The curious case of Juan Pierre almost requires that I reflect on his value. Pierre leads the league this season in negative value for qualified batters according to fangraphs with a -1.1 WAR. During the 2010 season, he did fare better maintaining a positive WAR due to his defense and a wOBA just above replacement level. However, that level of production was still below average for a major league LF.
The real intrigue is why anybody would want Juan Pierre to play LF and be a lead-off hitter for their team. Now he has some value, he could be an ideal defensive or base running replacement player for many teams. He could even squeak by as a workable center fielder, though still pretty near replacement level, hitting at the bottom of somebody’s lineup. However, Pierre playing a power position and hitting lead-off is not what I would have expected when he was a trade target of the Chicago White Sox during the 2009 off season. I think the White Sox's front office has made many savvy acquisitions and decisions but actively pursuing Juan Pierre was a bit confusing to say the least.
The problem really is threefold: first, his OBP is not enough of a justification to bat him lead-off, second, his ability to steal bases is overstated and really not all that beneficial to his club, third, playing LF has a harmful effect on his value because the replacement level player is a better hitter than at CF.
First, Juan Pierre actually does have decent OBP skills. He finished with a .341 mark last season, which was towards the middle but still the bottom half for all qualified OF last season. However that mark was higher than the average OBP for all LF’s in baseball last season which was .337. Pierre’s on base skills are almost exclusively tied to his ability to hit for a high batting average. He has a poor career BB rate of 5.7% BB/PA. Although this season has seen him take a few more walks in a smaller sample, his batting average has also decreased to .248 from his .275 mark last season. The batting average decrease would not be as concerning if not for the fact that Pierre is 33 and showing a steadily decreasing ability to hit for average over the past few seasons.
If you simply believe that it is a lead-off hitter’s job to get on base and steal bases, you already have to be concerned by Pierre’s batting average trends. However, Pierre also has concerning stolen base trends. He only has a 74.6% success rate for his career. So far this season he has been caught stealing 8 times against only 6 successful steals. When it comes to stolen bases, a player generally needs to steal anywhere from 68-75% of bases successfully to just break even in runs created based on the value of an extra base to the cost of an out. Pierre has been flirting cost-benefit line of stolen bases for his whole career but so far, it seems he may finally be at the point where his attempts to steal hurt his team. Whatever the actual number needed for stolen base success, there is no doubt that a 42% success rate is hurting the White Sox.
Even under traditional views of batting lead-off (speed!!! and some OBP skills), Pierre does not appear to be an ideal candidate for the job. However more modern views on lineup theory suggest that the lead-off spot should be occupied by one of the team’s best three hitters with the highest OBP and/or lowest extra base power. While Pierre certainly is very good at getting on base and not hitting for power, his .264 wOBA this season indicates Pierre is the third worst hitter getting consistent at bats for the White Sox thus far, ahead of only Brent Morel and Alex Rios. Similarly, in 2010, while Pierre did put up a .312 wOBA that put him ahead of players like AJ Pierzynski, Mark Teahen, and Gordon Beckham, he was definitely not one of the team’s three best hitters. As a result, it is hard to justify Pierre’s inclusion at the top of the lineup where he will see a greater number of at bats than superior hitters hitting behind him.
In addition, Pierre’s position of LF generally harms his value as a productive everyday regular for the White Sox. While it is true that a good amount of Pierre’s 2.2 WAR from last season was generated in large part because his defense was substantially better than that of the average LF, it should be noted that UZR takes a while to stabilize to the point where it is reliable. Pierre’s career UZR/150 is 3.3 in LF while his 2010 UZR/150 was 12.4. As a result, some of that defensive superiority is probably overstated. Offensively, in 2010, Pierre had a .312 wOBA, which ranked 36th among all LF’s with 300 PA or more and ahead of only 7 other players. Pierre’s career wOBA is only .322 and has been on a downward trend. Pierre would have fared more favorably as compared with center fielders. The average wOBA for a CF is approximately .016 higher than corner outfield. Further, the replacement level corner outfield hitter, approximately .300-.305 wOBA, is much closer to 2010 Pierre. So far in 2011 Pierre has a .264 wOBA, clearly not up to standards.
As a result, while Pierre’s performance last year was probably not good enough to warrant the lead-off position in the White Sox lineup, it probably was good enough to ward off challenges to his at bats from replacement players. However, there is not much question that your average replacement level corner outfielder can perform better than Pierre has so far this season and there is some concern that things will not get much better for him. As a result, the White Sox might want to consider trying some youth in his place as there downside risk is minimal. Pierre at peak performance was already too close to replacement level to warrant complete job security and now in his mid thirties, there really is not much reason to wait to see if he has permanently dropped below the region of acceptable productivity for a starting major league LF. Pierre still has value to the White Sox because of his speed and defense, but probably only as a bench player going forward.