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During the off-season, the Phillies were rumored to be very interested in acquiring right-handed infielder Michael Young from the Texas Rangers. At the time, Young was being hip-checked out of a starting spot in the Rangers’ lineup, adding to the likelihood of his departure. The Phillies, of course, did not yet know what to expect from Jimmy Rollins and could not have seen Chase Utley returning to the lineup as quickly as he did, so adding a legitimate right-handed infielder was right up their alley. The Phillies and Rangers never got past the inquisition phase, and so Young remained in Texas as a DH and super-utility player (prior to Friday’s games, he logged 68 games at DH, 38 at third base, 30 at first base, and 13 at second base) and the Phillies went into the season hoping their infield could tread water.
Without Utley, the Phillies were generously a league-average offense, averaging 3.8 runs per game between the start of the season and May 22, the last game before Utley’s return. At that time, the Phillies were 28-18 and 1.5 games up in the division. Impressive, yes, but the Phillies felt they were even better than that. Utley returned and the Phillies’ offense was resuscitated as a result. From May 23 until July 29, they averaged 4.7 runs per game.
Still, the Phillies felt incomplete. Right fielder Domonic Brown had not panned out as expected — partially due to a broken hamate bone — while Ben Francisco was completely underwhelming and the Phillies were not yet sold on John Mayberry, Jr. (he had a .774 OPS after the game on July 29). Additionally, the Phillies lacked right-handed power in a very lefty-heavy lineup. It was at the time and still is the case now that the Phillies’ worst match-up is lefty-on-lefty, sporting a .584 OPS, roughly 90 points worse than their second-worst match-up, RH/RH (.671).
As has become tradition, Ruben Amaro performed his usual magic, making Hunter Pence appear in Philadelphia in time for the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 30. Pence has, by all accounts, been an excellent addition to the club even if his price was considered expensive. Since joining the Phillies, Pence has posted a .404 wOBA (league average is around .312) and his team has averaged 4.8 runs per game. Most importantly, Pence has been incredibly productive against southpaws, posting a 1.019 OPS on the season. The Phillies have won 11 of 12 games against lefties since Pence joined the team, compared to 19 of 29 prior to the trade.
Everyone has since forgotten about what could have been with Michael Young despite the eerie similarities between the two players. In retrospect, it is better that the Phillies went after Pence (assuming trade packages would have been comparable) as Young is owed $16 million annually through 2013 while Pence earns $6.9 million this year (the Phillies received $2 million from Houston, thus they only owe Pence about $650,000) and is arbitration-eligible through 2013. Assuming $3 million raises for Pence, the Phillies will pay Pence about $25 million less than Young will earn over the same period of time for similar production.
Just how similar are the two players? Young has a .368 wOBA on the year while Pence sits at .375. Over their careers, Young trails Pence by only eight points. Going by WAR (FanGraphs), Young has been worth about 3.1 WAR per season on average, while Pence comes in around 3.7 (given the error bars around UZR, which is much, much kinder to Pence, this difference is virtually nothing). Batted balls have fallen in for hits at a .364 clip for Young; .361 for Pence, with just a 10-point gap (favoring Young) between the two over their careers. Pence has more power (a 45-point lead in career ISO over Young), and walks and strikes out at a slightly higher clip.
Young has better batted ball skills, hitting line drives consistently around a 25 percent rate over his long career. Pence lags well behind with a 16 percent career line drive rate. The weaker contact is backed up by Pence’s 11 percent infield fly ball rate, well above Young’s five percent career rate. Pence, however, hits ground balls about six percent more often and turns them into hits five percent more often than Young, accounting for the only meaningful BABIP difference between the two — illustrating the specific control hitters have over their own BABIP. Most importantly, though, Young does not have a vast improvement in production against lefties the way Pence does, at least this year.
By passing on Young in February and waiting until the end of July to make a move, the Phillies got a younger player of relatively equivalent skill at an overall price of $25 million cheaper. Yes, Pence lacks Young’s versatility, but that was only an asset the Phillies desperately needed when their middle infield was in flux. With Utley and Rollins both in better shape than expected, the Phillies were able to patch their only remaining offensive hole in right field. Hindsight is 20/20, they say, but little did the Phillies know just how smart they were for passing on the critically-acclaimed super-utility man in Texas.