
And it seems especially overdone because Pierre has been a lousy bunter this year (“I am not a lousy bunter!”). That’s one of the chief principles of a smallball guru like Pierre, and he’s failed pretty hard at the art. For all the grief guys like Jayson Nix received for botching opportunities, Pierre gets off easily.
But watching him play everyday — and the guy plays every day — I’ve warmed up to him a little. He might need every ounce of effort from every part of his game to be adequate, but at the end, he has been the player the White Sox thought they were getting for two years and $8.5 million.
The predictability is the chief reason they preferred Pierre to Scott Podsednik. If you need a guy for a month, pick Podsednik. If you want a guy for a year or longer, Pierre’s preferred, because his skills are something that will only reveal itself with a large sample size.
Take baserunning, for starters. Here are the essential numbers:

  • Pierre: 67 SB, 18 CS, +53 bases in Bill James’ system.
  • Podsednik: 35 SB, 15 CS, +17

According to James’ system, Pierre is the most productive baserunner in baseball, with Carl Crawford one base behind. Podsednik is basically the same baserunner he was for the Sox last year — his speed will always put him in the black, but never as high as  he should be. Pierre’s an overachiever, Podsednik always lags behind.
This is a reflection of Pierre’s acumen, focus and conditioning. He’s only gotten stronger as the season’s gone on, successful in 27 of his last 31 attempts, including his second steal of home on Saturday night.
And then there’s the defense:

  • Pierre: 12.0 UZR/150
  • Podsednik: -5.9 UZR/150

Pierre shook off a rocky first couple of weeks to really own left field. Podsednik was his usually frustrating self, perhaps worse (his UZR/150 last was -1.2, but with small sample sizes, I wouldn’t assume there was a noticeable decline).
The one thing you can’t take away from Podsednik’s 2009 performance is how he altered his approach to survive, running up in the box, implementing the Baltimore Chop, and just giving pitchers a different look.
Well, Pierre’s done that, too. He entered the season a career .300 hitter, which is a level he never came close to reaching this season. He’s at .272, and that’s almost a minor miracle, considering how he started.
He may have lost some hits, but he gained some back by getting hit. Pierre has been plunked 21 times, which is unheard of by his standards. That total is more than double his previous career high (10), and he also beats Carlos Quentin in that category, which is an even bigger shocker.
Some of that has to do with luck, but it’s more due to his right arm. He’s gotten pretty good at letting his sleeve get grazed, although he was unsuccessful in trying to sell a clear miss earlier in the week. At least he didn’t call out the training staff.
He’s lagging behind in hits (2010 will likely be the second-lowest hit total of his career, unless he goes nuts in the finale), but when you add up walks and HBP, pitchers are giving him first base more often than ever before, which mitigates some of the damage from his slow start.
And when you remove that slow start entirely, you get a .351 OBP from May 1 on. You can’t discount one whole month from his overall work, but for five out of six months, he’s been a good OBP guy. It could be better, but the Sox have seen worse.
Summing it all up, here’s what you get:

  • Pierre: 2.2 WAR (FanGraphs), 2.0 WAR (Baseball-Reference)
  • Podsednik: 0.4 fWAR, -0.2 bWAR

Pierre’s WAR isn’t great, but it’s not awful. It’s one the Sox can live with if it’s shaped the right way. The Sox haven’t had an abundance of smart baserunners or good defensive outfielders, so he brings something to the table others don’t. And in this head-to-head battle, he also brings reliability. Going back to what I wrote in December upon the completion of the Pierre trade:

It’s easy to load up on sarcasm when discussing a guy like Pierre, but  there’s a non-zero chance he could be an asset. I mentioned a couple of  days ago that his year was very similiar to Scott Podsednik’s.   Podsednik helped last year, and so could Pierre.  In fact, Pierre  stands a better chance of being 2009 Scott Podsednik than Actual Scott  Podsednik does, with better defense along the warning track to boot.

Podsednik’s 2009 WAR: 1.8. So … yup. 2010 Pierre is 2009 Podsednik.
It’s surprising to see that Podsednik’s game is suffering if you compare only the slash lines. Podsednik has three points of OBP (.342 to .339) and almost 70 points of slugging (.382 to .314).
But where Pierre has Podsednik beat is the shape. They’re a great study in contrast, because while Pierre has been OK since April, Pods was only valuable that month. Since then, he’s been a pretty steady drain on the offense at the top of the order, with a .328 OBP and a 66 percent success rate on the basepaths since May 1. Pierre’s at .351 and 80 percent. Throw in the massive defensive difference, and the Sox chose wisely — at least between the two of them.
That the Sox targeted Pierre to replace Podsednik might speak to bigger issues, like a lack of flexible thinking over what a leadoff hitter can do, and how much strikeouts mean. At least they projected him correctly and have gotten what they needed from him. You can’t say that about a couple other key decisions.
In fact, he’s given the Sox exactly what they should have expected — nothing more, nothing less. The fact that he hasn’t overachieved might make Guillen’s praise seem excessive, and it is.
But at least he timed it well. Considering the kind of game Pierre plays, and how it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of scrutiny to figure out exactly what he adds to a team, the last week of the season is about the only time you can really gush about him.

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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dudeman

I think you have a typo there for Pierre’s previous career high in HBP. And also where you refer to his post-April OBP, you write “from April on.” I swear I’m not trying to play Gotcha! on you, Jim.
Pierre had me worried early on, not because of his Avg., but because he looked like he had lost a step. Guys like him can’t afford to lose a step. But I guess I was wrong, since he improved in left, on the bases, and in the box.
Did you really write an entire retrospective article on the Juan Pierre acquisition without mentioning John Ely?!?! Somewhere, Phil Rogers is shaking his head.

adrockski

Nice thoughtful, reasoned analysis. This is why I tune in.

tompope

“… one of my chief problems with the White Sox philosophy: their overemphasis on means instead of ends.” I love it. Well-said.
Out of curiosity, though, Jim, do you know exactly whose philosophy that is? Surely not everybody in the White Sox organization shares those beliefs, right? When you say, for example, that “they believe runs count more if they have to work harder,” that sounds like the kind of thing Ozzie would say, but does the rest of the leadership team think that, too? Does Kenny Williams believe that? Rick Hahn? Jerry Reinsdorf? I’m just wondering how pervasive that sort of foolish, anti-rational outlook is in an organization that I root for and generally respect.

tompope

Wait, so we’re counting Hawk Harrelson as part of the White Sox organization with respect to the means/ends balance of his offensive philosophy? Then we’re in more trouble than I thought.

matt

I think Pierre would have been infinitely more valuable if the Sox had bothered to do something about the revolving DH of death. As you mentioned, he does play a power position which wouldn’t have been a problem say if you were getting serious power production from your DH. Ah well, a season where you got close is more interesting than a season you didn’t have a chance in right?

baseballjones

Great analysis. I’ve been a fan of the Pierre trade since day 1, and was opposed to the return of Pods all along as well. April sure didn’t help in the debate, but after an entire season to consider it (Pierre vs. Pods), I feel like my initial hunch on it helping the team has been confirmed. A return to .300 next season for JP would only make it that much more of a successful move keeping LF and the lead-off spot “warm” until Jared Mitchell (if all goes well) is ready to “assume the position(s)”…

alwayssox

Some of the slow start may have also been the league adjustment. I couldn’t locate a good metric for this. Production month to month doesn’t necessarily account for seeing the same pitcher over time. He does have interesting splits in times facing a pitcher in a game.
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?n1=pierrju01&year=2010&t=b

baseballjones

I may be reaching here, but from what I observed of Pierre, his bunting was just a hair off. Several times bunting just a bit too firmly and getting thrown out by a half-to-full step. I wondered if he was not used to the infield “landscape” around the home plate area, and whether or not this might improve over time? It seemed that he did make some adjustments and began more directional bunting (harder but away from third base, and more behind the pitcher follow through side)…did anyone else see the same? He also had several balls hit right on the nose, and exactly where it looked like he wanted to take the pitch, but with a well-positioned outfielder waiting to field it. A few more of each variety (bunt attempts & “hang with-ems”) falling in, and you have a .300 hitter. And maybe an 80+SB guy as well?