Tuesday, May 16, 2006

why pierre should be fine

there is certainly no lack of weaknesses to attack on this abysmal cub club, many of which were highlighted here well before the season started and which have since come to full horrible flower.

but this page also said some things were not problems, and one of those things was juan pierre.

was pierre the consolation prize for losing out on rafael furcal? almost certainly. did he come at a steep price? perhaps -- with reynel pinto having been called up by the marlins to join ricky nolasco and an injured sergio mitre, one could at least begin to argue that this writer was wrong to peg the price thusly:

it's a good trade because it was an all-but-necessary trade. ... pinto is a sensible price to pay, and i consider nolasco and mitre to be very little threat to be shutting out the cubs in years to come.

but, in fairness, this page feels it far too soon to say anything about any of the three is worth missing.

however, even with summary judgment raining down upon the team from all sensible corners of cubdom, this page finds the frequent terminal indictments of pierre for his first six weeks performance -- a dismal 225/269/291 -- to be a bridge too far.

this page is not blind. pierre was acquired at some expense to be a one-year placeholder as felix pie hopefully matriculates in iowa. as such, any evaluation of the trade made to acquire him must place heavy emphasis on what he has done to help this team win this year -- for he is extremely unlikely, short of disaster befalling pie, to be a cub in 2007. as this season is already over, pierre has to be judged as having failed.

but baseball is also a game of probabilities, and in the random course of events even good hitters will at times slump for prolonged periods. there is no predicting these events. one can only be preserved from them by good fortune. and, as it happens, pierre's fortunes have been bad. the pressing question in evaluating the reasonableness of pierre's acquisition cannot be merely "what did he do?", but instead, "what could he have been expected to do?"

this writer has seen, by way of an indictment of an admittedly incompetent general management, many project an arc of deterioration upon pierre's career, concluding that this last six weeks is merely the concluding chapter of a longer book. but this writer is hard pressed to see that tendency in the data.

pierre's career has been extremely successful, particularly by the measure of one who takes very few pitches. his adroit bat-handling has already often been on display here even in his struggles, and it has helped him to a 305/355/375 career line.

one of the functions, however, of taking so few pitches and walking infrequently is the tendency to vanish when balls aren't falling in -- a good eye rarely slumps and can keep a player on base even when the hits aren't coming. furcal's early season struggles are a good example -- despite batting a dismal .198 in april, furcal drew 15 walks to push through an obp of .306. pierre, by contrast, in hitting a not-so-scary .258 in april drew just three walks to post a terrifying obp of .289. in may so far, the slump has deepened to a .172 average and .238 obp -- keeping pierre off the bases and limiting him to just 3 runs in 14 games. (meanwhile, furcal has broken out -- 310/394/483 in may so far, now ranking fourth in the nl in runs scored, reverting to his impressive mean as one of the national league's first-tier shortstops.)

but this has been an issue with pierre for his entire career -- his reputation is as a notoriously "streaky" player for this reason. should jim hendry have understood the greater possibility of such a streak? perhaps -- but perhaps that was one of the very reasons he pursued furcal first. and in any case, he could hardly have expected it. of greater concern is establishing whether or not has something underlying gone awry that indicates pierre will never approach his career mean again. can we find evidence of this?

this page thinks not.

is pierre less patient that he once was, minimizing his own chances? has he taken to hitting the ball in the air, where his speed is ineffective?

in the analysis conducted here, pierre is shown to be, if anything, more patient and assiduous about taking advantage of his speed than before. while it is true that he is taking somewhat fewer walks than in 2003 and 2004 -- his best overall seasons -- he has been increasingly patient in taking pitches. he also continues to keep the ball on the ground, posting a ratio of groundouts to flyouts of over 2.

what is remarkably different, however, about this year thusfar is pierre's batting average on balls in play (babip). this is a sabermetric measure used primarily to evaluate pitchers and their luck though any stretch. it has been postulated that, all other things being equal, babip should be constant over large samples, varying only with randomness as some balls fall in and others are hit at defenders, with short samples reverting to the longer-term mean as they grow. here pierre can be seen to be suffering from a 72-point deficit versus his career average of .320 -- meaning that he's hit a lot of balls where they are instead of where they ain't.

that is some bad luck, folks.

the good news, of course, is that this anomaly will in every probability revert to the mean as the season goes on. moreover, pierre is demonstrating no lack of speed -- 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts despite his singles and walks adding up to just 34. as pierre gets aboard more often in coming months, he should become exactly the source of ignition and pressure that this team had believed it was acquiring last december.

whatever emergence from this misfortune awaits, it will come too late for this lost year, certainly. but this page can nonetheless find little reason to fault juan pierre or jim hendry for that misfortune. some things in baseball really are beyond the full control of the participants, and we would do well to recognize such situations when they arise.

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