Hunter Pence has always been an unusual case. His techniques both on the field and in the batter’s box have been characterized from unique to hideous and pretty much everything in between.
Somehow, he has made use of his unorthodox playing style and developed into one of the better right-fielders in the National League. After being the cornerstone of the Houston Astros, Hunter spent time with the Phillies before landing with the Giants last year. Although Pence had a below average year in 2012 (1.8 WAR vs. career average of 3.53 WAR), the Giants rewarded him with a one-year deal for 2013. The Giants have every reason to believe Hunter will succeed this season and put up numbers in line with his career averages. A reversal of luck at the plate, minor adjustments to pitching, and return to solid right-field defense should justify Pence’s deal this season.
Hunter Pence’s performance in 2012 was well below the expectations based on his 2011 season. His batting average was down from .314 in 2011 to .253 in 2012 (32 points lower than his career average). Without a significant change in walk rate, we can conclude that the lower average was the cause of a lower tradition stat line (OBP, Slugging, etc.).
Taking a closer look, it seems Pence did not get as many hits in 2012, and more specifically, had worse luck and struck out more. In 2011 Pence had a BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play, a measure of how “lucky” a batter was) of .361 and has a career average of .321. His 2012 BABIP, however, was over 30 points lower than his career average, at .290. Last season, balls that would usually drop in or get through for a hit in 2011 were being converted to outs in 2012.
Another significant impact on Pence’s 2012 offensive performance was an increase in strikeouts. While a number of factors from injury to mental issues could increase the amount of strike outs, a look into the Pitch F/X data from Fangraphs can give us some insight into what else might be the cause. Over his career, Pence has proven to be a good 4-seam fastball and off-speed pitch hitter. His weakness over his career has been, however, moving fastballs (two-seam, cutters, sinkers). Hunter went from 2.2 runs above replacement hitting 2-seam fastballs in 2011 to -6.2 runs above replacement in 2012. Another fastball based on movement, the cutter, saw a regression from -2.6 to -6.2 runs above replacement.
This tells us that Pence has made his living off of 4-seam fastballs and off speed pitches. Pitch F/X data shows us that Pence saw almost 3% more two seam fastballs in 2012 than 2011. The increase in 2-seam fastballs could be due to pitchers adjusting to Pence. Similarly the reduction in runs above replacement on his 2-seam hitting could be due to an increase in the amount of those pitches thrown to him over the season.
During Hunter Pence’s time with Houston, he was known for his excellent defense in right field. 2011 and 2012, both years he played outside of Houston, his defense suffered. His offensive production in 2011 made up for his defense, keeping his value high at 4.7 wins above replacement. However, his 2012 performance was not able to make up for this and as a result his wins above replacement was only 1.8.
So why did the Giants do the right thing giving Pence a one-year deal? We can conclude that in 2012 Pence was unlucky at the plate. His BABIP should be expected to return to his career average, and as a result pull his batting average, OBP and slugging percentages up with them. An adjustment at the plate concerning movement-heavy fastballs should reduce Pence’s strikeouts as well. A full year playing right field in AT&T Park should allow Pence to improve his defensive value. Combining all these factors, Giants fans should expect a good year from Hunter Pence in 2013.