Stop Screwing Around and Trade Juan Pierre Already

Scuttlebutt is that the Phillies and Orioles are talking about a trade involving Juan Pierre. But those talks have hit a snag. Such news could prompt any number of reactions, but my favorite is this one.

“Immovable WTF??” indeed.

When the Phillies signed Pierre in the offseason, then started playing him, I envisioned something worse than what he’s become. Specifically, I imagined a formidable volcano, its base somewhere in short left field at Citizens Bank Park, that was home to an angry and vengeful god. Except this volcano god would subsist not on the sacrifice of virgins, as the volcano gods of old did, but instead on outs. I imagined Juan Pierre, holding a spear and dressed in traditional Maori warrior garb, dragging bushel after bushel of outs up the mountain and tossing them into the caldera. Dozens, hundreds of outs. Enough outs to satisfy the hunger of ten angry volcano gods.

But you know what? He hasn’t been that bad. He’s blooped, bleeped and BABIPed his way to a 92 OPS+ and a 104 wRC+. Even as a bad defensive corner outfielder, both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference have him at 1.2 WAR this season. Now, no one’s going to confuse him with Rickey Henderson (or even Ricky Ledee) with those numbers, but for less than a million dollars on a one-year contract? That’s a bargain.

Now, August 31 is not actually the trade deadline. July 31 is the non-waiver trade deadline, but after that date, anyone who clears waivers can still be moved. No player acquired after August 31, however, can be added to the postseason roster, so September trades, particularly for free agents-to-be like Pierre, are rare.

But the Orioles, who are, somewhat inexplicably, very much in contention for a division title, need outfield depth. For a team with designs on winning the toughest division in baseball, the Orioles have seen an awful lot of the likes of Steve Pearce and Nate McLouth. With the expanded rosters, Pierre is probably worth a stab if the price is right. I don’t think I’d give up an asset for 3 weeks of Juan Pierre, but depending on the asset, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world.

So it was probably the Phillies who shot this deal down. According to the rumor, the Phillies didn’t trade Pierre because they “wouldn’t get much in return.”

I’m sorry, what?

Juan Pierre has 3 weeks left on his contract. He will generate no draft pick compensation as a free agent. The Phillies, in Domonic Brown and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) Darin Ruf, have two guys who could use at-bats in left field far more than Pierre. Going into tonight’s games, the Phillies had a 0.7 percent chance of even making the play-in game (though as the Phillies are up 3-1 through 6 1/2 innings as this is posted, that number will probably go up some if the score holds). Nevertheless, they’ll need to stage a comeback on the order of the 2007 Colorado Rockies to even get into a one-game playoff to get to a playoff series where they’ll be handed every disadvantage. If you go back to their lowest point, a Phillies playoff appearance would mark the second-greatest comeback in baseball history. Hold that thought–we’ll come back to it.

Let’s assume the Phillies aren’t going to make the playoffs. If Pierre walks, the Phillies get nothing. If they trade him, they get a minor leaguer, albeit likely one whose odds of making a major-league impact are just as long as the Phillies’ odds of making the playoffs this season. The Orioles ain’t trading Dylan Bundy for a three-week rental on a fourth outfielder.

But still, something, literally anything, is better than nothing. Pierre has zero long-term future in Philadelphia, so if the Phillies get back a sixer of Natty Bo and the a copy of the fifth season of The Wire on DVD, the Phillies win the trade. There is literally no reason for the Phillies to hang on to Pierre. Even if they want him back next season, he’ll be a free agent, and if he refuses to re-sign, who cares? There will be other free-agent outfielders this winter, the vast majority of whom will be better than Pierre. Could they be holding out for a better org guy in return? Maybe, but there’s a pretty good chance the Orioles either trade for a different outfielder or stand pat entirely. Better to take an offer while you know one is on the table.

So the only possible reason to keep Juan Pierre is to help the team this season. I gave up on the Phillies’ playoff chances months ago, but maybe Ruben Amaro isn’t so easily convinced. Fair enough–he runs the team, so if he wants to be optimistic, that’s his prerogative.

So let’s think about what that says: that someone in the Phillies’ front office believes that the difference between staging the second-greatest comeback in major league history and not staging the second-greatest comeback in major league history is Juan Pierre.

For God’s sake–just get rid of him already.

 

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

If it seems like the Phillies’ starting pitching hasn’t been as good this year as it was last year, it’s because it hasn’t. The fearsome foursome of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt contributed to a league-best 2.86 ERA — nearly a half-run better than the next-best team, the San Francisco Giants. This year, that ERA rose to 3.81, only the sixth-best mark in the league. It’s been a rough year: Halladay had an injury problem, Lee has dealt with incredibly bad luck, and Vance Worley‘s season recently ended with elbow surgery. It hasn’t all been bad news, though, as Kyle Kendrick has had two incredibly good runs of pitching and Tyler Cloyd has looked mostly good since being called up recently.

It is generally difficult to compare something so broad as “starting pitching” from one year to the next, but we can get a rough idea using game score. While far from a perfect metric, it does give us an idea as to how the pitching has changed between 2011 and ’12. The following chart shows the frequency of Phillies starters’ game scores by buckets, with 50 being the average.

Percentage-wise, the 2012 Phillies had more “elite” pitching performances, game scores of 71 or higher. Meanwhile, the 2011 Phillies had more “slightly above average” performances, game scores between 51 and 70. The latter matters more because they occur more often: 64 of 140 games fell between 51-70 this year, and 70 of 162 occurred last year. Meanwhile, only 23 games reached 71 or higher this year, and only 46 did last year.

In terms of individual performances, all four of Halladay, Lee, Hamels, and Worley saw their average game score decline. The now-departed Joe Blanton saw a modest increase, Kendrick stayed about the same, and Cloyd has been about as good as Oswalt was last year, though in 20 fewer starts.

2011:

2011 Average GS Starts St Dev
Cliff Lee 64.1 32 18.6
Cole Hamels 62.1 31 15.8
Joe Blanton 46.4 8 13.1
Kyle Kendrick 52.5 15 15.2
Roy Halladay 63.3 32 13.1
Roy Oswalt 51.4 23 15.0
Vance Worley 56.4 21 16.6
Total Average 58.8 162

2012:

2012 Average GS Starts St Dev
Cliff Lee 57.2 25 15.0
Cole Hamels 60.0 27 12.5
Joe Blanton 51.9 20 18.7
Kyle Kendrick 51.2 20 19.4
Roy Halladay 55.0 21 17.1
Tyler Cloyd 51.3 3 21.6
Vance Worley 48.6 23 14.1
Total Average 54.2 139

Another interesting item to look at is the standard deviation of each pitcher’s game score in both seasons. The standard deviation tells you the spread of data around the average — the larger the number, the more volatile the pitcher was overall. For instance, Halladay’s average game score in 2012 is 55 with a standard deviation of 17, so roughly 68% (why 68%?) of his starts fell between a game score of 38 and 72. Indeed, 21 of his 32 starts (66%) were between those two numbers.

From 2011 to ’12, Lee, Hamels, and Worley saw their standard deviation shrink along with their average game score, so not only were they worse on average, but their starts overall were more frequently mediocre, rather than sometimes elite. Put another way, Lee’s 2011 standard deviation of 19 is partially due to eight of his 32 starts producing a game score of 80 or better. This year, only one of his starts — a memorable one — was 80 or better.

I don’t mean to imply that more volatility in starters is always a good thing. Cy Young favorites in their respective leagues, R.A. Dickey has an average game score of 63 with a standard deviation of 19, while David Price has an average game score of 61 with a standard deviation of 16, for example. However, because runs cannot go below zero, it is more rewarding to post a game score 19 above your average rather than 19 below, since there’s almost no change in win expectancy if you allow five runs instead of six, as opposed to a huge swing in win expectancy if you allow one run rather than two.

The Phillies’ starting pitching problems have been rather easy to diagnose this year: age and injuries, mostly. But it’s also true that the staff as a whole declined and was, perhaps, too consistent.

Another Look at the Phillies’ Playoff Chances

With a sweep of both yesterday’s double-header and the series overall with the Colorado Rockies, the Phillies moved to within six games of the second Wild Card in the National League. The 81-60 Atlanta Braves appear to be the presumptive first Wild Card winner, 5.5 games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in second place. Behind the Cardinals are the Dodgers (1.5 games), Pirates (2.5), Brewers and Phillies (6.0), and Diamondbacks (6.5). In their last 10 games, the Phillies have gone 8-2 when they were previously considered dead in the water. Of the teams ahead of them, the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates have losing records in the same span of time, creating some space for the Phillies to enter the mix.

Baseball Prospectus had the Phillies at 0.2 percent to make the playoffs before yesterday’s double-header (they haven’t yet updated), while Cool Standings puts them at 0.7 percent following the games. While 0.7 percent looks better than 0.0 percent, the difference is not that meaningful — the Phillies still have a long road ahead of them.

In prior looks at the playoff race here, we assumed that 89 wins would be the threshold for the second Wild Card, but as it stands currently, 87 wins would be enough. The Cardinals, currently in the lead, have a .536 winning percentage. In order for the Phillies to win the Wild Card at 87 games, no other team in the mix can win more than 86, obviously. So what is the minimum winning percentage for the Phillies, and what is the maximum winning percentage for the others?

The Phillies have to win at least 18 of their remaining 22 games, an .818 winning percentage. The Cardinals can play no better than .500 baseball at 11-11. The others can, at best, experience only moderate success.

Team W L Wpct
STL 11 11 .500
LAD 12 9 .571
PIT 14 9 .609
MIL 17 5 .773
ARI 17 4 .810
PHI* 18 4 .818

*Minimum winning percentage; others are maximum.

The Phillies’ remaining schedule is as follows:

  • Sept. 10-12 vs. Marlins (.447)
  • Sept. 13-16 @ Astros (.314)
  • Sept. 17-19 @ Mets (.464)
  • Sept. 21-23 vs. Braves (.574)
  • Sept. 25-27 vs. Nationals (.614)
  • Sept. 28-30 @ Marlins (.447)
  • Oct. 1-3 @ Nationals (.614)

Realistically, the Phillies would have to sweep the Marlins in both series, as well as the Astros and Mets, then win at least five of their nine remaining games with the Braves and Nationals. At any rate, finishing out the season at least 18-4 would bring them to 24-6 to close out the season, an .800 winning percentage. If the Phillies were to accomplish this feat, it would be more improbable and more impressive than each of their late-season runs to claim the NL East crown in 2007 and ’08. Even if it’s not likely, it is nice that the Phillies are still playing somewhat meaningful baseball in September after all of the adversity they went through in the previous five months.