Have Legs, Will Travel: The Career of Juan Pierre
It is pretty common in casual baseball discussions to hear snarky things said about veteran outfielder Juan Pierre.
"My team has a hole in the outfield, so we signed Juan Pierre and now we still have a hole."
"We don't have a leadoff hitter, but OMG the GM signed Juan Pierre so we still don't."
"Juan Pierre is good in fantasy, but he sucks in real life."
I've heard a lot of that over the years; I'm sure you have too. But did you know Pierre's 591 career stolen bases ranks 19th all-time? His 2141 career hits rank 201st all-time. At age 35 Pierre is on the downswing of his career, but he has had a career of significance and still has his uses now.
Juan Pierre was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the 13th round in 1998, from the University of South Alabama, where he had hit .373 and led the Sun Belt Conference with 54 stolen bases, 77 runs, and 95 hits, winning conference Player of the Year honors. His speed was very intriguing, but scouts weren't sure he would hit with enough authority with wooden bats for it to matter at higher levels.
His pro debut got off to a sharp start with a .352/.399/.402 mark for Portland in the Northwest League, with 38 steals in 47 attempts. He drew 19 walks and fanned just 11 times in 264 at-bats, but he didn't hit a home run and collected just nine doubles and two triples. I didn't give letter grades to short-season players back then, but I did put him in my 1999 book and wrote that "he could have a future" due to his speed and ability to make contact.
Pierre moved up to Low-A Asheville for 1999, hitting .320/.366/.390 with 38 walks and 37 strikeouts in 585 at-bats. He stole 66 bases but was caught 19 times. His contact hitting skills were evident and the speed continued to stand out in the outfield, though he needed a better technique using that speed on the bases. Pierre ranked fourth in the Sally League batting title race, which was won by Rafael Furcal at .337.
I was a bit skeptical about the bat holding up at higher levels, so I gave him a Grade C entering 2000 and compared him to Tom Goodwin.
The Rockies skipped Pierre past High-A to open 2000, sending him to Double-A Carolina. He had no problems at all, hitting .326/.376/.380 with 46 steals, 33 walks, and just 26 strikeouts in 439 at-bats. He moved up to Triple-A Colorado Springs for less than a week (going 8-for-17), then finished the season in Colorado, playing 51 games for the Rockies. He hit .310/.353/.320 in those 51 games, stealing seven bases but being caught six times. He drew 13 walks against 15 strikeouts in 200 at-bats.
I was a lot looser with eligibility rules in those days and I put him in my 2001 book even though he exceeded rookie limits, giving him a Grade C+, projecting that he "would hit .290 to .320 as long as he plays for the Rockies." I wrote that "I wouldn't use Pierre as a regular, though I see him as a fine extra outfielder, something like a cross between Luis Polonia and Tom Goodwin."
The Rockies didn't care what I thought and gave him a regular job in 2001, 156 games. He hit .327/.378/.415 and led the National League in both stolen bases (46) and caught stealing (17). WAR didn't love him at 2.2. 2002 was weaker (.287/.332/.343, 47 steals, 1.9 WAR with a lot of value coming from his fielding).
Shipped off to Miami, Pierre began a five-year run as an everyday player, literally, playing 162 games a year for the Marlins, Cubs, and Dodgers through 2007. His peak seasons were '03 (4.2 WAR, .305/.361/.373, 65 steals) and '04 (4.1 WAR, .326/.374/.407, 45 steals). His value has gradually slipped since then, with some particularly weak sauce for the White Sox in '11 (-1.0 WAR in 158 games, that hurts), though '12 represented with the Phillies was a rebound (.307/.351/.373, 37 steals, though WAR still doesn't like him much at 1.4.)
Overall, Pierre is a career .297/.346/.363 hitter, OPS+85, WAR 23.7. He led the league in stolen bases three times, but also led in caught stealing seven times. He also exceeded 200 hits on four occasions; sure, this was a side-effect of his remarkable mid-career durability and his spot at the top of the batting order. In fact, in 2006 his .292 batting average was the lowest average in major league history for a guy with 200 or more hits.
Pierre's Sim Score comps through age 34: Clyde Milan, Willie Wilson, George Burns, Lloyd Waner, Max Carey, Fielder Jones, Harry Hooper, Fred Tenney, Doc Cramer, and Richie Ashburn. There are four Hall of Famers there and lots of throwback guys, though they all had considerably higher WAR values than Pierre. The Willie Wilson comp makes some sense, though Pierre was playing in a friendlier environment.
What about the original 2001 comp of "Luis Polonia combined with Tom Goodwin?" Polonia was a career .293/.342/.383 hitter who had plenty of speed but who didn't always use it efficiently and, like Pierre, got caught a lot, leading the league three times. Goodwin was a career .268/.332/.339 hitter who lasted until age 35 due to his speed.
Polonia's career OPS+ was 97 in 5296 plate appearances; Goodwin's was 73 in 4315 plate appearances.
Let's see what happens if we cross Polonia and Goodwin. A simple averaging of their career OPS+ marks gives us 85.
Juan Pierre's career OPS: 85.
You could so something fancier and give Polonia a bit more weight since he had a longer career than Goodwin, but overall the Polonia/Goodwin cross is a good comp for Pierre.
On the other hand, Pierre is much better than Polonia (4.1) and Goodwin (3.9) in WAR terms, even accounting for his greater amount of playing time. This reflects Pierre's superior contributions in areas other than the simple slash line.
While "he's better than Tom Goodwin!" isn't exactly a terrific endorsement, Pierre was a very valuable player at his peak. He didn't deserve to get snarked at.
I personally think that Pierre would have been better deployed more as a super-fourth outfielder, someone you give 400 at-bats to, than a guy you run out there for 162 games five years in a row.