Last season was one big coming out party for our young right-fielder. From the day he stepped on the field against Milwaukee and hustled down the line towards first base, he was the Astros' breath of fresh air.
This season, both the league and the law of averages has seemed to catch up to Pence. Coming into the season, it was known that Hunter was not the most selective hitter, at least not yet. Maybe he'd develop into a hitter with more patience and a better batting eye, but as of yet, he hadn't shown that skill. What is sort of odd is that his 2005 season in AA, Pence showed a ton of patience walking in more than 10% of his AB's.He walked frequently in his short stint at Round Rock, and then the rate dropped when he was called up. This could be due to a myriad of reasons: pitchers with better control or Hunter being over-aggressive in his early stages in the majors.
Something interesting that I heard from either Bill Brown or JD a couple nights ago, is that Hunter is seeing the lowest percentage of fast-balls of any hitter in the majors. (I wish I had a link for this, but I don't). This stands to reason, as pitchers have been giving Pence fits with sliders early in counts, and then either striking him out looking on fastballs late, or getting him to roll over to the left side of the infield for groundball outs. This graph shows how Hunter's line drive percentage has dipped quite a bit from last year. This stands to reason, as a fastball is the pitch that hitters salivate over, as far as doing damage offensively. The more Pence falls behind early in the count, the less fastballs he's likely to see, and the less likely he'll hit the ball hard. He may be hitting more fly balls than last year, but fewer are going for extra base hits, as evidenced by a steep drop in his slugging percentage.
So, how worried should we be about Hunter's sophomore slump? One thing that may shed some light on this situation is how not only have pitchers and defenses adjusted to his hitting style, but luck has done the same. His batting average for balls put in play was astronomically high last year, finishing out the year at .378. The major league average is about .300, so Hunter's percentage was an extreme outlier. His 2008 BABIP is almost perfectly the average among major leaguers. In other words, balls that went for hits last year are being turned into outs this year, most likely at a rate greater than just about any hitter in baseball. For comparison's sake, Lance Berkman has seen the exact opposite effect this year. When Berkman was re-writing the record books earlier this season, BABIP undoubtedly played a large role. He may have came crashing back down to earth, but the writing was on the wall for that to occur. Fortunately, he's still young and has time to develop into the kind of major leaguer that is worth building around. Whether he remains more of a hacker in the Vladmir Guerrero style, or takes a page out of the Berkman playbook is yet to be determined. Somewhere in between would probably serve him best-being able to work counts into his favor in order to see more hittable pitches, in orer to take advantage of his natural aggressiveness that served him so well last year.