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Thoughts on Hunter Pence's 2011 Salary

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As I've been catching up from a week in the (surprisingly warm) Great White North, it was a little weird not to see more analysis of Hunter Pence winning his arbitration hearing. I mean, we certainly had the FanShot here and there were articles written about it. But, the talk seemed to focus more on what it meant for him long-term or in arbitration for the next two years.

What I wanted to look at quickly is where it puts Pence among his peers and what we can expect from him this week. First of all, that 6.9 million is a nice chunk of change. It puts Pence fifth among starting right fielders in the National League, behind Lance Berkman, Jayson Werth, Andre Ethier and Kosuke Fukudome.

There are a few problems with this kind of analysis, since these guys may get moved around some, get moved to the bench, etc. But, it shows that Pence is now one of the better paid right fielders in the game. The question is, does he play like it?

For that, let's look at surplus value. Basically, when we talk about surplus, what we mean is how much money the Astros are saving based on his performance above and beyond his salary. We get that total by looking at the WAR totals a player produces and assuming that one win above that mythical replacement player on the free agent market would be worth about 4.5 million. That number fluctuates both with inflation and based on the market each winter, but for our general purposes, it's what we'll use.

Pence's WAR of 3.1 last season was identical to his 2008 WAR but one win lower than 2009. It still put his value around 12 million dollars, according to FanGraphs. Since he earned 3.5 million last season, Pence was worth about 8.5 million more than he was paid. Teams thrive on that surplus. The more they can get out of players under team control or under team-friendly contracts, the better chance they have to win games.

So, what about next season? Again, according to FanGraphs fan projections, Pence may have a WAR around 3.5 next season. If that's the case, his surplus value would be around 8.85 million. That seems pretty good, but looking at all the surplus value offered by right fielders in the National League, it puts Pence right above the bottom half at No. 8. Granted, there is a pretty steep divide between him and Corey Hart on one side and Brad Hawpe and Ben Francisco on the other. But, it still illustrates that the real reason Pence's arbitration figure is troubling is because he's becoming a less valuable commodity to the team. He's no longer being undervalued and providing all that extra surplus and is finding a happy medium between his pay scale and his performance.

What the Astros probably want to avoid is paying him 12 million a season and seeing his WAR production slip below that value. That's where they got into trouble with Carlos Lee. But, can they reasonably assume Pence's WAR will slip in 2011?

Looking at the composite numbers that go into making FanGraph's WAR, the glaring difference between Pence's 2009 and 2010 seasons is in the field. His batting runs were about the same, but his fielding numbers dropped by about 10 runs. That drop was mirrored in both Defensive Runs Saved and in Pence's UZR, which were both down significantly from a year ago. In DRS, it looks like the big drop came in his arm rating. Pence looks like he just didn't have that great of a season throwing people out or holding runners on base.

The reason we shouldn't worry about this is there's a good deal of fluctuation in defensive metrics. It's really hard to look at a number one season and assume a decline was caused by a true talent level instead of some random variations. In Pence's case, I bet his arm numbers bounce back this season, meaning his WAR should also bounce back. If he can produce at a 4 WAR pace, he's back to being the All-Star player who deserved a raise to 6.9 million.

Anyways, that's just my quick thoughts on his arbitration win. I know all you TCBers discussed Pence last weekend when the news broke, so the only question I'll ask you is this: do you think Pence should be paid like a top 5 right fielder? Below the jump is a quick table with all those starting right fielders, their salaries, projected WAR totals and surplus value, in case you were interested.

 

Name Team Current Year Salary 2010 WAR Projected WAR Surplus Value
Jason Heyward Atlanta 0.435 5 5.4 23.87
Carlos Gonzalez Colorado 1 6 5 21.50
Jay Bruce Cincinnati 2.75 5.3 4.7 18.40
Justin Upton Arizona 4.25 3.1 4.8 17.35
Mike Stanton Florida 0.435 2.7 3.8 16.67
Angel Pagan New York 3.5 4.9 3.4 11.80
Jayson Werth Washington 10 5 4.2 8.90
Hunter Pence Houston 6.9 3.1 3.5 8.85
Brad Hawpe San Diego 3 0.5 1.6 4.20
Andre Ethier Los Angeles 9.25 2.2 2.8 3.35
Ben Francisco Philadelphia 1.175 0.7 0.9 2.88
Cody Ross San Francisco 6.3 2.2 2 2.70
Garret Jones Pittsburgh 0.45 0.1 0.7 2.70
Lance Berkman St. Louis 8 2.1 2.3 2.35
Corey Hart Milwaukee 6.5 3.4 1.6 0.70
Kosuke Fukudome Chicago 13.5 1.5 1.9 -4.95