MLB Trade Rumors: Keeping some perspective on Hunter Pence

Hunter Pence has become the object of fans, and Ruben Amaro's, affection. How drastically he's overvalued could cost the Phillies dearly.

The perfect storm of of circumstances is conspiring to create anatmosphere that makes it seem almost inevitable that Ruben Amaro will get his man -- and drastically overpay -- in the next coming days.  Let's take a step back from the insanity and realize what we're getting, and what effect he can realistically have on the Phillies season going forward.

According to Jayson Stark, the Phillies initial offer for the 28 year old outfielder was Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart and an unnamed third prospect, which wasn't enough for the Astros.  This, giving up the best positional prospect and best pitching prospect in the Phillies organization for an above average outfielder, was already an overpay.  The kicker is the Phillies reportedly then agreed to include Domonic Brown, and the Astros still declined, preferring to setup a three team deal that would ship Brown elsewhere.

I'm going to try not to focus on this rumor specifically, since it's still all speculation at this point.  I more want to focus on the perceived value he brings, and the alleged lack of value Brown brings.  There are a handful of situations combining to create unrealistic expectations on who Hunter Pence is, and what effect he can have on the Phillies chances going forward.

Hunter Pence is overrated

The first, and most obvious, thing that needs to be stated is that the Phillies fans, media, and apparently the front office are overrating what level of player Hunter Pence is.  He's an above average outfielder, but not a game changer.  His presence in the lineup does not guarantee the Phillies any more postseason success, and may not even increase their odds substantially.

Pence's career averages (.290/.339/.480, 117 OPS+) are of that of an above average outfielder.  His on base percentage barely cracks the top 50 in baseball, and his slugging percentage just outside of the top 50.  And both of those are the best numbers he's put up since he has been an every day player.  He's above average, but not a game changer.

He started off this year hot, with a hitting .319 with a .509 slugging percentage through April and May, neither of which he's shown the ability to sustain throughout his career.  He became the object of affection among some Phillies fans, and apparently Ruben Amaro, during this time.  But that's not the Hunter Pence you can pencil in as the one you'll be getting come playoff time.

A regression to his norm was expected.  Pence's average on balls put in play was .354 in April and an absurd .396 in May, both completely unsustainable rates and well above his career average of .326.  While possible (albeit unlikely) that, at 28 years old and after 2250 major league at bats, Pence had found a hitch in his swing or an improved ability to recognize pitches, but the odds were against it.

His career line drive percentage rose slightly, but not enough to suggest he was making appreciably better contact.  It was much more likely that luck and small sample size were playing a part in his increased batting average, suggesting an unsustainable level of success and a likely regression.

And the Sabermetricians were right this time.  Since the endof May, Pence has batted .297, with a .424 slugging percentage, hitting only 3 home runs in his last 172 at bats.  Since the all-star break, Domonic Brown has a higher batting average (.226 to .200), higher on base percentage (.385 to .294) and higher slugging percentage (.355 to .289) than Pence. 

That's not to say Pence is as bad as he's been in the weeks following the all-star break, it's to say he is not as good as he was in May.  This is the regression to the mean we've all been waiting for.

So, when evaluating Pence, don't expect him to be the guy who had great stats earlier in the year when all this interest started.  Expect his career averages.

Underrating Domonic Brown

If you look at the what Domonic Brown has been doing this year (103 OPS+), and compare that to Pence's career average (117 OPS+), the upgrade is marginal, particularly when you look at the .303/.410/.379 line Brown has put up in July.  It's reasonable to believe Pence is going to bounce back from his poor June and July, and he may be slightly more valuable than Brown down the stretch, but slightly is the key.  Pence does not make this team a juggernaugt, nor does he guarantee anything.  And for what you're going to be giving up, he had better be close to a guarantee.

Not only is Pence 5 years older, but he's going to be considerably more expensive next year.  Yes, Pence is under arbitration, but the projections for his salary next year based on performance will be in the $11-$13 million range.  That's considerably more than Domonic Brown, who is making around $400,000 this year.  And you'll still have to replace Raul Ibanez.  For a team with as many salary decisions on aging veterans that the Phillies have, that's a considerable worry.

That's not to mention there's a reasonable chance Domonic Brown is considerably better than Hunter Pence next year.  He's producing this year, and has always taken some adjustment time on jumps in the past.  Getting key at bats this year is incredibly important for his development. 

He went from a Baseball America top 5 prospect to someone many in the fan base are ready to give up on, despite being an above average major league player during his first major stint in the big leagues.  An impatient fan base, coming off of a disappointing postseason, with high expectations for the team has created unrealistic expectations for Domonic Brown. 

Overstating the effect Pence will have

Another common theme is overstating how much effect the upgrade of adding Pence will have on the Phillies chances in the playoffs.  The Good Phight did a good job of displaying this when looking at the records of World Series Champions, and this can be shown by breaking down playoff teams by win totals and looking at their average wins per year in the playoff.

For this, i looked at the last 10 years, 2000-2010.  I then divided the teams into 5 groups (below 90 wins, 91-94 wins, 95-97 wins, 98-102 wins, and 103+ wins), and looking at how many postseason games those teams won, on average.

Reg Wins Freq Post Wins Avg Wins/postseason
103+ 5 25 5.00
98-102 12 61 5.08
95-97 28 113 4.04
91-94 23 90 3.91
<=90 19 66 3.47

 

Clearly, there is a difference, and some of these numbers are skewed by teams like the 2002 Yankees, who won 103 regular season games and only 1 postseason game.  Or the 2006 Cardinals, who won 83 regular season games and the World Series.  But in the end, the difference between 99 wins and 105 wins hasn't been a guarantee of increased playoff success.  The baseball playoffs are simply a poor representation of team caliber, inherently flawed by taking a 162 schedule and limiting it down to a sprint to 11 wins.  Streaks and luck play a more prominent factor in the playoffs than they do in the regular season, and the impact of any move less quaranteed.  This is especially true for marginal upgrades, like Hunter Pence would be.

Would Hunter Pence be a nice replacement for Raul Ibanez ?  Certainly, both this year and next.  But how much he is reportedly being overvalued, both as a player and his impact on the team, is troubling.  Singleton and Cosart is already too high of an asking price for what he is, especially considering how much of a bind the Astros are in to shed salary.  Adding Brown in would be lunacy.

Yet the majority view this as a slam dunk.

This is Hunter Pence, not Justin Upton.

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