Off Base
The Juan Pierre Conundrum

March 12 , 2008

The Juan Pierre debate rages on, with no end in sight, so we might as well embrace it.

The Juan Pierre Dilemma was a fine work, as far as series debuts go. Depending on reviews of the Pierre Conundrum, we'll probably go with the Pierre Ultimatum next, skipping the Pierre Supremacy, for obvious reasons, and follow up with a sequel to be named later.

Meanwhile, let's have at it. Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke said this last week: "Fans don't appreciate [Juan Pierre]. Statisticians can't calculate him. Bloggers downright brutalize him. I like him…Now that the Dodgers have moved him to left field, I think Juan Pierre will fit as easily there as his bat fits on a bunt." If you say so.

Over at the Daily News, considerably-more-in-the-know-than-anyone-at-the-Times Dodgers beat writer Tony Jackson is taking all kinds of incoming for his semi-support of Juan Pierre. A cease-fire went into effect March 5, but it doesn't seem to be working all that well.

One blogger asked Jackson, "Tony, when are you and Juan Pierre getting married?"

Responses on Tony's blog, which typify the sentiment in L.A. about Pierre, include these:

"It's instructive to note that when this LF (Pierre) has a good game, it's such a rare and noteworthy occurrence that it's worthy of its own post. Whereas, if Ethier has a great game - an even more spectacular game than Pierre's game today - it rates only a passing mention in the larger story, as in the Washington game the other day."

"He is two for three with a stolen base and a bunt single and has made two nice guys who'll be bagging groceries in a couple of weeks."

"Wow, two hits in the spring. What does that prove? If Pierre starts and takes at bats away form Ethier, that's bad enough, but if he takes at bats away from Kemp, that should be illegal! Play the better player, not the most expensive mistake."

And those are the nice ones.

Jon Weisman, sometimes referred to as "the godfather of Dodger bloggers," writes: "Pierre has a superb work ethic. Problem: I still don't quite understand why a player who has to work hard just to be mediocre is more valuable than a player who doesn't have a famous work ethic but is already better."

"If Pierre is to end up in left field for the Dodgers - and it's still not a done deal - well, that's just going to have to be something they overcome, like a bad call for the umpire. I don't want to spend the season upset about it."

Pretty much every American print writer, Internet scribe, sports talk guy, Dodgers fan and his brother complains about JP's throwing. To a man, Pierre's arm is referred to as either "little league" or "pop-gun." There's not another adjective on the table.

(From the did-you-know file, Pierre had two assists through 161 games in 2007, doubling his total by throwing out two thoroughly disinterested San Francisco Giants, on the final day of season.)

Admittedly, I've gone back and forth on Juan Pierre, so when it comes to ambivalence, I’m as guilty as the next guy. When the Dodgers signed Pierre Thanksgiving week, 2006, I said this:

"Meanwhile, the Dodgers re-signed Nomar Garciaparra, and locked up center fielder Juan Pierre with a big deal (that’s actual center fielder, Juan Pierre; as opposed to agent-labeled center fielder, J.D. Drew). The Pierre contract’s a turkey, you say? Oh contraire, succotash breath.

I don't understand the criticism over this one. Yes it’s a lot of money - I’ll pay an extra quarter for a cold hot dog; 50 cents for one that’s actually cooked - but the man shows up and earns it. He’s a team guy. The contrast to Drew couldn’t be more stark.

Pierre never misses a game, and I mean never, hits .300 in his sleep, steals bases, and unlike Kenny Lofton at this stage of his career, can actually catch a fly ball. On top of that, he's been a World Champion, and hit .300 in his one postseason. What more do you want?"

A year later, I said this: "There are worse things than having Juan Pierre on your roster. Why, in Boston alone, there's J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo.
$23 million for two pretty-damn-close-to-useless ballplayers. Miracle upon miracles, the Red Sox won the 2007 World Championship anyway.

Say what you will about Juan Pierre's "banjo hitting" and "Little League arm." I won't argue. But, you can win a championship with Juan Pierre on your club. It's been done.

And believe it or not, there is value to Juan Pierre. Ned Colletti is essentially correct when he calls Pierre 'a complementary player.' That's a very good way to describe the man."

Today, March 12, 2008, well, if you want to scream "flip-flopper," go right ahead. I've been called worse things.

I'm actually starting to get used to the idea of Pierre remaining a Dodger for another year. .300 is .300, no matter how you slice it. Being available to play nine innings 162 times a year is a significant thing. Truly. So is being a savvy veteran, and dare I say, a good clubhouse guy. It's better to have four major league outfielders than just three.

But granted, the Pierre Consensus is about as right on as can be. (I promise – you'll never ever ever see the phrase "spot on" in this column.)

What's missing from most Pierre-related discussion is the idea that the man is an over-rated base stealer. While Pierre is successful in 73% of his career stolen base attempts, an identical figure to Dodgers franchise leader, Maury Wills, for example, the number two and three men on the team list, Davey Lopes and Willie Davis, stole at rates of 81% and 76% respectively.

For further comparison, Rickey Henderson's rate is 81%, Lou Brock's, 75%, Ty Cobb's, 83%, Tim Raines, 85% and Vince Coleman, 81%.

But much more importantly, the true measure of a base stealer is his ability to make it when everyone in the stadium, if not on Earth, knows he's going. Like say, Dave Roberts in Game Four of the 2004 American League Championship Series. I defy you to recall even one game-changing steal in Pierre's 2007 season.

In a private moment, Wills would no doubt rate Pierre a few notches down in the stolen base category from where he's regularly considered to be.

And you can forget about asking Wills about Pierre's bunting right now. It's unfair to put Maury on the spot like that.

JP simply can't bunt. I'll take Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, or Ramon Martinez in an important sacrifice situation over Juan Pierre any day. If you wouldn't, you haven't been paying attention.

Lastly, Pierre really shouldn't bat leadoff. Rafael Furcal is not only much more likely to get on base, which is what leadoff is all about, after all, but is exponentially better as a clutch hitter and RBI-man. Of the various excruciating parts of Pierre's game, his uncanny knack for making the last out in an inning with men on base really stands alone.

Unfortunately, there's no ideal spot in the Dodger order to place him. Bat him eighth and watch as every manager in the league, sans Tony LaRussa, goes after Pierre with two out, virtually assuring the pitcher leading off the next inning. Time after time, game after game, for 162.

And the beat goes on. Expect it to, anyway, unless and until Andre Ethier takes Pierre's job…

Talkback: Your comments are always encouraged…

Media Savvy: Famous last words. From Jayson Stark, in an article, "Hampton hoping to make triumphant return to mound," posted Thursday, March 6.

"This is going to be the year, Mike Hampton keeps telling himself, when he can stuff all his troubles into the ancient-history books. When a pitcher's mound will wait for him every five days. When he can do what once seemed so routine -- 32 or 33 starts, 200 innings, double-figure wins."

The next day, March 7, Hampton went down with a groin injury…

Poli-Sigh: Just once I'd like to see a political wife not stand by her man. Just once.

Statue for Sandy: The Koufax in bronze campaign continues. Please Vote “Yes on 32.” And tell a friend…

Remember, glove conquers all….






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