Saturday, December 03, 2005

Juan Pierre...or, the Ambiguities

Word on the street (via the NY Post--registration or BugMeNot required) is that the Immolation Sale Marlins are offering centerfielder/speedfreak Juan Pierre to the Bombers, in exchange for two guys who weren't terribly comfortable in their pinstripes last season: lefty pitching prospect Sean Henn and righty reliever Scott Proctor.

There's a lively discussion of this going on at Alex Belth's place. Pierre's one of those divisive figures who has opposing clubs of diehard supporters and detractors. However, I have a pretty hard time getting all that excited about Pierre, either way. I'm ambivalent toward Pierre, and I find him hard to pin down. My impressions of him are more about what he isn't than what he is, which makes him a pretty ambiguous character in my book:

Juan Pierre isn't: Bernie Williams.

To go with all the other ambiguities, this impression cuts both ways. Juan Pierre is not Bernie Williams in that he is nine years younger than the outgoing Yankee centerfielder, and far more healthy--Pierre has played 162 game per year, for the last three years running. On the other hand, Pierre is not the perennial All-Star type of player that Williams was, is not anyone who will ever be discussed as having a legit argument for the Hall of Fame. More specifically, Pierre hasn't shown, and most likely never will show, the type of batting eye and on-base ability that made Bernie such an effective player.

Juan Pierre isn't: Cecil Fielder

There might be more recent examples of slow, powerful performers I could use that would fit this bill (Jason Giambi comes to mind) but former Yank Fielder really gives us a sense of scale in this comparison. A huge, not-terribly-well-conditioned mountain of a man, Fielder was so big that if he ate Juan Pierre for lunch, he'd need a small snack (say, a couple of dozen hamburgers from Mickey D's) before dinnertime.

The diametric opposite of Fielder, Pierre is greased lightning on the bases (267 SB in his career, good 73.6% success rate), but a dead duck in any home run derby (he's averaging roughly 1 homer per every 95 games; career .375 SLG in a career that included a few years in Colorado).

Juan Pierre isn't: Paul Blair, Andruw Jones, or Willie Mays.

When it comes to defense, everyone gives a speedy centerfielder the benefit of the doubt. The fast guys, we're told, can outrun their mistakes. When the Florida Marlins came into town for the 2003 World Series, with a strong defensive rep, we were regaled with tales that he was an up-and-coming gold glove type.


On the tools side of things, it seems to me that Pierre has a wet noodle for an arm. On the stats side, there's a bit of disagreement, but a few things become clear: Pierre is probably not a nightmarish CF, likely a bad-to-mediocre one, but definitely not an elite defender. BP's defensive stats, based upon the number and type of outs Pierre recorded, say he hasn't been above average since his Colorado days--a total of 31 runs worse than an average CF over the past three years. Win Shares--Bill James's system which is used over at the HardBall Times--isn't terribly informative, since all outfielders are clumped together. The one thing we know for sure is that Pierre's 2.9 fielding win shares in 2005 were far south of Aaron Rowand (7.6) and Carlos Beltran (7.2), but north of Bernie Williams (2.6) and Ken Griffey, Jr. (1.9). UZR--a system which breaks the playing field into a grid (of sorts) and assigns each defender a "zone" of responsibility--lists Pierre as being slightly above average...from 2000-2003 (the last years I can find the data). Another play-by-play system, Dave Pinto's probabilistic model of range, had Pierre as slightly below average in 2004...I think.

The only thing we can be certain about is that no one is saying that Pierre's a great center fielder. The question is, on a team that at one point put Tony Womack out in center, would Pierre have to be?

Juan Pierre isn't: a Sabermetric Darling

Pierre is the type of player who has been the bane of stathead existence since Bill James first started writing his Abstracts in the 70s--the low-power, low-walks "hitter" whose offensive value is primarily in his batting average. The thing is, Pierre has more often than not confounded expectations by hitting for average--his career BA is .305, which has been enough to keep him at a decent .355 career OBP (during that time the league average was .348), despite drawing an average of 43 walks per year.

Part of the confounding was that Pierre's demise was widely predicted after he left the best hitting environment in baseball (Denver) for one of the worst (Miami) after a bad 2002 season at altitude. For some reason, Pierre's batting skills were not perceptibly damaged by the move, which is pretty interesting. Maybe guys that bunt for hits and put the ball on the ground don't benefit as much from Colorado's thin air? Who knows?

Juan Pierre isn't: Expensive

Even though the Marlins are looking to move Pierre, ostensibly because of his salary, the speedy centerfielder isn't likely to earn much in 2006: Pierre is arbitration-eligible, but he's coming off of what superficially looks like his worst season, and was making about $3MM in 2005. In another sense of the word, Henn and Proctor are hardly the most valuable figures in the Yankee organization.

Yes, Henn is only 24, and he was well thought-of within the organization going into this past season--he has an impressive 3.58 minor league ERA, and has struck out 7.11 men per nine innings. On the other hand, his command was slightly suspect at the minor league level--3.49 walks per nine--and he got shellacked (0-3, 16R in 11.3 innings) in three major league starts...against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. I can't think of a young player during Torre's Yankees tenure who recovered from such a bad introduction to the team, and went on to contribute.

(Actually, there is one: Mariano Rivera, who allowed 18 runs in his first 15 ML innings. Two caveats--one, Rivera was able to register a win in his second start, allowing only one run in 5.3 innings to the A's; two, Sean Henn is no Mariano Rivera. Even before Rivera's breakout start against the White Sox (8IP 0R 2H 11K 4BB) you knew that the future Sandman had a blazing fastball. Henn's repertoire doesn't belong in the same conversation.)

Proctor is...fungible. He has a good fastball, and could have some freak good relief seasons over the rest of his career, but he hasn't impressed in two partial seasons in pinstripes (5.81 ERA, 57 K in 69.7 IP). Proctor's probably most famous in my book for his meltdown against Tampa Bay this season, where he walked in the winning run in extra innings. He's the kind of guy you wind up trading at the end of Spring Training, because he doesn't have any options left, and you don't have space for him in the pen.

Juan Pierre isn't: Bubba Crosby

While Pierre's many critics focus on the things he can't do--the lack of power and patience, the overrated defense and possibly overvalued speed--when looking at whether Pierre has value for the Yanks, you have to ask "what's the alternative?"

If the season started tomorrow, the Yankees' starting centerfielder would be Bubba Crosby. There are worse fates--Womack still lurks on the roster, and Crosby is inexpensive and has developed strong good will from the fans with some late-inning longball heroics over the past two seasons. But you look at the career line--fair enough, one that's only 170 PA long--and you see a total of three career homers, one triple, two doubles. A .221/.253/.301 performance.

As for the other skills he could bring to the table, Crosby looks to be a classic tweener. Faster than some of the tired old men on the Yankees roster, but not a speed demon. Better defensively than Williams or Womack or Matsui, but more of a corner outfielder than a center fielder. And he's almost exactly a year older than Pierre.

If all it costs is a possible waiver bait righthanded reliever, and a lefty "prospect" who has as good a chance of being the next Alex Graman as the next Brandon Claussen...wouldn't you rather have Pierre?

So, all told, Juan Pierre isn't: a Bad Pickup.

At worst, he becomes a stopgap until someone worthwhile becomes available in center; he has a shot at being a roughly average player, with flaws, otherwise.

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