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Hunter Pence! Improvement in Progress.

Hunter Pence is one of the good stories for the Astros so far this year.  In the game thread for game 2 in Coloradio, TCBers were commenting on the seeming night-and-day difference in his plate discipline.  We looked at Michael Bourn's improved plae discipline last week, and now I'll do the same for Pence.

Pence's batting line is very good: .328 BA, .404 OBP; .500 SLG; .904 OPS.  And, given that he has hit only 4 HRs, this isn't driven by a temporary spike in homers. But, for purposes of this article, the outcome is less important than the improvement in Pence's approach to batting.  After all, given his batting average on balls in play (.356), the odds are pretty good that his batting average will decline somewhat.  But if he maintains his more patient and intelligent approach to batting, he will still be a more valuable player, rather than the OBP-challenged batter he looked like last season.

As you can see below, Pence's BB% and K% are much better than he has previously shown in the majors, and even better than his AA and AAA experience.  Pence was allergic to walks after being called up to the majors, and we wondered when the minor league Pence, who was capable of taking a few walks would show up.

                       BB%                  K%

AA                   10.3%               20.8%

AAA                 9.5%                 15.8%

07MLB            5.4%                 20.8%

08MLB            6.3%                 20.8%

09MLB            12.2%               13.9%

More walks and less strike outs is a good thing.  For the first time, Pence's BB/K ratio is 1.0.  In 2007 and 2008, the ratio was .27 and .32, respectively.

Last year, Pence was one of the better hitters in the majors at racking up infield hits.  So far this year, Pence's infield hit rate is 18.3%, compared to 16.3% last year. Pence's speed and ability to beat out infield grounders allows him to sustain an above average BABIP.  Pence's groundball rate is 58%, which his higher than his typical 50% - 53% range.  On the one hand, this increases his batting average, since GBs are more likely to become hits.  On the other hand, it decreases his isolated power  (ISO)  to .172, below his typical .200 - .230 ISO.  I would not be surprised if Pence's batting average declines and his slugging rate increases in the future.

In terms of plate discipline, the good news is that Pence is swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone and more pitches inside the zone.  And Pence is making contact with a greater percentage of the balls he swings at outside the zone.

               OSwing%         ZSwing%     O-Contact%      Overall Contact %

07          29.8%                75.3%            52.1%                76.5%

08          31.1%                71.5%            55.3%                76.8%

09           26.2%               78.2%            65.2%                 80.4% 

Last year, sliders outside the zone appeared to be Pence's kryptonite, and pitchers worked that angle for all it was worth.  He saw more sliders than practically any other hitter in baseball.  Pitchers continue to throw a lot of sliders to him (29.8%, which is even a tick up above last year).  But the plate discipline numbers suggest that Pence is doing a better job laying off of those pitches, and when he does swing at them, he does a better job of making contact.

One of the more encouraging signs from Pence this year is his willingness to shoot the ball the other way.  The off-field hitting ability shows maturity and probably is linked to his effort to recognize sliders on the outside part of the plate.

After getting a game winning RBI with a RF double in Cincinnati, manager Cecil Cooper criticized Pence because he appeared to be "trying" to go the other way rather than pulling the ball as a RBI producer.  Pence responded that he wasn't necessarily trying to go the other way; rather he was staying back on the ball in order to recognize the slider with 2 strikes on him.  Hopefully, Cooper's statement didn't articulate well what he really meant to say.  Otherwise, the notion that Pence shouldn't hit the ball the other way is at odds with what Sean Berry, the hitting coach, had been advising Pence. Color broadcaster Jim Deshais has mentioned  several times that Berry spent time working with Pence this year to encourage him to hit to the off-field on more occasions.  Hopefully, Pence can keep it up.