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Will Juan Pierre Lose His Legs?

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This winter the Dodgers signed free agent centerfielder Juan Pierre to a 5-year/$45M deal in what might be Ned Colletti's worst acquisition as Dodgers General Manager.

Colletti has made a few good free agent signings during his tenure as the Dodgers GM, most notably signing shortstop Rafael Furcal to a 3-year/$39M deal and bringing in Takashi Saito from Japan on a minor league deal worth $500K, but the Pierre deal is one he may soon be regretting very soon.

In his first season in Los Angeles, Pierre is hitting a mere .279/.317/.334 while his VORP of 4.9 runs is nearing replacement level talent.

More importantly, the Dodgers will likely endure four more years of this outs machine who is nearing his 30th birthday, unless they find a way to dump him to another team in the future.

Pierre has a reputation for being a hard-worker and the speed he provides on the base paths is an asset, but there is virtually no way to justify this signing after seeing what Pierre has done in his first season with the Dodgers thus far.

The question isn't whether or not this deal was a mistake for LA, many in the sabermetric community thought the deal was outrageous even before he played his first game in a Dodger uniform, but rather just how much will he decline as he ages?

Pierre's game is entirely dependent on his legs. He's an extreme groundball hitter (he's currently tops in the National League in GB% at 53% and he's placed in the top five of that category from 2004-2006) and when you browse through his hit charts it's very clear his batting average has been boosted by a number of infield hits.  He has no power, he won't draw a walk and his defense is below average so without his above-average batting average and gaudy stolen base totals he's essentially useless.

BP 2007 acknowledged this, but let's take this a step further and take a look at his five-year projection and top comparables players.

The Projection

Here is PECOTA's five-year forecast for Juan Pierre:

Note the fact Pierre is underperforming what already was a rather meager projection. While he'll likely eclipse his projected stolen base total, every single one of his rate stats are below what PECOTA forecasted and it doesn't look like he's been very unlikely on the BABIP front; his actual BABIP (.299) and expected BABIP (.322) aren't too far off.

More concerning is the fact his contact rate has worsened this season, he's striking out once every 16.25 AB's compared to his mark of once every 17.22 AB's from 2004-2006.

Is this just a small sample size problem or is it real?  I don't know, but it is something to take note of.

PECOTA doesn't expect much from Pierre over the next five seasons and their MORP system values his projected performance at around $34M, meaning the Dodgers overpaid by $11M or so.  The fact Pierre's underachieving his 2007 forecast makes his future projection even more concerning.

As I mentioned earlier, Pierre has always been a durable player.  He's played in at least 150 games over his last six seasons, but PECOTA see's a decrease in playing time during his age 32 and 33 seasons which would certainly hurt his value.  

Looking toward Pierre's most important aspect of his game, that being his speed, PECOTA doesn't see a large decrease in his stolen base totals which prompts it to predict batting averages of .285 or higher over the next five years.  Assuming he stays healthy, he could very well stay above the replacement level threshold which should help Dodger fans breathe a bit easier.  

PECOTA doesn't think Pierre's going to lose his legs over the next five seasons; beyond that is another story.

The List of Similar Players

Let's take a look at Pierre's top ten comparable players via PECOTA and focus strictly on their age 29 to 33 seasons to see just what the Dodgers can expect from Pierre over the next five years.  I'll once again focus on their stolen base totals, but also take a look at their number of plate appearances during that span to see if we can expect a decrease in playing time from Pierre.

Lance Johnson:

Like Pierre, Johnson was a speedster who relied on batting average and rarely hit home runs or drew a walk during his hey-day.  Johnson was pretty valuable during his age 31 and 32 seasons (he posted WARP3's of 7.5 and 6.2 during those years respectively), but he saw a massive decline in playing time during his age 33 season.  His speed also regressed during those years.  

Tom Goodwin:

Goodwin was an everyday player during his age 29 through 31 seasons, but saw a sharp decrease in playing time during his age 32 and 33 seasons.  Goodwin remained a stolen base threat throughout those years, but the massive decrease in playing time cannot be ignored.

Willie Wilson:

Almost a mirror image to Goodwin in terms of playing time and stolen base totals.  Wilson was an everyday player during his age 29 through 32 season, but saw his playing time decrease during is age 33 season.  Once again, always a very speedy player during this tenure, but he wasn't an everyday guy during this five-year stretch either.

Scott Podsednik:

A player Pierre is often compared to, Pods stole 99 total bases throughout his age 29 and 30 seasons, but injuries have limited him to only 110 AB's this year, his age 31 season, and he isn't showing the speed he once did.  It's also worth noting he has spent time on the DL both last season and the year before that as well.

Matty Alou:

Unlike the comparable players already mentioned, Alou remained an everyday regular throughout his age 29 through 33 seasons, but also unlike the players listed, his speed regressed significantly during his age 33 season.

Mickey Rivers:

Rivers was an everyday guy throughout his age 29 through 32 seasons, but was limited to only 68 AB's during his age 33 season due to injury. It's also important to note Rivers saw a sharp decline in his stolen base totals following his age 29 season.

Luis Polonia:

Polonia played everyday during his age 29 season, but suffered a sharp decrease in playing time and stolen base totals following that year.  He was out of the majors following his age 32 season only to return to the majors during his age 35 season with the Tigers.

Milt Thompson:

Thompson was never much of a regular player (he eclipsed 500+ AB's only twice during his 13-year career), but things really took a turn for the worst following his age 30 season in terms of both playing time and stolen base totals.

Gene Richards:

Richards was reduced to reserve roles during his age 29 and 30 seasons and didn't return to the majors following that time.  He was a player that was always a threat to steal during his prime, but he took a large step backward following his age 26 season.

Darryl Hamilton:

Another guy that never really was a consistent everyday player (he eclipsed 500+ AB's only five times during his 13-year career), Hamilton took a step back in terms of stolen base totals following his age 32 season.  Never the speedster Pierre was (and still is), he only stole more than 40 bases in a season once during his career.

Over viewing all of the players listed, it's pretty safe to assume Pierre won't remain as speedy as he currently is throughout his five-year tenure with Los Angeles, but he won't necessarily lose his legs either.

Perhaps more important is the fact that not a single player listed remained everyday players during their age 29 through 33 seasons.  

Final Thoughts

Given his projection and the players he compares to the most, expecting Pierre to lose his legs completely may be a bit much.

I highly doubt he he'll remain as fast as he currently is into the latter part of this five-year deal, but his speed should remain an asset which should help the fact he'll always be an extreme groundball hitter.

More interesting is the fact his durability may be put into question.  PECOTA projecting a decrease in playing time following his age 31 season seems like a good bet given his comparables.

For Juan Pierre to essentially remain better than replacement level talent he needs to do a couple of things:  He needs to use his speed to his advantage to keep that batting average above-average and he needs to play everyday.

I put Pierre's speed into question at the beginning of the piece, but following examination of his five-year forecast and top comps, the latter is something that may prevent him from justifying the deal he signed even by the slightest margin.