Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Juan Pierre, Dodger: Another Retrospective

It may be easy enough for Orel to say "Godspeed" to former Dodger and new White Sock Juan Pierre. But heck, MSTI needed two separate posts, so I'm going to chime in with my thoughts as well. What's Juan more post, after all?

Juan Pierre's three-year Dodger career began just about the time this blog was birthed, so we have followed every step of his ignominious Dodger career, from the second the five-year, $45M deal was signed. We had just started blogging, so when the news broke in November that Juan Pierre had been signed (along with Randy Wolf, who was introduced as a Dodger at the same press conference), we Sons were desperate to "have a take." But developing a perspective on JP required wrestling with competing forces that clouded logic and tugged on heartstrings.

First, a preamble. Since I am not a Cubs fan, I didn't know much about the noodle-armed slap-happy centerfielder that we were about to acquire from Chicago. But one of my good friends is a Cubs fan, and he told me this sage advice at the time of our signing:

"Juan Pierre is going to drive you crazy. You will want to like him. You will try to like him. But he will do nothing but disappoint.

And that sort of sums up my conflicted affair with Juan Pierre. At core, it was a struggle between the heart and mind. The heart saw a player who came to the stadium early for batting practice and left late after a game. Who hustled to first base even when his slap hit didn't leave the infield. Who didn't offer all that much complaining about his role, even when Trader Ned tried to rectify his 2006-2007 offseason mistake by signing Andruw Jones in the next offseason, and then tried again the following offseason to rectify his mistake by signing Manny Ramirez.

But the statistics appealed to the analytic side, by clearly demonstrating that Pierre's performance was not up to stuff, that the heart was playing tricks on the mind. One could not justify Pierre's horrible throwing arm (which shortstop Rafael Furcal would cut off halfway into the outfield) by Pierre's diminutive physique. One could not rationalize away Pierre's position among the league leaders in "outs created" simply because he batted leadoff. One could not look at Manny Ramirez' presence in the lineup and make any sort of coherent argument that Pierre should have a starting role.

If Juan Pierre was measured by his contract value alone, it made no sense why we were paying a replacement player such an absurd amount of cash. Would you rather have one year of Juan Pierre? Or three Andre Ethiers? Or 18 Jason Repkos? Or 19 Matt Kemps?

Even with all of the numbers in black and white, it came down to the emotional struggle between heart and mind, between what the data says and what your gut wants you to try and believe. Juan Pierre is not going to end up on a police blotter for a late-night DUI after partying, or for throwing fireworks at fans in a parking lot. He's trying, to the best of his abilities. Surely, that must count for something, right?

This is exactly why it's difficult to fire the employee whose heart may be in the right place and who is putting in effort and staying late, but can't get the basic job responsibilities done. You can compensate for the weakness on your team on your own behalf, staying a couple of extra hours one night a week to clean up his mess and fix his errors; and, over time, you can deceive yourself to thinking that this is a sustainable way to operate. But eventually you recognize this isn't a mutual fit, that there is personal opportunity cost to your compensating for his shortcomings--and doing the right thing means severing the relationship. This is not easy, because effort and good intentions try and fool the heart. But in business--which is what baseball is--non-productive assets don't have a place in a top-performing, functional organization.

Life is not AYSO soccer; everybody doesn't get a chance to play, particularly if his contributions to the whole are at the cost of another who could likely contribute more. This may be harsh and unfair, but it's life. We simply can't play Pierre as a regular starter, ahead of Manny, Kemp, and Ethier, each of whom has greater offensive upside, defensive ability (I'm counting Ramirez' lackadaisical attitude and Pierre's wimpy arm as a wash), and future potential than JP. So if there isn't a fit for an expensive bench player, the Dodgers need to move the albatross; and getting a package that includes a minor leaguer, the lead character in the Legend of Zelda series, and some cash in return, is all gravy.

I will miss the jaunty caps and artful limerick lines ("Is he Latin? Or French?"). But one can't get distracted into the David Eckstein deathtrap (TM) that insidiously converts perceived-effort-per-pound into a mythical and meaningless "scappiness" quotient (Eckstein, by the way, has an identical .348 lifetime OBP over one fewer season than Pierre; Ramirez' career OBP is .411 and it was .489 with the Dodgers in 2008).

"Beast Mode" and "Juanpierrewood" may make funny t-shirt slogans; heck, while we're on the topic, I also like "May the Mass Times Acceleration Be With You" as well as "6 out of 7 dwarfs [sic] are not happy". But slogan t-shirts alone won't take us to a championship, not with a gaping hole in the leadoff spot, playing a guy who needs to get on base with regularity (especially since he doesn't hit home runs). (And for all those who coveted Pierre's speed, might I remind you that it is useless if he doesn't get on base, or if he refuses to run the ball in from left field instead of throwing it.)

When Pierre was pressed into regular service in May 2009, I tried to root for him to succeed--and if you're a Dodger fan, why wouldn't you?--but hoping and wishing is far different from expecting an outcome that wasn't likely to happen in the first place. I started to realize that I was setting my expectations so low, just so I wouldn't be disappointed by another Juan-for-four night (and there were 13 in 2009, by cursory glance). And shouldn't we Dodger fans be aspiring for greatness rather than hoping for mediocrity?

I suppose this is the struggle: Heart versus mind. What you know to be true vs. what you feel you want to be true. Thinking you're going to get back together with that girl that dumped you, vs. what actually happens. Effort invested vs. results achieved.

Three years after he had forewarned me, my Cubs friend was right (he was also right about the 2008 NLDS result, by the way). I tried to like Juan Pierre, and I definitely rooted for him when he played. Maybe I saw a bit of myself in him as I tried to consider how my sorry baseball abilities might play out should I ever get the opportunity to suit up for the Dodgers. I appreciate Pierre's admirable job filling in for Ramirez during his 2009 suspension, and trying to play to the best of his limited abilities. I don't begrudge JP for the contract he signed (that's Colletti's fault), nor for the casual fans he fooled into thinking he should be the team's 2009 MVP.

But Pierre did indeed drive me crazy. Wanting to like someone is different from getting good results. And even with all of his efforts and extra hours at the ballpark, Pierre represented missed opportunities for which his performance could not compensate. And his contract represented money that was not worth the utility value, and could have been better spent elsewhere to get another starting pitcher, or a cheaper backup outfielder, or even renovations to the loge and reserved level of the stadium. I'm glad, that after three years of service, that we've finally moved on; there's a place for Beast Mode somewhere, but it's not in the Dodgers' stacked outfield corps.

Thank you again, Juan Pierre, for your three years as a Dodger, for not being a clubhouse cancer, for accepting your role as a paid-like-a-starter-but-played-like-a-reserve with humor, humility, and poise. Thanks for giving it all you had, even if it wasn't enough. And good luck with the White Sox; go out and show the south side what Beast Mode is all about.

And now, let's go, Dodgers.


Josh S. said...

I wonder now how fans would have reacted to his contract if it was initially announced as 3 years/$37 million, which it essentially ended up being.

Josh S. said...

Oh, and nice piece. Well said.

rbnlaw said...

At least Colletti got the WoSox to eat almost half the remaining contract. Now Frank can pay Jamie that exorbitant spousal support she so desperately needs. . .for 20 months.

rbnlaw said...

Oh, and my Juanpierrewood shirt is now permanently the property of my two young children who alternate using it as a nightshirt.

Steve Sax said...

Rbnlaw, you don't wash your own cars?