Hunter Pence’s Sliding Production

The Houston Astros farm system has devolved into something of a wasteland in recent years. In an effort to infuse as much talent as possible into the major league roster, the Astros have been rather frugal in the amateur draft and the international player market. Surrendering first and second-round picks and then failing to sign the club’s third and fourth-rounders in 2007 certainly did not help matters, either. In selling long-term relevance for short-term mediocrity, Houston has compiled a core of thirty-something players that posted a 77-84 Pythagorean Record this past season.

One product of Houston’s barren player development outlet that figured to bear fruit was Hunter Pence. Plucked out of the University of Texas-Arlington in the 2nd round of the 2004 draft, Pence quickly established himself as Houston’s most advanced batting prospect. The gangly 6-4, 210 pounder compiled an impressive .303/.376/.554 minor league line, drawing walks at a healthy clip (11.7 BB%) while keeping his strikeouts in check (19.2 K%). Rated by Baseball America as Houston’s brightest prospect, Pence made his debut in 2007 at the age of 24.

Pence’s first taste of the big leagues looked like a smashing success, as he raked to the tune of .322/.360/.539, bopping 17 home runs and posting a .217 Isolated Power (ISO) number. His 2.16 WPA/LI ranked in the top 20 among all outfielders. There were some cracks in the armor, however, as Pence’s 5.4 BB% left something to be desired and his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) was an astronomical .378. Given his 19.4% line drive rate (LD%), his expected BABIP was much lower, at .314. Taking some of those extra duck snorts out of Pence’s line gives him a much less impressive .258/.296/.472 showing.

Perhaps we should have known that Pence would be in for a down season in 2008. After all, how many all-star star seasons start with a guy running straight through a glass door? Pence came pretty close to matching his adjusted 2007 line, batting .269/.318/.466. His walk rate improved ever so slightly (6.3 BB%) and his strikeout rate matched his 2007 mark (20.8%), but he didn’t have near the same good fortune on balls in play (.303 BABIP). And, troublingly, Pence failed to hit the ball with authority, posting a feeble 13.9 LD%. That figure ranked dead-last among all qualified batters. Pence’s WPA/LI fell over two wins, to -0.03.

Though Pence ostensibly improved his plate discipline, the underlying numbers suggest that he actually took a slight step backward. His Outside Swing Percentage (O-Swing%) climbed from 29.8% in ’07 to 31.1%, and his percentage of pitches swung at within the strike zone (Z-Swing%) fell from 75.3% to 71.5%. Swinging at more balls and taking more strikes: that’s a recipe for quick outs.

Pitchers are well aware of Pence’s proclivity to expand his strike zone. The 25 year-old saw the lowest percentage of fastballs in the majors, getting a heater just 49.8% of the time in 2008. Instead of giving him something straight, most hurlers fed Pence a steady diet of sliders, hoping to coax a misguided swing out of him. Pence got a slider 28.3% of the time in 2008, also the highest rate in the majors and nearly four percent higher than second-place Dan Uggla (24.7%). As the scouting reports began to circulate, pitchers noticed Pence’s tendency to chase the hard breaking ball and exploited it.

Pitchers have clearly found a weakness in Pence’s approach, and will continue to throw sliders aplenty until he proves that he can show restraint and avoid the temptation to go fishing outside of the strike zone. If Pence wants to improve his sliding production, he’s going to have to lay off of the slider (and avoid those tricky sliding doors, of course).

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 and, 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 and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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15 years ago

David, there is one pretty important thing you ignored in this article: Pence’s second half. Let’s compare the two. Since doesn’t have BABIP as a stat, I can’t know if his went up or not, but that wouldn’t be the whole story anyway.

Here is his first half:

.263/.304/.429. That is pretty paltry. He walked 21 times in 378 plate appearances.

Here is his second half:
.277/.338/.521. There’s an improved Pence. Yes, the average was not the .322 we saw in 2007, but the BB% was up a full 2% from the second half, and his slugging% went up nearly 100 points, definitely not an average-fed inflation ( doesn’t have ISO either). Wouldn’t it be safe to say that Pence has already improved his once sliding production?