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Reflecting on the career of Juan Pierre

The former outfielder announced his retirement from baseball on Friday. Let's honor his career as a relentless speed demon.

Pierre hangs up the cleats for good.
Pierre hangs up the cleats for good.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Without much fanfare, one of the most active players of the aughts — who accrued more plate appearances in that decade than, among others, Adrian Beltre and Chipper Jones — decided to retire recently. A veteran of six teams across his fourteen seasons, this man overcame his shortcomings (and man, did he have shortcomings) to rank among the all-time leaders in several categories and compile an all-around memorable career.

When the Rockies selected Juan Pierre in the 13th round of the 1998 draft, they didn't expect a whole lot. According to venerable prospect man John Sickels, scouts recognized him as a speedster, but feared that a wooden bat might sap his power. With a career ISO of .066 in his 8,280 trips to the dish, Pierre certainly lived down to that potential. But hey, this is a career retrospective, and as we learned from Derek Jeter, the purpose of these things is to lionize the player in question, by focusing only on the good while ignoring the bad.

So! Let's talk about Pierre's strengths. Overall, he didn't hit particularly well: His work with the stick was 14% worse than the major-league average. Nevertheless, he holds several fun distinctions, including (but surely not limited to):

*Among 2,543 players with at least 2,000 plate appearances

Together with a 5.8% strikeout rate — and remember, the era in which he played featured some of the highest fan levels ever — and a certain other skill (with which you're probably already familiar), these things made him a joy to watch. I'll get to what that ability was in a moment, but first I'd like to touch on the non-offensive side of the ball.

Across his career, Pierre never moved away from the outfield. He spent 10174.1 innings in center, and 5335.1 innings in left, for a total of fifteen thousand innings in the outfield. That takes stamina! (And no, not that kind of stamina.) Did he deliver through all of that time?

Well, the answer to that varies. See, as my colleague Bryan Grosnick has laid out, we sabermetricians have a few different numbers by which we measure defense; the two most prominent are Defensive Runs Saved (or DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (or UZR), used by Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, respectively. While they generally sync up in their appraisal of a player, they can sometimes differ significantly, and that's the case with Pierre. DRS rates his defense as 24 runs below average, whereas UZR sees it as 33.3 runs above average.

The net result of that comes forward in our favorite statistic: WAR. By B-R's version, Pierre gained 16.6 wins above replacement for his career; by FG's version, he had 23.2. From 2000 to 2013, where does the differential between the two rank?

Name rWAR fWAR Difference
Alfonso Soriano 28.7 39.9 11.2
Rich Aurilia 12.6 20.2 7.6
B.J. Upton 14.1 21.3 7.2
Juan Pierre 16.6 23.2 6.6
Moises Alou 17.9 24.4 6.5
Adam Dunn 16.4 22.7 6.3
Derek Jeter 48.2 54.4 6.2
Henry Blanco -0.1 5.5 5.6
Brian McCann 23.5 29.1 5.6
John Buck 5.1 10.6 5.5

Pretty highly, it turns out. Only three other men can best Pierre's mark, which means that our choice of metric when evaluating his career might make a legitimate difference in the conclusion we reach.

With all of that said, let's get back to the good stuff. As a baseball fan during the past decade-and-a-half, you probably knew Pierre as one thing: fast. And he certainly had speed, as evidenced by the aforementioned scouting report. But quickness alone won't make a player good — no, he has to control it, and use it wisely. And across a fourteen-year career, Pierre did just that.

First, let's look at the basic thing: stolen bases. In his major-league tenure, he tried to swipe a bag 817 times, and made it in safely 614 times. That makes for a success rate of 75.2% — pretty good, considering that the MLB average usually hovers around 70%. Altogether, he accrued 32.5 wSB runs above average; among 2,543 players with at least 2,000 career plate appearances, that ranks 57th. So his base-stealing acumen speaks for itself.

But that alone doesn't capture the extent of his speed. First, we'll look at bunts. They only go back to 2002, so we can't count the first two years of Pierre's career. Even in the final dozen campaigns, though, he stood apart: His 215 bunt hits led the majors by a mile, as did his 632 bunt attempts. The two combine to form a bunt success rate of 34.0%, notably above the major-league mark, which stays in the low 20s.

Then there's the matter of infield hits. His quality in this area couldn't match that of his bunting — he only beat the throw 7.7% of the time, a figure that doesn't notably top the MLB average (5-6%). However, he still managed to leg it out 249 times across his career; only Ichiro Suzuki and Jeter can say they've topped that.

And then we come to that most underrated element of the game: baserunning. Don't conflate it with base stealing, because this matters even more than that. It's the little things — advancing from first to third on a single, scoring from first on a double or from second on a single, and so on. And in these facets of the game, you couldn't find anyone better than Pierre:

Situation Runner on 1st, single Runner on 1st, double Runner on 2nd, single
Outcome Advance to 2nd Advance to 3rd Thrown out Advance to 3rd Score Thrown out Advance to 3rd Score Thrown out
Juan Pierre 58.2% 41.4% .4% 46.4% 51.8% 1.8% 28.3% 67.6% 4.1%
MLB Average 70.6% 28.0% 1.3% 55.4% 41.8% 2.8% 36.6% 59.2% 4.3%

(From 2002 to 2013)

Unsurprisingly, UBR — which measures these minutiae, and many more — is rather fond of Pierre: It dubs him the best baserunner in the game since 2002. Even better, the three players directly behind him (Chone Figgins, Jimmy Rollins, and Ian Kinsler) reside on the wrong side of 30, and thus probably won't add too much to their marks in the years to come. In this area, it would appear, Pierre will reign supreme for a long time.

So Juan Pierre leaves this wonderful game with a good amount of hits, a phenomenal amount of stolen (and advanced) bases, a World Series ring, and a sense of humor regarding his lack of clout. But why does it matter? He won't enter the Hall of Fame, or even the Hall of Very Good. Why should we care that he's retired?

To that, I would simply reply with this:

Look at this 35-year-old sonofabitch, flying down the third-base line like it's nothing. Look at the spark of euphoria that flashes in his eye as the ball bounces awry. Look at his calm demeanor as he enters the dugout, having just done that which he's done countless times before. Look at the desperation with which Eric Kratz flings the ball to the plate, hoping in vain that he'll catch him.

Could Juan Pierre hit? No. Could he field? Depends on your metric of choice. But I challenge you, the coldly logical sabermetrician, to watch this man do what he does best, and tell me you're not a little somber that he's gone.

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.