After painful days of speculation, the Phillies finally made the big splash at the trade deadline in acquiring Hunter Pence from the Houston Astros. In return, the Astros will get top prospects Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Singleton, as well as Josh Zeid and a player to be named later. Compared to previously-reported hauls involving uber-prospect Domonic Brown, Phillies fans are fine with giving up the two prospects and two filler players.
However, it does appear that the Phillies overpaid in acquiring Pence. For a similar price, the Phillies likely could have pried B.J. Upton from the Tampa Bay Rays, who is more than a year younger and has a higher ceiling. In the event the Phillies re-sign their outfield acquisition, Upton is better in the long-term.
Going back to the Ryan Howard signing, Ruben Amaro does not like to let the chips fall where they may, choosing instead to act quickly, even if it means not getting proper value on his acquisitions. In engaging in a public auction with the Atlanta Braves and other teams, the Phillies drove up Pence’s price. They kept Brown, which seemed to be the one and only goal of the Phillies’ front office, something they accomplished for the fourth time (see the acquisitions of Roy Hallday, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt).
Pence does upgrade the outfield. He has a career +5 UZR/150 in the outfield and has stolen more than ten bases in each of his previous four seasons, on pace do do the same in 2011. As for offense, Pence’s career average wOBA is .353, which compares well to the current MLB average .312. On the season, he is at .365, a career-high. Contrary to reports, he does not hit left-handed pitchers much better than right-handed pitchers, with a career average wOBA at .359 and .353, respectively. In 2011, he is actually hitting right-handers better, .369 to .341.
There is room for immediate concern with Pence as well. His ISO, a measure of raw power, is currently at .163, a career-low and the fourth consecutive year his ISO has dropped. Citizens Bank Park is a bit more homer-friendly to right-handed hitters than Minute Maid Park (HR park factors at 116 and 107, respectively; over 100 is above-average), so Pence might see the ISO rise, but the overall trend is discouraging.
Additionally, Pence has been riding an abnormally high BABIP. Hitters have significantly more control over BABIP than pitchers, but they are still prone to good and bad luck. Pence’s BABIP is currently at .370, more than 40 points above his career average. From 2008-10, it ranged from .301 to .308, an even larger gap from his current numbers. Specifically, Pence is getting luckiest on ground balls, turning them into hits at a .342 clip compared to his career .303 average. Fly balls have become hits at a .169 clip compared to his .145 average, while line drives have dropped a bit, at .710 compared to his .734 career average.
If Pence were making better contact, the change in BABIP may be somewhat explainable, but the evidence actually points to him making weaker contact. As mentioned above, his ISO has been in straight decline. He has also hit more infield fly balls: 13 percent, an increase of more than three percent from last year. Furthermore, there has been no significant changes in his batted ball splits.
As mentioned in my article for ESPN last night, Pence’s regression appears to have already started in the last two months.
[…] [Pence] has cooled off considerably in the past two months: In April and May, he posted an .830 and .914 OPS respectively; in June and July, his OPS dipped to .757 and .744, respectively. His first two months were BABIP fueled with a lot of power (.376 BABIP, .190 ISO) while his last two months have seen both numbers drop (.354 BABIP, .119 ISO).
Finally, Pence isn’t projected to be much of an upgrade overall. The ZiPS projection system, found at FanGraphs, predicts a .353 wOBA for Pence between now and the end of the regular season. For Brown, ZiPS sees a .343 wOBA and .337 for Raul Ibanez. If we assume 200 PA for each player, the difference between Pence and Brown is less than two runs (roughly one-fifth of a win), and the difference between Pence and Ibanez is less than three runs (about one-third of a win).
As for base running, through 105 games, Pence has been worth about two runs above average going by EQBRR (found at Baseball Prospectus), while Brown has been nearly three runs above average (net loss of one run) and Ibanez has been one run above average (net gain of one run). Defensive stats, especially through only 105 games, are very unreliable, so let’s just use our eyes on this one and say that Pence is an upgrade over both players, significantly more so for Ibanez.
All told, if the Phillies cut Ibanez’s playing time in favor of Pence, they will see more of an improvement. If, however, the Phillies limit Brown’s playing time, they will be eating into their own gains. Charlie Manuel will truly decide just how much value Pence brings to the Phillies. With Pence and Brown, the Phillies’ outfield is set through 2012, and depending on what the future holds for Shane Victorino, potentially longer.
Now, for an alternate take, here’s Jeff Barnes (@Utley4God):
There’s no debate, the Phillies overpaid for Hunter Pence. By trading two elite prospects for the good, but not great outfielder, they gave up more value then they should. In virtually every situation this would drive me nuts, but this may be an exception.
Here are the facts:
The Phillies are a better team in 2011. If they reduce Raul’s at-bats for Pence, they are much better. If they reduce Dom’s, they are slightly better. But either way, the team added Pence and subtracted Francisco (guessing, may have to change if announced).
They have their outfield set for 2012. With a weak free agent class, this is an important factor.
Their lineup is more balanced, which could be a good asset heading into October.
If you are going to overpay for a win-now move, the time to do it is when you are truly (or the move makes you) World Series contenders. If they properly allocate at bats (Read: take from Raul) the rest of the season, this could be a big improvement for a team that didn’t need much. But Charlie Manuel runs this team and he loves his veterans. So for now, we’ll grade this trade: Incomplete