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Juan Pierre: Best Thief?

Since the day I began making daily posts on this blog, I’ve gained an appreciation for just how difficult it can be for bloggers to write something(s) of quality every day. Some nights, I’ve spent half an hour fumbling around on my bookmarked baseball sites, hoping to just find an interesting topic to comment or expand on. The process of writing something for KRB typically starts at about 10:00 p.m. central time and, on most nights, the writing, re-phrasing, and formatting typically doesn’t reach its conclusion until 1 a.m. or later. In other words, rare are the nights when I’m able to simply dive into a subject I care deeply about, write about it non-stop, and have the article posted within an hour of when I started. I guess what all my English teachers have told me – that writing is a process and isn’t supposed to be easy – was actually good information.

So on those nights when an inspirational topic won’t show itself, I often go hunting for an article that I can write a reaction to. Thankfully, that article was awfully prevalent right away because of this blurb that I saw Saturday morning on the ESPN.com front page:
Sean McAdam tells you why the Marlins’ Juan Pierre is the best base stealer in baseball.
McAdam’s article is a part of ESPN.com’s Hot Stove Heaters, a series of stories about which player’s the best two-strike hitter, the best prankster, the best-hitting pitcher, and so forth. Ultimately, they’re just supposed to be fun, opinion-based fluff pieces to get fans ready for the 2005 season, and that’s fine. I’m especially interested to read who they think is the best catcher at blocking the plate, because no play in baseball’s more exciting than a baserunner barreling into a catcher. Even after the play’s over, there’s the subsequent two seconds of suspense to see if the catcher still has the ball or, in Jamie Burke’s case, if he’s even still breathing.

Most of the upcoming Hot Stove Heaters have to do with topics that couldn’t possibly be justified with any kind of a reasonable metric, like who has the most accurate outfield arm. However, some of them can be justified using statistics, and that’s exactly why I thought their selection of Juan Pierre as the game’s best base stealer was asinine at best … and that was before I even read the article. I knew that the premise was ridiculous to begin with (more on that later), but after reading the article, I found the reasons for the premise to be even crazier. Check out this excerpt:
But one expert after another said Pierre is the guy they'd want running if they needed someone to steal a big base.

"First of all,'' explains one major league executive, "he's got good instincts. Speed is one thing; instincts are another. He gets great leads, and that shows he's not afraid to get picked off. And that's another trait you look for: fearlessness. The great ones have it.''
I’m at the point where I really want to stop putting any credit to things baseball "experts" say, and these people didn’t do anything to change that. A big problem with the "scouts" side of the "scouts vs. stats" debate is that the scouts often make judgments based on selective memory. For example, the perception is that Derek Jeter turns into a hitting machine in postseason play because of his November 1 homer and the Yankees winning championship after championship in the late-90s. The reality is that in 441 postseason at-bats, he’s hit .306/.380/.456, which is awfully similar to his career regular season hitting line of .315/.385/.463. In this case, these executives have determined that Pierre’s the best base stealer because of a few important (in their minds) times he’s succeeded, getting into scoring position at a crucial juncture of the game.

As has been pointed out before on other sites, it’s important to have both sides of the scouts vs. stats debate implemented in baseball organizations for the team to achieve success. Similarly, it’s important for people to consider both sides when forming an opinion, the other side in this being using stolen base percentage. McAdam’s article also named a few other prominent stolen base guys like Ichiro!, Carl Crawford, and Scott Podsednik. I was shocked to see Carlos Beltran’s name missing from that list, considering that he’s the all-time leader in SB percentage, coming into 2005 at a healthy 89 percent.

For me, there’s no better way to identify the best base stealer than by finding who succeeds the highest percentage of the time. Beltran’s success is extremely unusual, because he’s blowing Hall of Famer to-be and previous SB percentage record holder Rickey Henderson (80 percent) right out of the water. The general rule is that for a player to NOT hurt his team’s run-scoring ability, he needs to succeed on at least 75 percent of his attempts. Apparently, this fairly old Bill James adage is something that’s still lost on at least one baseball person:
"He steals when it means something,'' says another talent evaluator. "He's not padding his total. Everyone knows he's going and he still makes it most of the time. That, to me, is the mark of a really great basestealer.''
Once again, "He steals when it means something" is an example of selective memory. Additionally, "[Making] it most of the time" isn’t good enough, and it sure as hell isn’t "the mark of a really great base stealer." Knowing that Pierre couldn’t possibly have a higher percentage than Beltran does, I went to Baseball-Reference.com to do some checking, and found that Pierre’s career percentage falls at 73: Two percent below the important level previously mentioned. He was especially horrid in 2004, succeeding on just 45 of his 69 attempts for a 65 percent success rate.

It’s one thing to use opinions and visuals to decide who the best in-game manager is, but it’s flat-out irresponsible to say that Juan Pierre’s a better base stealer than Beltran, Crawford, Suzuki, Podsednik, Johnny Damon, and a host of others. The bottom line is that the wrong choice was made here, because ESPN’s best base stealer has actually been hurting his team’s run-scoring outputs while on the basepaths.

In memory ...

If I may stray from baseball for a moment, I'd like to write briefly about one of my other loves -- comedy -- and about one of the pioneers of modern humor, Johnny Carson, who passed away yesterday morning.

Carson's show was at its peak long before I was born and ended its run in 1992 when I was just eight years old, so I never had the opportunity to witness Carson's antics at the time. However, I've watched some Tonight Show highlights on VHS and laughed uncontrollably, mostly at his famous "Carnac" bit and his impersonations of Ronald Reagan. So even though Carson came well before my time, I was taken aback with shock and sorrow when I read yesterday afternoon that he'd died. My guess is that several others who're around my age had the same reaction I did. All of us can only hope to impact so many lives and become an icon as Carson did.


1925-2005
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