Prospect Retro Redux: Hunter Pence
I've had a couple of requests recently for a look at Hunter Pence, Houston Astros outfielder. We did a Not a Rookie piece on him back in February 2008, but with two additional seasons of data, let's see if the view has changed.
First, to review his background as a prospect, this is what we wrote two years ago.
Hunter Pence had an outstanding rookie season last year, hitting .322/.360/.539 for the Astros in 108 games. His career minor league marks are .303/.376/.554 in 333 career games, so he hit about as well in the majors as he did in the minors. What does the future hold?
A second round pick in 2004 out of the University of Texas-Arlington, Pence adjusted easily to pro ball, hitting .296/.369/.518 in his pro debut in the New York-Penn League. I gave him a Grade B in the 2005 book, noting his across the board offensive skills. He had a great year at the A-ball level in '05, hitting .338/.413/.652 in the Sally League and .305/.374/.490 in the Carolina League. I gave him a Grade B+ in the '06 book, noting that he might need adjustment time in Double-A but that I liked his bat a lot. I ranked him as the Number 35 hitting prospect in baseball.
His '06 season was a success in Double-A, with a .282/.356/.529 mark. I bumped him up to Grade A- in the book last year, ranking him as the Number 11 hitting prospect in baseball. This was a bit higher than some analysts ranked him, but I was impressed by what I saw in the Texas League.
How will Pence follow up his excellent major league debut? His BB/K ratio wasn't terrific with 26 walks against 95 strikeouts, and a bit of tightening in the strike zone judgment department would help him. Bill James has him projected at .306/.357/.538 on the season. Ron Shandler has him at .294/.343/.504. ZIPS has him at .292/.343/.510. All very similar, with James a bit more optimistic, as is usual for his projection system.
What do I think? This is an easy one for me, I think he'll keep hitting. But will he maintain at about the same level as he is now? All three of the projection systems above show him not hitting QUITE as well in '08 as in '07, likely from blending his actual '07 output with his MLEs from 2006.
My own numbers are .303/.351/.503. I think there is a chance he could exceed that.
The question now is, when he gets into his late 20s, does Pence stay where he is now (which is really good) or does he take a further step forward into genuine superstardom?
Most scouts would doubt the latter possibility. Many have never been comfortable with his unorthodox stance at the plate. But it works, and if he can make even a marginal improvement in his plate discipline, such a breakthrough is possible. Even if he stays where he is now, he is one of the few things that Houston fans can be happy about.
Pence has yet to improve on his rookie performance; he had a +129 OPS that season. In '08 he hit .269/.318/.466, 105 OPS+, then .282/.346/.472, 115 OPS+ in '09. This year he has slumped down to .265/.315/.436, 99 OPS+. On defense, he racks up large numbers of assists, and UZR likes his glovework a lot, or at least it did in '08 and '09, the numbers are down this year, granted the perils of sample size.
Basically, he's been a solid player overall, but not the star that he looked like in his rookie season. Inconsistent plate discipline has been part of the problem.
An additional factor: I wonder if Pence might be getting worn down physically? He played 156 games in 2008, 157 last year, and is on course for 156 this year. Durability is obviously an asset. Aside from a wrist injury back in '07, he's avoided any serious medical issues. But looking back through some of my old notes, I found something in my personal notebook that I wrote back in 2006 when I saw him play for Double-A Corpus Christi: "He looks like his back is hurting him. Might be a guy who needs some time off occasionally."
His statistical splits going back to 2007 show a tendency for slow starts in April (.748 OPS), then crushing the ball in May (.976 OPS), slumping in June (.776 OPS), July (.780 OPS), and August (.762 OPS) before hitting great again in September (.909 OPS). This is entirely theoretical, but I wonder if he gets gassed when the weather gets hot and humid in June. I'd be interested in the observations of Astros fans who see Pence play on a daily basis. Perhaps
Pence is now 27 and entering his prime breakout years. He's a good player, and I think it is possible he can regain his rookie touch again at some point.