My co-worker Debbie, an ardent Cubs fan, has always expressed an odd envy to me:
"I always liked that Juan Pierre...never understood why we let him go."
I like Debbie, and generally attribute any baseball statement she makes that I disagree with as a product of the sad truth that married women in their 50s don't spend the wee hours of the morning trolling FanGraphs or BaseballReference.
To any baseball fan, Juan is surely fun to watch; he steal bases, hustles on defense, and gives a crap about the game about as blatantly as anyone can. But still, I'm pretty sure I remember Pierre coming to the Cubs with much fan fare as the team horrifically overpaid Florida in a trade (Ricky Nolasco, Sergio Mitre, and Renyel Pinto), then underperforming in the initial months of the season, and recovering long after the team fell way out of contention. Even though he finished with a 2.9 WAR and 58 stolen bases, the Cubs never raised a finger to re-sign him, and weren't blamed for doing. So why the hell doesn't Debbie have the contempt for Pierre that rest of the fanbase has?
There's another thing about Debbie; the Cubs are still in full-on sell mode, winning has been de-emphasized more than Marijuana laws in Ann Arbor, rookies make up half the roster, and if management keeps sellling off assets so frantically they might get investigated for insider trading soon. Yet Debbie is following the result of every game as fervently as ever. She lives and dies with every daily result like a true fan regardless of the situation.
It can't be easy for her to do this, but at the same time, if anyone was going to have noticed Juan Pierre turn it into overdrive at the end of a miserable '06 season, it'd have been her. And if anyone was going to watch those last few months and see Juan hit .311 with 28 stolen bases, and a .758 OPS, and make the conclusion "Hey, that guys is actually a pretty good player," it would have been her.
But anyone who's watched Scott Podsednik trudge around in September understands that speed players are hard-pressed to maintain their production levels, let alone improve upon them. They crash into infielders (as Pierre did Thursday), pull hamstrings, and draw the attention of defenses.
Scott's career splits show that he dips in terms of hitting and running in the 2nd half, whereas renowned base thieves Rickey Henderson and Kenny Lofton both improve in their steal rate and depreciate in their OPS in the waning months.
But then there's Juan Pierre, who transforms into a fundamentally different player after the mid-summer classic. In the 1st half, he's a .287 hitter (Ok) with a .339 OBP (a little less than ok), a .689 OPS (we're entering the 'flat-out bad' territory), and a steal rate of 76%. In the 2nd half of seasons, Juan becomes a .314 hitter (pretty good), with a .359 OBP (borderline leadoff quality!), a .750 OPS (starter-level!), and a steal rate of 73.7% (okay, that kinda hurts our theory). Of course, his slugging also goes up (.350 to .390, really awful to signs of a pulse), his strikes outs go down, and his home runs go way up....all right not really, but two more home runs in 850 less plate appearances is something.
All of this represents a trend that suggests that Juan's recent hot streak isn't simply a combination of luck and utter desperation as he tries to ensure the Sox don't try to ditch his $8.5M salary in the off-season, but might actually be the way Juan plays. He takes a long, long, long time to get going; which can happen when you have no power to speak of and need to master slapping line drives to the same spot over the head of the shortstop and at the feet of the right fielder. Of course, if the trend really holds true, then it would be Juan's most extreme mountain climb yet.
As you could have guessed, Juan's 1st half was uniquely terrible, and it needed an absolutely herculean effort for him to work his way to the .277 average, and .666 OPS he has now. The contrast....is shocking:
Batting average: 1st half - .257, 2nd half - .326 George Bell to Frank Thomas
OBP: 1st half - .326, 2nd half - .404 Alexei Ramirez to Jim Thome
OPS: 1st half -.615, 2nd half - .788 A.J. Pierzynski to uh...let's say Herbert Perry
Stolen base rate: 1st half - 74.4% to 84.2% Scott Podsednik to Rickey Henderson
HR: 1st half - O, 2nd half - 1 Dead Juan Pierre to Ozzie Guillen
34 games isn't the largest of sample sizes, but with the history on his side, there's no reason to think Juan can't continue the damn decent play he's exhibited of recent. Pierre really set himself extremely far back with hitting cold enough to reverse decades of artificial fluorocarbons eating away the O-zone layer, and prolonged periods of abstinence from extra-base hits, so he'd really have to continue at a super-torrid pace to finish with half-decent stats. But still, it looks like Juan will have the chance to have his redemption months in what remains of the AL Central race. The White Sox really seem to have the speedy leadoff man they shipped off one of the last decent arms in their farm system to get. We just had to wade through three months of decrepit slap-hitting incompetence that would have embarrassed Mike Caruso to get to it. No biggie.