There are major causes for concern regarding Juan Pierre and his poor start to 2011.
In 2010, Pierre out-performed my expectations. The cold, hard saberist in me wanted to dismiss the newly-acquired outfielder without much of an afterthought, but his .341 on-base percentage coupled with above-average defense softened my stance on the guy. He was not a big reason, if he was a reason at all, why the White Sox missed the playoffs last season.
This year, though, Pierre's poor play has been a big reason why the White Sox are 11-19.
His slash line is .250/.307/.276, good for an OPS lower than the current slugging percentage of 14 major-league players. Delving into the more advanced wOBA, Pierre sits at .247—which, hey, is at least better than Alex Rios' .237 mark. Pierre only has two extra-base hits, a double and a triple, although that's not too surprising. But worst of all, Pierre is 5-13 on stolen bases and has been caught eight times in a row, the last of which came last night at the hands of Matt Wieters.
On the bright side, Pierre has played better defense as of late including a nice diving catch last night, but he's still rated as average to below average by various defensive metrics. Obviously, those don't mean a whole lot except that Pierre botched a pair of fly balls early in the season, and I'd expect UZR and DRS to normalize as the sample size gets bigger, showing Pierre is actually about an average defensive outfielder.
But back to the real issue: Pierre's offense. Let's start with his string of being caught stealing, because that's maybe the most concerning issue surrounding the White Sox left fielder.
Pierre told Chuck Garfien he's not hurt, which is actually a little worrisome. If Pierre were hurt, we'd know why he's been getting thrown out so much. But, because he's not hurt, it opens the door for speculation that his 33-year-old legs are starting to wear down. Bill James' speed score has Pierre pegged at 4.6, which would be below average if 2010's 5.0 average carries over into this season. As of now, Pierre is having the worst baserunning season of his career, and it's not even close.
Maybe the stolen base woes are due to Pierre's timing being off. Maybe things have snowballed for him that he's now pressing to just get that steal and not picking his spots or reading the pitcher as well. Let's hope it's that and Pierre can get back into a stolen base groove soon, because one thing's for sure: he's not going to stop running.
But the more worrisome explanation is that Pierre's legs are wearing out. Brett Ballantini alluded to this possibility last night, and there's certainly some evidence that could point in the direction of tired legs. Obviously, he's been thrown out eight straight times trying to steal. Additionally, Pierre hasn't always trusted his legs in the outfield, and that's why you saw those dropped fly balls early in the season. And his strikeout rate has to 11.2 percent, easily the highest of his career. All those could be signs pointing to fatigued legs that need some rest.
Personally, I don't think Pierre has tired legs, although it's a possibility I'm not going to rule out. Instead, Pierre is probably pressing on the basepaths to do too much because he hasn't been on them that much.
If Pierre's 1.79 ground ball-fly ball ratio stays around that rate for the entire season, it'll be the lowest of his career. A 51.5 percent ground ball rate isn't the end of the world, but coupled with the highest fly ball rate of his career at 28.9 percent, Pierre has struggled to get on base.
The key isn't to convert those fly balls into ground balls, though, it's to convert those fly balls into something that's hit hard. That could be a ground ball, it could be a line drive. But long-term, Pierre's not going to have any sustained offensive success by trying to bloop in singles. He has to start hitting the ball hard at some point, and that starts with taking a good up-the-middle approach.
It sounds simple, but Pierre hasn't done it a whole lot this year: hit the ball hard. Try to take almost everything up the middle, and good things should come. That's the first thing Pierre has to do, with the second to cut down on his strikeout rate (that could regress just over a larger sample size, for all we know). If Pierre can do both of those things, maybe he'll regain his confidence on the basepaths and start to pick and read his spots better.
Pierre's never going to be my vision of an ideal player, but that certainly doesn't mean he can't acquit himself. He did it last year, at least. If he can get back on that 2010 track this year, though, it'll mean much better things for the White Sox going forward.