Should Hunter Pence be a Long-Term Part of the Astros' Future?

Once thought to be a young star in the making, Hunter Pence had a rookie season in 2007 not unlike the one Chris Johnson is having right now, hitting for both average and power and producing a lot of value despite not drawing a lot of walks.  Ever since then, while he has been an above average player, his performance hasn't lived up to either the expectations for him or to his tools and potential.

Pence has a pair of the strongest wrists I've ever seen from a hitter.  He's displayed time and time again the ability to choke up farther on the bat than you would ever think reasonable and still crush the ball a mile over the railroad tracks in Minute Maid Park.  His bat speed allows him to make contact with even the best fastballs.  In the past, he has been a plus defender due to above average speed and a strong throwing arm.

He's entering a hitter's prime years, which tend to be from age 27-31; the time when a hitter's skills peak and his physical abilities are still at their best.

So why, according to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (WAR), is he on track be below Major League Average in this, his age 27 season, what you would expect to be one of the best of his entire career?

Weak Contact Outside The Zone

Pence is third in the National League in groundball rate this season, at 55.6% behind only our own Michael Bourn and the Cardinals' Skip Schumaker.  His groundball rate has gradually been trending up every year of his career, and this season represents a career high.  For a slugger, hitting lots of groundballs is a bad thing.  Of all batted ball types, grounders have the lowest average OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) other than infield flies.

Speaking of pop-ups, Pence's infield fly rate is up too, at 13.0%.  Not good.

Why is all of this happening?  While Pence is striking out at a lower rate, he's been expanding his strike zone more than at any other time in his career.  He's swinging at more pitches outside the zone (32.6%), fewer pitches inside of it (66.2%), and most importantly, his contact rate on pitches outside the zone is by far the highest of any time in his career, at 67.6%.  It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that he's hitting more groundballs and infield flies and that his batting average on balls in play is lower now than any other full season in his career.  When you reach outside the zone, it's hard to barrel up on a ball and get it into the air.

Furthermore, this change has sapped his power, the key to his offensive game.  ISO, or Isolated Power, is a popular sabermetric measurement of a player's raw power.  It is found by subtracting a player's batting average from his slugging percentage, which results in a percentage number representing only extra base hits and not singles.  Pence's ISO this season is also a career low at .166.

About the only positive you can draw from his average offensive performance this season is that he's striking out significantly less than at any other time in his career.  When this comes at the expense of hitting for average and power, however, it's not actually a good thing.  He needs to lay off those pitches outside the zone, not reach for them and hit them weakly.

Getting into the month-by-month breakdown of his performance, he's been improving since July.  His groundball rate is going down, his flyball rate is going up, and OPS in July was back up around his career average, as well.  Call it a hot streak, call it regression, call it the Bagwell Effect, call it whatever you like--at least he's heading in the right direction.  But Pence is a notoriously streaky hitter, and while his batted ball numbers remain promising in August, his OPS is back down again; it's a small sample size, however, so it's important not to draw any conclusions from just a handful of games.  Still, when a hitter runs hot and cold as much as Pence does, it's hard to ever get comfortable with any short term trend.

In short, his year-to-year trend of hitting more groundballs and consequently hitting for less power worries me more than his month-to-month trend this season of improvement gives me cause for optimism.

Declining Defensive Performance

In addition to worries about his offensive decline, Pence has contributed worries about his defense this season.  It was widely reported that he came into Spring Training carrying much more bulk in the form of increased muscle mass.  Basically, he's a bigger guy than he was a couple of years ago.  Couple that with the natural decline to a player's footspeed as he enters his late 20s, and it's easy to see why his range would be down.

As on offense, Pence has never been a plus defender because of his skillset.  His routes and reads can be iffy, and his throwing accuracy sometimes leaves something to be desired.  What he has--or had--is a great set of tools, particularly his speed.  If he's starting to lose that, it could be very troubling for his long term future as a fielder.

It's important to be cautious when employing defensive statistics in smaller sample sizes; they take longer to stabilize than offensive statistics, as much as three seasons.  But when every defensive metric is saying the same thing, and that aligns with your subjective impressions watching a player day in and day out, that's when you sit up and take notice.  Three different statistics--UZR, The Fielding Bible's Defensive Runs Saved, and TotalZone, all suggest that Pence's defensive performance has declined sharply this year.

Combine that with my impression that he's slower and the causative evidence we have that he wouldn't be as agile in the field (his increased bulk), and I'm convinced that he is not the same defender he was as recently as last year.  I don't know whether he's as bad as the numbers suggest, but he's certainly not carrying his declining offense with plus performance on the other side of the ball.

And for a player who projects to be below average offensively for his position moving forward, that's a real problem.

What Should the Astros Do?

In the short term, nothing.  Hunter Pence is the starting right fielder this season.  We're past the trade deadline, so he can't be dealt (he would not clear waivers), and he's still providing surplus value over contract, at least for now.  In the offseason, however, there is a decision to be made.

The Astros have put themselves into a bad situation by making Pence the new "face of the franchise" with promotions like Hunter's Lodge and advertising utilizing his image more frequently than any other Astros player (with Berkman and Oswalt now departed).  The problem is that he isn't a franchise player.  Even if he were to return to his career averages next season, while still a solid player, he wouldn't be a star.  He's not the kind of player you want to lock up on a long-term contract and pay full open market value for, because he is not a building block and he's not reliable enough that you feel comfortable giving him that kind of contract.

They may need to abandon that idea and explore the possibility of trading Pence while he still has surplus value over contract.  His pay will continue to rise each year until he hits free agency, and at the rate he's going now, it won't be long before his salary gets close to the value he is producing with his performance.  Yes, Pence should have better years than this one; I wouldn't be surprised if he has a career year sometime in his future, although I'm not counting on it.  Yet will the difference in perceived value actually be more than the rise in his salary and the loss in years of team control?  The sooner they trade him, the more value they are likely to get back.

And it's not as though the Astros don't have in-house options to explore.  Players like Brian Bogusevic, Drew Locke, Collin DeLome, or even Jason Bourgeois might be above replacement level performers in right field for the MLB minimum salary.  I wouldn't be surprised to see a player like Bogusevic produce more surplus value over salary, at least for the next three years, than Pence is doing now.

Trading Pence would also be an opportunity to continue restocking the farm system with quality prospects; it has improved but could still stand to improve more.  Alternatively, a mutually beneficial trade might be possible to get Major League ready pitching or middle infield help from another club which needs outfielders.

If the Astros don't trade Pence, however, they should consider putting him back on track to get his weight down and condition him more for speed again.  His best year for Isolated Power was the season he played center field, 2007, when his training regimen was designed to keep him lighter and more agile (see this video).  He's so strong in terms of his raw tools that he doesn't need to be a huge, ripped guy to hit for power.  His increased muscle mass certainly appears to be hurting his range, and doesn't appear to have helped his power.  His defensive range will be the key to his value moving forward if he's never more than an average offensive rightfielder in the long run.

But a trade still seems like the best option, particularly when you factor in the organization's outfield depth.  Hopefully Pence will have a strong August and September, bringing his performance on the season up close to his career average, and increasing his value.  Even if he doesn't, the Astros should strongly consider dealing him in the off-season.

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