Hunter Pence’s Impatience

When it comes to offensive ineptitude, the Houston Astros reign supreme. Collectively, ‘Stros batters have a MLB-worst .260 wOBA. That’s 29 points below the mark posted by the second-to-last Mariners. Houston ranks dead last in the majors in walk rate as well, at 5.1 percent. It’s not close, either: the Royals and Orioles, tied for 29th-place, look downright patient by comparison, drawing free passes at a 7.2 percent rate. Not surprisingly, the Astros have hacked at plenty of pitches out of the strike zone (29.8 percent, 6th-highest in the majors; the MLB average is 25-27% in recent years).

The biggest hacker, aside from Humberto Quintero, has been right fielder Hunter Pence. Houston’s second round pick in the 2004 draft broke into the big leagues in 2007, hitting .322/.360/.539 with a .384 wOBA. While Pence displayed excellent pop during his rookie year (.217 Isolated Power), his .377 batting average on balls in play was bound to come down. It did in 2008 (.301 BABIP), and his line dropped to .269/.318/.466 (.334 wOBA). Pence again put a charge into the ball, with a .197 ISO, but his free-swinging ways were more of a problem without all of those additional bloops and bleeders avoiding leather.

In 2009, Pence showed more restraint at the plate and turned in a quality offensive season. After swinging at 29.8 percent of pitches out of the zone in ’07 and 31.1 percent in ’08, Pence chased 26.6 percent of outside pitches in ’09. His walk rate, 5.4 percent and 6.2 percent the two previous seasons, climbed to nine percent (right around the MLB average). With more walks, similar power (.190 ISO) and a .308 BABIP, Pence produced a .282/.346/.472 triple-slash (.351 wOBA).

At 27, Pence appeared ready to settle in as a good fantasy option with a passable walk rate, above-average power and a dash of speed (he cracked the double digits in SB each year from 2007-2009). ZiPS predicted a .350 wOBA, while CHONE (.358 wOBA) and the FANS (.363 wOBA) expected slightly more.

Instead, Pence has sputtered to a .231/.252/.343 line so far, with a feeble .254 wOBA. Those plate discipline gains haven’t carried over to 2010, as he has swung at 34.4 of pitches off the dish. Pence has worked opposing pitchers for a walk just three times in 111 plate appearances (2.7 percent). He’s putting the ball in play on the first pitch or getting behind in the count 0-1 at the highest rate of his career, with a 65.8 first pitch strike percentage (57-58% MLB average).

Pence is making contact at the highest rate of his career, but most of that additional contact is coming on those pitcher’s pitches off the plate: his percentage of contact within the zone is 89 percent (85% career average), but his O-Contact is 75.4 percent (57.5% career average). Swinging at and making contact with so many bad pitches has led to plenty of weakly hit balls put in play for Pence.

His groundball rate, 49-53 percent between 2007 and 2009, has spiked to 65.3 percent. Pence’s rate of fly balls hit has dipped to 24.2 percent (32.4% career average) and his line drive rate is 10.5 percent (15.3% career average). Ground balls, obviously, don’t lead to many extra-base hits. Grounders hit in the NL have a .250 slugging percentage in 2010, compared to .615 for fly balls and .988 for line drives. When Pence isn’t pounding the ball into the grass, he’s popping it up. His infield/fly ball percentage is 26.1 percent, compared to a 12.1% career average and the near-eight percent big league average. The University of Texas at Arlington product might have a .239 BABIP, but he’s been awful by any measure.

Pence owners should ride out this rough stretch, as his value is at its lowest point. This could be a good time to grab Pence at a serious discount, though, as he’s owned in just 65% of Yahoo leagues and has surely frustrated some of those owners who have held on to him. Of course, Pence being a buy-low candidate capable of paying dividends is predicated on his taking a plate approach that doesn’t resemble a stoner with the munchies swinging at a pinata. Pence needs to show better patience if he’s going to rebound significantly.





A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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Jimbo
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Jimbo

I don’t know if it is an increase in ideas such as “regression” becoming mainstream but in my league of old-timers it seems guys like Pence aren’t coming at much of a discount.

I’ve looked at dealing for Yunel Escobar, Alexei Ramirez, Beltre, Quentin, Pence…all of them seem to have pre-draft prices.