Juan Pierre is now the Dodgers' center fielder, for better or worse. Team spokesman Josh Rawitch pulled together all the positive spins on Pierre he could find for a blog item at Inside the Dodgers, yet still felt he had to lead today's post with a plea that "I sure you hope you will all give him a chance to win you over" and a promise that more moves are coming. The rap on Pierre isn't that he's a bad player — he's not. He's exciting in that he bunts for hits, steals bases and races out triples. It's just that he's somewhere between not all that special and below average at the things he is supposedly great at -- leading off, base stealing and playing center.
What's the disconnect? Mostly it's the old schism between students of the game who believe that batting average and counting stats like hits, runs, and RBI are the true indicators of a hitter's worth (we'll call that the Old Wave) and those who prefer rates and more in-depth stats to judge how a player compares to others (call them the New Wave.) It shouldn't come into play so much on Pierre, since he's probably destined to lead off. Both waves can probably agree that the primary skill at the top of the lineup is ability to get on base. There's some major league spin coming from the Dodgers on that, though. General manager Ned Colletti said today that Pierre is a great addition in part because "he gets on base a lot," and Rawitch's post extols that Pierre led the NL in hits last year. True — enough — but Pierre also regularly leads in outs and last year was tops in times thrown out stealing. The reason he leads in any category is because he plays more innings than almost everybody — a great thing when the object is durability.
When the object is getting on base, not so much. Using stats from last season (which was actually a comeback year for Pierre), every Dodger regular except Betemit was a better bet to get on base. Given the same number of chances, every Dodger would have racked up more times on base (in theory — Kenny Lofton would have died if you played him any more, but his seconds all got on base at a better clip than Pierre too.) The New Wave considers Pierre almost the poster boy for the concept of empty batting average: he might hit close to .300, but with his dearth of walks, doubles and home runs and his sub-par record stealing bases he's about the softest, least valuable .300 hitter — per at-bat — in the majors. You don't need a lineup of RBI guys, of course, but adding one of the least successful lead-off men in the league is still a downgrade for the Dodgers at any price, not an upgrade.
Rawitch makes a good point about Pierre's five-year deal not really blocking Matt Kemp — he has played more right field in the minor leagues and if he proves he can hit in the big leagues, Kemp could play a corner. Rich Lederer, one of the most thoughtful baseball bloggers around, also makes a good point that has to hurt for Dodger fans: "With Pierre now in the fold, the Dodgers don't have to worry about a center fielder or a lead-off hitter for five years. ...Wait a minute....this signing means the Dodgers do have to worry about center field and the man at the top of their lineup for five years."