Which Hunter Pence is at the Negotiating Table?

This winter, Hunter Pence heads to his second salary arbitration hearing, in his third year of eligibility. 2011 was, indisputably, the most successful season of his young career. He produced a .314/.370/.502 line, including a particularly impressive .324/.394/.560 run in 236 plate appearances following his trade to the Phillies. He set career highs in OBP, OPS+, rWAR, and fWAR. Not surprisingly, Pence could net a fair purse for 2012. Matt Swartz, via his salary arbitration model, projects the value of his case to be around $11 million. Under Amaro, the Phillies are typically loathe to leave a player’s salary up to an arbitration panel, so they may try to reach a deal with him in advance of the deadline for exchanging salary submissions later today. Either way, the proceedings hinge on the Phillies knowing just how valuable a player Hunter Pence really is, and the gulf between his 2011 season and those that came before it introduces substantial doubt to that determination.

Prior to 2011, Pence had a career 115 OPS+ on his resume, and was just shy of being a 2 win player (rWAR) in the average season. His offensive numbers were respectable, but not those of a top-flight MLB corner outfielder. From 2007-2010, 17 other leftfielders and rightfielders accrued at least 1500 plate appearances and posted a better OPS+ than Pence, and they are some of the names more closely associated with the offense-first character of the position — Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Jayson Werth, Matt Holliday, Andre Ethier, etc. Pence’s bat was above average at a position which is usually home to excellent or even elite ones.

Still, he developed a reputation that somewhat overstated his abilities. This was due in part to playing for a Houston Astros team that was perennially short on talent; Craig Biggio retired after playing alongside Pence for one season in 2007, and after that, Hunter, Lance Berkman, and a declining Carlos Lee were the lone bright spots on a team that never climbed higher than third in the NL Central. Phillies fans in particular were made to watch Pence post a .330/.382/.681 line against their team’s pitching from 2007-2010. His schizophrenic, penguin-out-of-water, proprioceptively-impaired style of play garnered additional attention and (understandably) clouded attempts at level-headed evaluations of his talent (during a rough stretch for Pence in 2010, Eric Seidman quipped, “I’d say he isn’t seeing the ball well, but he never closes his eyes so I don’t see how that would be possible”).

2011 was a different story entirely. His .378 wOBA last season put him on the same offensive tier as Mike Stanton, Robinson Cano, and Dustin Pedroia. As the five win player that Pence was in 2011 (rWAR), he would be more than worth the money he is poised to make, either by arbitration or extension. The temptation with any sudden surge or depression in hitter production is to search for signs that it could be a passing fluke. In Pence’s case, his BABIP jumps off the (web)page. In both 2011 and his rookie season, which was his second most successful season by OPS+, his BABIP reached levels which are hard to imagine any hitter sustaining — .361 and .377 respectively. Only three hitters in history have logged a BABIP above .360 for their career (minimum 2000 plate appearances): Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Shoeless Joe Jackson — none of whom, I think we can agree, are suitable comparisons for Pence. In the last decade, the BABIP leader with that minimum is Shin-Soo Choo, who tops out at .353.

Pence’s BABIP wasn’t the only difference, though. His line drive rate spiked in 2011, reaching 17.9%, the highest since his rookie year mark (19.4%). This, along with the corresponding decline in ground ball and fly ball rates, works favorably towards his BABIP. If he is consistently hitting the ball harder, he’ll obviously have more success on balls in play going forward. But “consistently” is the key there. According to research by Derek Carty, a hitter’s line drive rate stabilizes when the sum of his infield flies, outfield flies, ground balls, and line drives reaches 795 (using MLB Advanced Media, which was not the source of my earlier figures but which shows the same spike for Pence). For Pence, that sum was just 487. And even if we had evidence that Pence had reliably boosted his line drive ability, his 2011 rate still doesn’t support the .361 BABIP. Per Fangraphs’ xBABIP estimator, his batted ball profile in 2011 portends just a .319 BABIP, which also happens to be his career expected BABIP using that same formula. That’s a 42 point difference, which means about 20 less hits, reducing his 2011 batting average to .281 and his on base percentage to .340, and that’s discounting the peripheral effects that reduced contact success might have on his walk and extra base hit rates.

The bulk of Pence’s batted ball fortune in 2011 appears to have come on ground balls. His BABIP on grounders was .329 in 2011; the league average was .237. Looking at the distribution of his ground ball hits, it’s easy to pick out a few that were luck-of-the-draw:

Then again, Pence has always outpaced the league in ground ball success, maybe owing to his speed. Even removing 2011, his career BABIP on grounders is .296.

There is plenty more at stake in the evaluation than just one arbitration hearing. Three of the prospects surrendered by the Phillies to acquire Pence immediately became top 10 prospects in the Astros system — Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart at 1 and 2 respectively, and Domingo Santana at 6, by Baseball America’s reckoning. Granted, the Astros farm system was essentially a wasteland prior to the trade, but Cosart and Singleton would rank well in any system, and it says a lot about the trade that the player-to-be-named turned out to Santana, a formidable well of potential in his own right. The Phillies may not have had a clear spot for Singleton in the big leagues, as he now does with Houston moving to the AL and adding a DH slot to their lineup. They also may not have had much need for Cosart, with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee locked up for several more years, and Cole Hamels presumably on his way to an extension. It may also be true that, as fresh entrants into the heavyweight class of payroll spenders, the Phillies can afford to exchange prospects in favor of established, more expensive big league talent. But if the true Hunter Pence is closer in ability to his 2007-2010 self, and not his 2011 self, then the Phillies acquired an above-average corner outfielder for a premium package of talent that they were well positioned to sit on until the ideal target came along.

Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, likely drawing on the BABIP concerns already mentioned, forecast a .281/.334/.450 batting line for Pence, amounting to a 108 OPS+. That’s not a bad season by any means, but it’s not far off from, say, Carlos Ruiz‘s 2011, or Ben Francisco‘s 2010. It’s certainly not the sort of elite bat you can use to maximize the value from a corner outfield position. If that’s the sort of player Pence is going to be, they’ll need offensive surplus from positions where it’s harder to find. They used to have that built-in, season after season, in the form of Chase Utley, but his health leaves that to question now. They may have it from Shane Victorino if he builds on his immensely successful 2011, or from Carlos Ruiz, or from Jimmy Rollins if he can spark a rare late-career surge. Suffice it to say, there are no standout candidates. More importantly, if Pence’s value will reflect something in the neighborhood of that ZiPS projection going forward, the Phillies will have to hope that the package they surrendered manifests more of its risk than its potential, and they’ll have to exercise restraint with negotiating the salary of a new fan favorite and bona fide good guy.

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  1. Ben

    January 17, 2012 11:29 AM

    I think some of Pence’s BABIP success, at least in his time with the Phillies, stems from how hard he swings and the quality of contact he makes. This is just anecdotal, but the guy seemed to absolutely clobber a lot of the GBs he hit last year. They were more groundball smashes than dribblers. Even so, expecting the guy to beat out a .350 BABIP again is perilous.

  2. nik

    January 17, 2012 12:08 PM

    Forgot to copy/paste the blurb about overpaying Howard/Ibanez/Papelbon.

  3. Bliz

    January 17, 2012 12:50 PM

    I don’t think comparing Pence and Francisco is entirely fair. Pence’s career line (.292/.343/.485) is significantly better than Benny’s (.260/.332/.430) and Pence’s numbers are based on twice the amount of ABs (2855 vs 1343). If Pence is going to regress, I would expect something closer to his career average rather than Ben Francisco’s 2010 season, but I could be wrong.

  4. Ryan Sommers

    January 17, 2012 02:00 PM

    Definitely Ben. As I mentioned, he’s had a lot of success on groundballs throughout his career, which means he can probably sustain some of that with his contact/speed.

    True Bliz, it’s not fair to compare Francisco and Pence as overall players. I just brought up Francisco’s 2010 season (104 OPS+) as a reasonable comparison for the value represented by what ZiPS thinks Pence’s 2012 season (108 OPS+) will look like

  5. MisterZoomer

    January 17, 2012 04:38 PM

    I think it isn’t right to consider the price paid for Pence in consideration of what to do with him. Was the price for him too high? Maybe, but if it was it doesn’t justify making a second mistake in signing him long term. If he is only above average don’t pay him elite money. Consider it a sunk cost.

  6. KH

    January 18, 2012 12:15 PM

    If Pence is a 2 WAR player then he is worth right around 10 million. Really not a huge issue imo if he gets slightly more then that.

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