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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Statistics, And The Myopic Columnists Who Don't Inspect Them Closely Enough

If ever there were a column designed to evoke some strong response, this one's it (hat tip: Jon). Bill Shaikin, whose baseball coverage is usually excellent, falls down on a shortsighted column that compares Juan Pierre to ... wait for it ... Hall of Famer Lou Brock?
If you're a serious baseball fan, you know Ernie Broglio. If the trivia category is "All-Time Worst Trades" and the challenge is to name the player the Chicago Cubs got when they traded Lou Brock, the answer is Broglio.

Brock got into the Hall of Fame on his first try, as the outfielder atop the St. Louis Cardinals' lineup during their glory years of the 1960s. The Cardinals counted on Brock to hit .300, score 100 runs and steal 50 bases every year.

Juan Pierre can do all that.

The Cardinals were thrilled to have Brock. So were their fans. No one questioned his value.

The Dodgers were thrilled when they signed Pierre over the winter, but a vocal brigade of fans objected and a chorus of statistical analysts chuckled.

...

In Brock's era, batting average ruled. Today, the Dodgers are condemned for paying attention to the wrong statistics.

Whoa. Shaikin starts off by attacking an argument made by nobody in the sabermetric community criticizing the Pierre signing. Not only does that include this space, which lazily adopted Jon's general tenor while doing no actual analysis, but Baseball Prospectus's Marc Normandin, who called the signing "inexcusable" thanks to a near-total lack of discernable power and an on-base percentage that was almost entirely due to his high average. And that high average came because he's fast — but speed is one of the first things to go in a player:
He's also played in 162 games for four straight seasons, which means a lot of wear on his legs. Once he begins to lose speed, he's going to look like even more of a pinch runner and defensive replacement than he does as of now, and that is something every National League West team not based in Los Angeles can celebrate over the next five years.
Lew Brock was a far better offensive player than Pierre. In particular, Brock could walk; despite playing in fewer than 162 games every year of his career, he had 50 or more walks five years, with a high of 76 in 1971. Pierre has so far only managed that once, in his age 25 season of 2003. Now, Pierre's on-base percentage (OBP, as if I should need to spell it out to anyone reading this) has exceeded .350 four times in his career; Brock at the same point in his career had only exceeded .350 one time.

But this fails to contend with the players' respective eras and parks. Brock played in the huge strike zone era, in which all manner of offensive numbers were suppressed. Using Baseball Reference's Neutralize Stats function (for the neutral 750 runs environment), two of Pierre's over-.350 OBP seasons — his 2000 and 2001 seasons in Colorado, which inflated his batting averages — disappear. And while it's true that Pierre has posted some superficially similar stolen base totals, if he can't get on base to steal second, that skill has no value.

Then of course there's the matter of his age; with so much of his skill set tied up in his legs (almost all of it, really), he's in serious trouble when that goes — as it would appear to be doing even now. All of this is to say that while Pierre is a useful player, it's almost certain that he won't be nearly as useful as his current contract would seem to imply. Context matters, but Shaikin's analysis doesn't really try to look too hard for it.

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