Hunter Pence provided one of the only bright spots for the Houston Astros during a breakout rookie performance in 2007. Pence didn’t quite match his output as a hitter in his follow-up act in 2008 but, with his defense, remained a valuable asset. The Houston right fielder has rebounded offensively this spring, playing well enough to enter the All-Star conversation at his position in the National League.
Pence was originally picked by the Milwaukee Brewers out of Texarkana Junior College in the 40th round of the 2002 draft. Rather than signing, Pence opted to transfer to University of Texas-Arlington, where he had the opportunity to play alongside his brother in the Mavericks’ outfield. He posted a 1057 OPS as a junior in 2004, winning Southland Conference Player of the Year honors. Despite concerns about his unorthodox batting stance, scouts were impressed with his make-up and physical gifts.
Houston selected Pence with its first pick (second round, 64th overall) that June. Signed by scout Rusty Pendergrass soon after, he then reported to the New York Penn League. He made a smooth transition to the pro ranks, batting .296/.369/.518 in 222 plate appearances to help Tri-City reach the league finals. Following the debut, Baseball America named him the Astros’ 10th best prospect.
Assigned to the South Atlantic League, Pence got off to an excellent start in 2005. The then-22-year-old batted .338/.413/.652 with 25 homers and a .444 wOBA in 341 plate appearances at hitter-friendly Lexington; he put up rates of 11.1 BB%, 15.5 K% and a circuit-leading .314 Isolated Power (IsoP). He destroyed pitching from both sides, producing a 1082 OPS against righties and 1008 OPS against southpaws. Houston then promoted him to the High-A Carolina League, where he batted .299/.367/.490 with a .375 wOBA in 171 plate appearances.
Pence, who hit a combined .327/.400/.598 with 31 homers between each level, then rose to six on BA‘s organizational Top-10 list. Some scouts, however, were put off that a player of his 6-4, 210-pound build would choke up so high and voiced concerns about his long swing. Evaluators were also mixed about his chances of remaining in center field and wanted to see him produce against more advanced competition.
Playing for Corpus Christi in the Texas League, Pence continued to mash during his age-23 season in 2006. The Astros’ top position prospect hit .283/.358/.533 with 28 home runs and a .372 wOBA in 590 plate appearances. He produced a healthy BB% (10.3%) and ranked fourth in the circuit in IsoP (.250), displaying the ability to make adjustments while improving his ability to pick up spin on breaking pitches.
The scouting publications of record were all impressed with Pence’s ’06 campaign. He cracked BA‘s Top 100 list for the first time, coming in at 38 overall and earning the top spot in a bare Houston farm system.
Pence had an outside chance to break camp as the Astros’ everyday center fielder after leading the Grapefruit League in hitting in ’07, but the club instead sent him to Triple-A Round Rock; once-hyped prospect Chris Burke manned the position on an interim basis. He then lit up the Pacific Coast League-.326/.387/.558 line in 106 plate appearances-over 25 games. With Burke providing replacement-level output and the Craig Biggio milestone tour in full swing, though, Houston promoted its prized prospect at the end of April looking for a boost.
Pence gave his club exactly that. He had no problem handling major league pitching his first time through the league, feasting on fastballs to hit .342/.367/.589 with 11 homers before the All-Star break; he saw fastballs 53.8 percent of the time and was 10.1 runs above average when swinging at the pitch, according to FanGraphs’ linear weights data. Although he cooled off as more detailed advanced scouting reports became available and hurlers began to exploit his weaknesses, he hit at least .286 with an 812 OPS in every month.
Pence was a leading N.L. Rookie of the Year candidate before sustaining a wrist sprain that cost him six weeks. For the most part, his first year at the highest level was a smashing success. He hit .322/.360/.539 with 17 homers, a 130 OPS+ and .384 wOBA in 484 plate appearances while finishing third in the voting for top rookie honors.
The performance came with some red flags, however. Despite a solid career walk rate in the minors, an expected drop-off in plate discipline proved to be a cause for concern with Pence. He struck out in 19.6 percent of his trips while walking at a 5.4% clip, with 95 strikeouts against 26 walks. Plus, while he produced an above-average line drive rate and ground-ball hitters (51.0 GB%) with speed like Pence generally produce higher BABIPs, his .378 mark would’ve ranked second in the N.L. had he accumulated enough at-bats to qualify.
Without any more viable options for the Astros, Pence was also miscast in center defensively. The consensus in the scouting community, which had voiced its concerns over his prospects at the position, was reinforced by his -3.1 UZR and -4.1 UZR/150 in 844.2 innings there. With Carlos Lee flanking him to his left, chasing down fly balls and a poor outfield defense was a major issue at Minute Maid Park.
Regardless, Pence was a tremendous asset. Accounting for batting, fielding and positional factors, he was worth 3.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR); his production translates to $13.8-M on the open market in FanGraphs’ Dollars feature.
What happened next can be called a sophomore slump. Pence’s line dropped precipitously to .269/.318/.466, with his OPS+ falling 25 points. Although he crushed 25 homers, the struggles continued for him on a plate discipline front; his K/9% remained exactly the same, with his walk rate actually improving a bit to 6.3%, but he got himself out too many times by chasing bad pitches. The league essentially figured him out, with pitchers throwing him more sliders and fewer fastballs, which proved to be an effective strategy. According to FanGraphs’ Pitch Type data, pitchers threw him only 49.9% heaters in ’08, down four percent from the previous year, and 28.3% sliders, up 7.9 percent. Chasing sliders out of the zone was a major reason for his regression; he was worth -0.1 batting runs when swinging at the pitch. His out-of-zone swing percentage (O-Swing) jumped from 29.8% to 31.1% as well.
Pence also saw his BABIP drop 75 points. He drove the ball into the ground more, producing a 51.7% ground ball rate while his LD% fell to 13.9%. He did make improvements as the season progressed, with his 827 second-half OPS more than 100 points higher than his Pre All-Star showing. He continued to hit for impressive power but was in the lower percentile for major league right fielders in OPS and wOBA.
On defense, Pence settled in comfortably in right. He registered a 9.5 UZR in 1,336 innings in right while racking up 18 assists; only three right fielders put up a higher UZR/150 than his 9.8. Although his play doesn’t always please the eye, given the awkwardness in which he tracks down fly balls at times, his defense was quite valuable. In large part due to his fielding, he was worth 2.7 WAR (and $12.0-M) despite the drop-off; making near the minimum, he provided excellent value.
2009 Performance Evaluation:
The Astros, top-heavy on talent, are off to a predictably terrible start. Pence, however, has raked, giving Astros fans something to cheer about. Indeed, he ranks 12th among N.L. position players in WAR (2.2). While many argue that the All-Star game should feature the best players, and not guys off to unusually hot starts, he’s making a strong case for a roster spot; Justin Upton is currently the only N.L. right fielder with a higher WAR.
Pence, boasting a nifty .340/.416/.524 line in 238 plate appearances, ranks 10th among major league outfielders with a .406 wOBA. The question becomes whether or not his improved approach and recent tear is sustainable.
PECOTA actually predicted a nice rebound for Pence, forecasting a weighted mean line of .285/.345/.490. The key for him to live up to the projection, however, was improving on his pitch recognition skills, one of the few obstacles standing between him and stardom. It’s still only June, but the early returns in this regard are quite encouraging. His walk rate has nearly doubled, shooting up to 12.3%, while his strikeout rate has fallen to 15.5%. The decrease in his O-Swing%, currently standing at 26.3%, indicates that he’s been more selective and better at avoiding sliders out of the zone. Although the sample is small, the following data (courtesy of PITCHf/x guru Harry Pavlidis) confirms it:
O-Swing%: Sliders Against RHP 2007: .250 (130 pitches) 2008: .373 (502 pitches) 2009: .235 (197 pitches) Overall 2007: .250 (144 pitches) 2008: .368 (594 pitches) 2009: .286 (234 pitches)
Having been able to consistently lay off the pitch that plagued him in ’08, Pence is seeing more fastballs (51.7%) and actually producing on the sliders he swings at; according to FanGraphs, he’s been worth 6.5 runs above average handling them.
Only two players have a higher BABIP than Pence (.377), so banking on him to win a batting title seems like a trap. That said, faster players who reach on infield hits consistently are going to have higher BABIPs than their slow-footed counterparts. Only Ichiro Suzuki has legged out more infield hits than Pence, whose 16.3 IFH% is first in baseball with 15 of his 70 hits a byproduct of his wheels. By comparison, his potential All-Star competition Brad Hawpe is the N.L.’s second-leading hitter. Hawpe has a .381 BABIP, though, and has legged out exactly zero infield hits; thus, he’s more likely to see a drastic drop in BA. Pence has hit a ground ball in more than half his plate trips, ranking fourth with a 52.0% GB rate. He’s also hitting more line drives, though, and, if his power numbers pick up to his career norms, should remain productive if a BABIP-plummet occurs.
Defensively, we’re only dealing worth two months of data, but Pence’s UZR stands at 1.9 (0.6 UZR/150). His WAR translates to $10.1-M overall, according to FanGraphs.
Pence is an excellent athlete with plenty of upper body strength. At the plate, he possesses plus power (.202 career IsoP). Modeling his swing/stance after Barry Bonds growing up, he really chokes up on his bat. His can get long at times but has the ability to spray line drives to all fields with power. Perhaps his biggest weakness as a hitter is his plate discipline. He can be overly aggressive, making it difficult for him to lay off out-of-zone breaking pitches.
An above-average runner, Pence possesses plus speed for a corner outfielder. While his wheels have enabled him to beat out infield hits, though, they have yet to translate into base-stealing success; he’s been thrown out 19 times in 47 career attempts. Coming up as a center fielder, he was knocked for his sometimes-unusual routes to fly balls, one of the reasons why scouts had doubts about his chances to stay there. His outfield range plays fine on a corner, as does his arm. His throwing mechanics aren’t ideal, but he generates good accuracy and carry on his throws; according to the Hardball Times, he had the best outfield arm among right fielders in ’08.
Pence, 26, has a tremendous amount of ability, and, if the early turnaround on his approach is legit, Houston may have one of the majors’ premier outfielders during his peak at an affordable rate. If his ’07 level of defense is an accurate indicator of his skills, he’ll serve as a plus player even if he regresses backs to his old habits of chasing breaking pitches; ZiPS projects him to hit .300/.358/.506 from here on out. Having earned a fraction of his $36-M market worth (based on his on-field production in terms of WAR), he’s all the proof that Drayton McLane should need to grasp the economic benefits of building from within. He’s exactly the type of cost-efficient asset the franchise needs more of in order to recapture the glory from the Killer-B days.