My earliest, strongest memory of A.J. Pierzynski -- which perhaps speaks to my lack of greater league-wide awareness during my earlier years, considering that he's been kicking it around the majors since 1998 -- is his violent 2006 home-plate collision with Michael Barrett, his emphatic hand-slap on home plate after having bowled over his Cubs counterpart, and the left side of his face being caved in by Barrett's closed fist immediately thereafter. Seven months before the incident that cemented his provocative reputation, though, Pierzynski assumed the role of heads-up victor when, during Game 2 of the 2005 ALCS, he had the presence of mind to run out a swinging strike three that was controversially deemed to have hit the dirt before it hit Josh Paul's mitt, and in the process reached base as the eventual winning run in a series-equalizing game against the Angels.
Those, I suppose, are my two strongest memories of Pierzynski, and while those snapshot memories exclude a lot of good and probably even more bad, they do, I think, help convey the seeming truth that Pierzynski is someone you love to hate until he's playing for your team ... and then "you hate him a little less." If you harbored a deep disdain for Pierzynski before yesterday's one-year, $7.5 million pact went down, then you're probably going to have one hell of a time finding a way to stand him (or even like him) over the next 9-10 months. If you're a bit more receptive on the matter, though, perhaps you can find some way to buy into Pierzynski as a player whose intelligence and competitiveness and work ethic supersede his problematic reputation, whose signal is strong enough to drown out the noise.
And, either way, the Rangers are a better team today with Pierzynski than they were yesterday without him, which is the ultimate goal. The question of how much better is subject to various uncertainties at this point in time (including, notably, Ron Washington's intended playing-time distribution for Pierzynski and Geovany Soto, who has now been relegated into a backup-catching role where he'll still net fairly heavy playing time), but Pierzynski makes the Rangers' offense better and, in all probability, makes the pitching staff better -- albeit with a few performance- and intangible-related concerns along the way.
First, recognize again that there's something of a qualitative explanation for the vast disparity between Pierzynski's career offensive mean (.284/.324/.429, 94 wRC+) and his 2012 outburst (.278/.326/.501, 118 wRC+), and take note that even though Pierzynski will have another year of tread worn off his mid-30s tires in 2013, there's some reason to hope in a bit of a carryover effect where his numbers don't crater back down to (or below) his career averages this coming season. The aging curve is a cruel, fickle beast, especially where catchers are concerned, but Pierzynski has proven exceptionally durable over the course of his career and has demonstrated some aptitude for being able to convert hard work with his coaching/training staff into tangible results at an age where most hitters are running out of gas.
Second, notice that Pierzynski is a lifetime .291/.334/.432 hitter against right-handers in nearly 5,000 plate appearances (.287/.338/.536 in 2012), and that Soto is a lifetime .295/.390/.501 hitter against left-handers in 600-plus plate appearances. You can make reasonable cases as far as their respective 2013 platoon projections perhaps being worse than their career platoon batting lines (particularly in Soto's case), and you can again note that Pierzynski/Soto won't be utilized in a strict platoon (e.g. Soto may end up being employed as Yu Darvish's personal catcher yet again this season, regardless of the opposing pitcher's handedness), but Pierzynski is healthy and driven, and Soto is apparently out to get into the best shape of his life again, and there is legitimate reason to believe that Pierzynski/Soto can be an offensive upgrade over last year's mish-mash of Napoli/Soto/Torrealba/et al.
Third, understand that "catcher defense" consists of multiple value-generating activities, and that Pierzynski has his own specific pros and cons within the scope of this rather large area -- South Side Sox, for example, recently published a convincing critique of Pierzynski's pitch-blocking skills in which it was noted that he has consistently ranked among baseball's worst pitch-blockers in recent years, and a quick glance at Pierzynski's defensive numbers indicates that he's not particularly sharp in terms of nailing runners with basestealing intentions (though, for what it's worth, he's performed at or above the league-average caught-stealing rate in both 2010 and 2012). On the other hand, though, Pierzynski ranked slightly above average in terms of pitch-framing from 2007-11 (2012 data isn't available), and to the extent that you can buy into that performance as a static baseline, you can buy into Pierzynski as a decent defensive catcher who may hurt his pitching staff in one way and then help it in another way.
[For what it's worth, Pierzynski caught Mark Buerhle's no-hitter against Texas on April 18th, 2007, and Philip Humber's perfect game against Seattle on April 21st, 2012.]
Fourth, with respect to any concerns over Pierzynski possibly casting a negative or poisonous pall over the Rangers' clubhouse, I was struck by this passage from Ben Reiter's August 2012 SI.com feature piece on Pierzynski:
"He's not any more of a d--- than anyone else," said White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn. "Throw his helmet? Who doesn't? He has this reputation, and once you're labeled as something, you do any little thing and it gets blown up."
"Playing against him for so long, he was probably one of my least liked guys," said Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz, of his mindset prior to signing with the White Sox for the 2010 season. "Then my locker was right next to his, and after that he became one of my favorite teammates ever. He's not a baby, but just a guy who is so passionate that he doesn't hold anything back. Until you play with him, you have a misperception of what he is."
"If he were well liked, people would be like, 'He's a hell of a player, the cornerstone of that franchise,'" said one opponent. "Now, it's like, 'He's a d-----." Indeed, cut away his reputation, ill deserved or otherwise, and Pierzynski's story is simple: he is hard working and dedicated, and has successfully played one of the most physically and mentally grueling positions in any sport for a very long time. He has perhaps never played it more successfully than this season, for the first place Sox.
C.J. Wilson created something of a stir back in the spring of 2008 when he opined that the average major league player is a d-----bag, a comment that reportedly drew the ire of Michael Young and others within the Rangers' clubhouse, and perhaps his sense of phrasing and timing left something to be desired ... but the thing is, C.J. really wasn't off base in saying what he said. The major league clubhouse is not a pantheon of morality or virtue, and with very, very few exceptions, the major league player is not a pillar of goodness or righteousness. I don't pretend to be any great fan of Pierzynski's violations of baseball's unspoken on-the-field code or his off-the-field antics or his television work with FOX or any of the rest of it, but beneath the outward braggadocio is, by virtually all accounts, a decent guy, and it's hard for me to imagine Pierzynski proving to be any sort of meaningful clubhouse disruption or distraction in an environment that isn't nearly as pristine as we're sometimes led to believe it is.
Fifth, Jamey noted this morning that, per ESPN Chicago's Bruce Levine, Pierzynski has been "extremely inconsistent with the [Chicago] media, a source of frustration that Levine might have implied between the lines has not helped the way he’s characterized in the press." There have also been a few reminders of Pierzynski's hostile mid-season response to being "snubbed" by All-Star manager Ron Washington, which doesn't bother me in the least and, despite their differences in opinion, probably doesn't bother Washington or Pierzynski in the least either. The more interesting point to me is the media angle, as I'll be curious to see if/when the DFW media ends up turning on Pierzynski for not being as respectful or forthcoming with the press as what it has grown accustomed to in the past with Michael Young and friends. Of course, those stories will only materialize if the Rangers put a disappointing product on the field in 2013. If they win ballgames, and if Pierzynski holds up his end of the $7.5 million bargain, then all is fine and well. Chemistry follows winning ... not the other way around.
Pierzynski isn't a long-term solution behind the plate, and he's not a perfect solution behind the plate, but he's a very reasonable buy with a legitimate shot at churning out a little surplus value above and beyond his $7.5 million salary (another 2- to 2.5-win season may be within his grasp), and with the Rangers' position on the win curve being such that their post-season chances benefit greatly from each marginal win they can add, I'm able to sit back this morning and say that the 2013 season looks a little brighter than it did yesterday -- yes, even though it meant adding this guy.