Episode 12: August 20, 2010
Speed is an exciting part of baseball, but how important is it for an offense to have fast players? Whitey Herzog had a lot of success with fast teams, but Earl Weaver and many others have had success with slow-running power-hitting teams. Is there a place for the traditional leadoff hitter in today’s game?
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
In seven years, 2001-2007 he only missed 18 games. During that period nobody in the National League had more hits. No active player strikes out less often, and he's the active leader in stolen bases. He's obviously a leadoff hitter, but who is it? It's not Jeter. Not Rollins. Not Carl Crawford. Not Jose Reyes.
I'm Alex Reisner...
It's Juan Pierre.
Two weeks ago Juan Pierre stole his 500th base, which puts him in the top 40 all-time, with a chance to crack the top 30 in September. The closest active player is not close...it's Carl Crawford at 401.
I've always liked Juan Pierre, partly because I like speed. I like seeing triples, I like stolen bases, and I love seeing guys go from first to third on a single. Speed is exciting, especially these days where power is just expected. It's been almost 20 years since there were as many stolen bases as home runs in a Major League season, and we've seen all the big home run records broken by guys who we think cheated by using steroids. For the most part, those guys are big and slow and can't steal bases, so maybe that's another reason I enjoy baserunning feats these days.
But Pierre is also an exciting batter. Since 2000 he's struck out fewer times per at-bat than anyone else. He's one of the best traditional leadoff hitters around: he makes contact often and he's fast enough to get a lot of infield hits.
He's also made some spectacular catches in center field, including May 9, 2006 when Barry Bonds hit what would have been his 714th home run if Pierre hadn't caught it as it went over the fence.
Whitey Herzog was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month as a manager and Pierre probably would have fit in on one of Herzog's Whiteyball teams with Amos Otis, Vince Coleman and Willie McGee.
But how valuable *is* Juan Pierre, really? For that matter, how valuable is any traditional-style leadoff hitter? It's good to be fast, but do you really want your leadoff hitter getting caught stealing in front of the 3, 4, and 5 hitters? A lot of analysis in the past 30 years shows that stealing bases is *not* a vital part of the leadoff hitter's job, as we used to think. It's probably more important for your 5, 6, and 7 hitters to steal bases in front of weaker hitters at the bottom of the order who are not likely to double in a runner on first.
Herzog had a lot of success with fast teams that stole a lot of bases and played good defense. But then there was Earl Weaver, who didn't care if his Orioles were fast as much as he cared about them hitting home runs. The subtitle of the second chapter of his book, Weaver on Strategy, is "Praised Be the Three-Run Homer!" An excerpt from that chapter:
"The power of the home run is so elementary that I fail to comprehend why people try to outsmart this game in other ways. If I were to play a singles hitter in right field or left field or at third base, he'd have to hit well over .300 and get on base often to be as valuable as a twenty-five-homer man."
Weaver's approach was to get runners around the bases in the fastest, most direct way possible. No bunting, no stealing. Just preserve your outs and go for big hits. And there's been a lot more success, since the Deadball Era, among teams taking that approach. Statistically speaking, almost anything that risks an out to just advance a baserunner to second, like a steal or a sacrifice bunt, is not as good a play as we used to think, so "traditional" leadoff hitters are probably not as valuable as we used to think.
Juan Pierre has lead the league in stolen bases twice in his career, but he's lead the league in getting caught five times. He steals successfully a little less than 75% of the time which is not great. It's not terrible, but it takes him out of the Great Base Stealer category, despite a high raw total for a 32-year old.
As a batter, Pierre has racked up hits because he's played a lot of games and he bats first. He doesn't walk much, and he hit a home run a few weeks ago that was his first home run in almost 2 years. He's a slap hitter who's exciting to watch, but he's *just* not as valuable as you might want him to be. His Wins Above Replacement is about 1/yr, which means the $9m he's making every year?: not a good deal for the White Sox. Pierre is kind of like Mookie Wilson. Mookie was fun. He's a great guy, he was fun to watch...I love Mookie Wilson. But he wasn't worth $9m/yr in today's dollars.
NOW, it's important to understand exactly what I'm saying here and not start dismissing all leadoff hitters who are fast and don't have a lot of power. Ichiro makes twice as much money as Pierre but he *is* worth it. Like Pierre he's a fast left-handed leadoff hitter who swings a lot, doesn't strike out much, doesn't walk much, steals bases, and doesn't hit for much power. But the differences are that (1) his batting average is 30 points higher than Pierre's, (2) he does have *some* power, averaging around 9 home runs a year, and (3) he steals bases successfully around 81% of the time, which is great--better than Joe Morgan, Vince Coleman, and Rickey Henderson who are among the best of the past 80 years.
If we look at Runs Created per Game, we see Ichiro at 6.5, and Pierre at 4.5. That means a team of nine Ichiros would score 2 more runs per game than a team of nine Juan Pierres. That's a significant difference. Also, Ichiro's Wins Above Replacement is a little over 5 per year, meaning the Mariners win 5 games each year they wouldn't win without Ichiro, while Pierre will help the White Sox win just 1. If you're not familiar with Wins Above Replacement those numbers might sound low, but trust me: there's a huge difference between 1 win and 5 wins.
So what we see is that even though Pierre has dominated for the past decade in hits, stolen bases, and strikeout rate, he is not actually a dominant player. I think to avoid getting mislead you have to distinguish between descriptive stats and result-oriented stats.
These aren't official terms, I'm just making them up for this discussion, but _descriptive_ stats are things like hits, walks, home runs, stolen bases, batting average, on-base percentage, ... anything that describes the events of a player's season. _Result-oriented_ stats like Runs Created and Wins Above Replacement, are more complicated. They are based on an assumption about the goals of baseball players and they evaluate, using many descriptive stats, how well each player achieves those goals. For batters it's pretty much agreed that the goal is to produce runs, whether it's by getting on base, advancing to other bases, or driving in teammates. The formula for Runs Created includes hits, total bases, walks, runs scored, sacrifices, groundball double plays, stolen bases, caught stealing, and other things. It gives a value to each event and calculates how many of a team's total runs were the result of the actions of the player in question.
Stats like this are great for determining a player's value. Unless you're really good at math and familiar with the relative value of a stolen base to a sacrifice bunt, result-oriented stats give you a better idea of a player's value than a line of hits, home runs, stolen bases, etc.
It's like if you're trying to figure out what car is most reliable. You can read articles, reviews, and specs, you can look at the kind of finish used on the exterior, the quality of the electrical components, the design of the engine, the type of brakes, suspension, steering... Or you can look at the J.D. Power Reliability Ratings to get a single number telling you how well the car achieves the goal of reliability. That way you don't have to figure out whether the suspension or the engine is the limiting factor, or whether the type of paint actually matters. The rating is based on all these descriptions of various aspects of the car and tells you what the result is, in terms of reliability.
Runs Created does this for baseball players. You wouldn't judge a car based on transmission and tires alone, but we do it with all the time baseball players, looking at home runs and batting average. These new stats seem complicated if you're not familiar with them, but it's definitely worth getting comfortable with Runs Created per Game and Wins Above Replacement, which also includes defense and works for pitchers as well as hitters.
What you start to see, if you look at these stats long enough, is that Earl Weaver was right. Batters who aren't power hitters have to have very high batting averages to make up for it. Hits don't happen very often in baseball, and when they do you have to make the most of them. Juan Pierre, based on his isolated power, is one of the weakest hitters in baseball, and he just doesn't get *enough* hits to make up for it.
I might as well close with a clip of Earl Weaver discussing his thoughts on speed:
That was Earl Weaver on speed. I'm Alex Reisner...
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