One day during spring training, Juan Pierre was waiting around the cage, where Charlie Manuel makes a habit of lingering while watching batting practice, when he heard the manager grumble to a player. "Drive the ball." Pierre, with all of 16 home runs in 12 years on his resume, listened and thought, "This might not be the best spot for me."
Pierre is 5-11 and 175 pounds, so lithe that Allen Iverson might have a hard time fitting into his clothes. He pulls his pant legs up to his knees, an ode to a past time in which players like Pierre weren't so scarce. Indeed, if you want to talk slugging, you'll have to find a different player. Yet, Pierre is more than happy to talk "small-ball."
Funny thing is, so is everybody else these days: Talk radio. Charlie Manuel. The guy at the corner store. In fact, find any fan galvanized by Phillies euphoria and it's an expression that fan has likely uttered sometime in the past few weeks. Pierre discusses it as if he's an evangelist and you can't blame him. He's 34 years old and has earned more than $50 million based on a simple mantra: "Hit it where they ain't. Get on, take the extra bases, steal bases."
That's exactly what he has done. During an exhibition game against the Pirates at Citizens Bank Park, Pierre received the heartiest applause this side of Jim Thome. And all Pierre did to earn it was slap a blooper to leftfield that he raced into a double to start the first inning. He has the best batting average of any position player on the club and already has stolen bases. The Phillies have a winning record in games he starts. As a result, a player who didn't have a guaranteed job in the spring has established himself as a player who Manuel insists will "start a lot of games."
Listen to Pierre discuss small-ball in a Citizens Bank Park clubhouse and you wonder if he should head to the visitor's side. Since the Phillies moved across the street in 2004, after all, they've been in top half of the National League in home runs in every season and have twice led the league (2008 and '09). The club went to the World Series those seasons. Ryan Howard averaged 46.5 homers and Chase Utley averaged 32 in '08 and '09. Pierre, meanwhile, has never hit more than three home runs in a season — one reason that Pierre couldn't find a guaranteed job during the offseason. "Most people want to see the longball," Pierre says. "The small thing has gone out of the game."
But a funny thing happened on his way to obsolescence. Neither Howard nor Utley played a single spring-training game, and both will be on the disabled list for the foreseeable future. Without the two sluggers in the middle of the lineup — and with only a single Opening Day starter (Jimmy Rollins) who has even hit 30 home runs in a season — the offense needed to temporarily reinvent itself.
Today, no player represents this attempt at reinvention more than Pierre, who is trying to survive on a team that hasn't used a player like him in years — in a league that no longer seems to value players like him.
Juan Pierre had just finished his rookie season in 2000, developing into a promising leadoff hitter atop the Colorado Rockies' lineup when he was asked to represent the club at an offseason banquet. At one in Colorado Springs, he met Charlie Manuel, who had once managed at Colorado Springs in the minors. Manuel, a connoisseur of good hitting, was only happy to talk to Pierre about his rookie season, during which he had batted .310 in 51 big-league games. So Manuel sought out Pierre, and the two talked hitting for hours.
Manuel has followed Pierre ever since. He watched him win a World Series with the Marlins in 2003. He was there when Pierre toiled for the Dodgers against the Phillies in the '08 and '09 playoffs. And even though Pierre was only as a nonroster invitee before spring training, Manuel touted him throughout the six weeks in Clearwater. "Juan Pierre knows how to play the game," Manuel said during the first week. "And he's a top-of-the-order hitter when he's in the lineup."
Pierre hit .377 in 61 spring at-bats and stole four bases. With the club's other leftfield options slipping, the veteran proved a fit for what Manuel and the Phillies' brass wanted from the offense this season.
That message was sent after the way last season ended, when general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted that the Phillies "don't have the same offensive team we had in 2008" and that the team needed to focus on better at-bats.
Enter Pierre, who leads all active players with most at-bats per strikeout. Over his 12-year career, he has struck out only one out of every 16 times at-bat, and he's never had more than 52 strikeouts in a single season (to compare, Ryan Howard has struck out 40 times in a single month). Pierre is No. 8 among active players in singles and is second in sacrifice hits. He is the big leagues' active leader in stolen bases (557) — although he's been caught stealing (192) more than anyone else, too.
These are all skills that befit a team that needs to manufacture runs — which is precisely what Manuel insists is the case with the Phillies. "When people say small-ball, they don't even know what small-ball is," Manuel says. "Small-ball's when you manufacture runs." He points out that he's been criticized for not knowing when to bunt or move a player over during his time in Philadelphia, yet the team seems to win more games each season. Without lineup stalwarts Howard and Utley, however, there will be even more pressure on Manuel to find ways to generate offense. John Mayberry and Laynce Nix, the other leftfielders, are both power hitters who could add more pop to the lineup. But neither makes steady contact, which is Pierre's most vital skill. Plus, with Howard out, both are used in a first-base rotation, meaning the Phillies have more available opportunities to play in leftfield. With Jimmy Rollins more willing to bat third than he's been in the past — and with Pierre an ideal candidate for the top of the order — Manuel will finally have ample opportunities to answer those who question his wherewithal during situational baseball. "I know when to bunt, I know when to hit and run," Manuel says. "And if I don't? if I don't, well something's wrong."
While Ryan Howard clutched his injured leg along the first-base line last October, Juan Pierre was set to become a free agent for the second time in his career. The first time came in November 2006, when Pierre was a coveted outfielder who eventually signed a five-year, $44 million contract with the Dodgers. Five years later, not a single team had Pierre in its offseason plans. "I would have thought I'd get at least get one big-league deal," Pierre says. "But 30 teams — including this one — didn't think I deserved a big-league deal." In the years before Pierre signed the big contract, he averaged .298, with 196 hits, 95 runs and 54 stolen bases per season. In the five years that followed, he averaged .286, with 155 hits, 75 runs and 46 stolen bases per season. He's slower and he's older, of course. But it would be reasonable to think that Pierre would not have such a struggle to find a job. Which is why Pierre thinks baseball has changed in five years more than he has.
The evolution was summed up nicely in a show Pierre recently watched on the MLB Network that focused on advanced statistics. The premise of one segment, he remembers, was that sacrifice bunts don't make sense. Pierre led the major sin sacrifice hits three times in his career. "I've always grown up playing the game, if you get the guy in scoring position, you get a better chance," he says. "With those kinds of shows, and now the GM and baseball people are more computerized, they look at straight numbers. A lot of what I do doesn't show up on the box score or on the computer screen."
But enough of what he does is reflected on the score sheet, and those attributes, he contends, are not as valued as they once were. Today, Pierre is a marginal player by many metrics. He does certain things well (makes contact, avoids strikeouts, adds speed), but he's an average defensive player with no power and an inefficient base stealer. Pierre was asked what he would value if he were a general manager — and the statistics that he values, not surprisingly, are the ones that he can provide. "Runs scored. I look at runs scored over on-base percentage," Pierre says. "There are guys with on-base percentage, they get on base and they clog the bases up. [Opponents] want [them] on base for a reason. It takes three hits to score you. Unless that guy's on base and scores 100-and-some runs, OK. But if he's on base and scores 40 percent of the time and scores 80 runs, and he's probably a power guy, so 40 of them runs come from home runs or something."
No general manager in recent history has had more success with small-ball than Dal Maxvill. He spent a decade as the St. Louis Cardinals' executive from 1984 to 1994, building teams that won National League crowns in 1985 and 1987 with the most stolen bases in the NL by a significant margin. Maxvill saw the game change in the past 15 to 20 years to value more power hitters, but he still believes players such as Pierre are valuable. "If they play on a ballclub that has good pitching," says Maxvill, who most valued on-base percentage when he was the general manager.
Pierre is a big believer in a balanced lineup. Some "boppers," as he describes them, are needed, but also some contact-and-speed players atop the order for those boppers to drive in — like when speedy players such as Alfonso Soriano and Hanley Ramirez would have stolen-base totals that approached their home-run totals, and leadoff hitters were determined as much by on-base percentage as speed to first base. "If I was playing '80s and mid-'90s, with the Vince Colemans and those type guys, it looked like every team had that kind of guy," Pierre says. Now, he has a hard time naming many players who share his skill set.
In Philadelphia, though,he may have found his match. During those seasons in Florida when his Marlins teams battled the Phillies in the National League East and during his time in Los Angeles when he couldn't advance past the Phillies in the playoffs, he watched Phillies lineups that stayed competitive with the longball and a fan base that embraced the slugger. Now, he's on a team that relies on pitching and timely hitting — at least for the time being. Amaro noted that Pierre recorded 178 hits with the White Sox last season, more hits than any Phillies player, and once the final 25-man roster was revealed, Manuel said that Pierre "earned the right to be here." Pierre knows that by securing one of the last roster spots, his job is tenuous. The other candidates for leftfield — Mayberry, Nix, and at some point perhaps Domonic Brown — each possess more power than Pierre could ever muster. But he represents exactly what the Phillies want to be this season. "I think my type of game can still help teams win," he says. "It's just a matter of what teams think that." n