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Hunter Pence to the Rescue

Hunter Pence saved the day in Tuesday's game with his timely grand slam.  Sometimes one swing of the bat is all that is necessary to win a game.  And that turned out to be the case in Tuesday's game with the Cubs.

Hunter Pence's terrible start to this season had been very disconcerting.  After a tremendous spring training, I raised my expectations regarding the offensive numbers which Pence might post this season.  But Pence seemed to be trying too hard in the season opener against the Padres, and his April/March went downhill from there.  Pitchers learned that they could make Pence look bad with outside breaking pitches; and that made Astros' fans wonder what had become of Superman.

But Pence has quietly put together a fine month of May.  With all the discussion about Berkman's out of body hitting, we may have forgotten that Pence's surge is a big part in the Astros' reversal of their W/L record over the past few weeks.  Pence's offense in the month of May: .358 BA, .421 OBP, .587 SLG, 1.018 OPS.  Contrast that to his OPS of .653 in April/March.  You want some more evidence that Pence's personal reversal has been critical to the reversal in the Astros' record?  Pence's OPS in Astros' wins is 1.010 and his OPS in Astros' losses is .555.  Obviously, a lot of overlap exists between Pence's outstanding OPS in May and the Astros' winning record in May.  And that reinforces the point that Pence has been critical to the Astros' resurgence.  Hitting behind Carlos Lee, Pence has made it more difficult to pitch around Tejada and Berkman.

During the offseason, Astros fans argued about where Pence belonged in the batting order. Cecil Cooper says Pence is capable of batting anywhere in the order, but showed a marked preference to batting him in the 5th or 6th spot.  I was among the fans who felt that Pence should be a 1 or 2 hitter.  However, Pence's stats so far support Cooper's preference:

Pence OPS by Batting Order Slot

1st   .623

2d    .538

3d    .900

6th   .942

7th   .974

On the year, Pence's batting average on the season is finally moving close to .300.  His current offensive numbers: .293, .341, .461, .802  (BA, OBP, SLG, OPS).  Pence finally seems back on course for the mid to high .800's OPS which I expected before the season began.  Expect more improvement from Pence as he moves in that direction.

The one negative to Pence's tremendous rookie season in 2007 is that Pence drew too few walks, particularly considering that he had a better bases on balls rate in the minors. At least one analyst labeled him another Jeff Francouer, the young Braves' outfielder who drew precious few walks in his rookie season. Pence's strike out rate (22%) is still pretty high, but his walk rate and BB/K rate has improved somewhat over 2007 (BB/K rate is 32% vs. 27% in 2007).  Given Pence's propensity to strike out, he will need to continue his improvement in laying off the bad pitches and taking walks. 

Pence swings at too many pitches outside the strike zone (32%).  By comparison, Lance Berkman swings at only 19% of the pitches outside the strike zone, and the ML average is 23%.  In some ways, Pence's free swinging ways are more like Miguel Tejada, who swings at 36% of outside the zone pitches.  But a big difference is that Tejada is better at making contact then Pence.  Pence makes contact on 48% of the swings outside the zone, while Tejada makes contact on 77%. (The ML average is 60%.)  Pence's overall contact rate is 74%, compared to 87% for Tejada and 82% for Berkman.  I started the article praising Pence, and now it sounds like I am criticizing him.  Don't take it that way, though.  My point is that Pence will become an even better hitter when he becomes more selective on his pitches.  His style may never be like Berkman's, but his offensive results will reach greater heights if he can show some of the selectivity in looking for "his" pitches that Berkman has shown.