2014 Fantasy Baseball: Regarding Hunter Pence’s Scalding September
We all – to some degree – suffer from recency bias. It’s natural. Whenever you’re drafting in a few months you’ll likely remember Michael Wacha’s postseason performance and maybe rank him a little higher. You’ll remember that Pablo Sandoval was awesome in September and perhaps give him another chance despite the fact that he was dreadful for most of the season. You’re not completely wrong. I’m guilty of it as well, but how much of our perception is “someone figuring it out,” or just someone faring a little better despite not changing much. So, what exactly is a month worth? I’m not saying you should throw players out of your cue that finished the season strong, but how much should you value those final games in comparison to the larger sample?
I want to focus on one player, specifically. That guy is Hunter Pence. Coming into 2013, Pence was given an obituary after his poor performance down the stretch in 2012. That obituary was obviously written a little too prematurely.
If I told you that Hunter Pence, who finished with 27 home runs and an OPS of .822, only had 16 home runs and a .777 OPS when the calendar turned over to September would you believe me? I wouldn’t have; although maybe I should have considering Pence single-handedly knocked me out of the playoffs in one league. Pence was rewarded for his valiant efforts in 2013 with a staggering 5 year $90 million extension.
Pence’s stats – listed above – through 135 games last year were solid. If he would have just kept his seasonal pace heading into September he would have finished with a 20/24 season. Which is plenty good, and somewhat unexpected, at least in the steals department. Instead of just keeping pace, Pence decided to go bonkers and mash 11 home runs in his final 27 games. In order to accomplish that feat, Pence saw ~32% of the flyballs he hit leave the yard. You don’t need me to tell you that likely isn’t going to happen again.
Pence was basically the same hitter in September that was during the first few months of the season, except for a few things. He saw a little more hard stuff down the stretch. Which is intriguing because struggled against it all season – at least relative to his career norms.
With his declining production versus hard stuff – four seam fastballs are singled out above – opposing pitchers’ decision to throw Pence more hard stuff could be interesting. Perhaps his bat is slowing a little with old age? His contact rate rebounded in 2013, but he posted the second worst season of his career against fastballs, according to Fangraphs’ pitch values. Thanks to Brooks Baseball, I was able to look at Pence’s zone profile in 2013.
Pence had a tremendous amount of trouble doing anything with fastballs on the inner third. If pitchers left it up and over the plate, then he very likely smashed it, but he had trouble pretty much everywhere else. If we look at his zone profile over the past three seasons (2010 – 2012) it’s similar. He didn’t crush inside pitches then either, but he wasn’t nearly as bad against them as he was during 2013. Getting back to his Fangraphs’ pitch values, the only season in which he fared worse versus fastballs was during his down 2012. It’s definitely something to keep an eye in 2014.
His homers in September can somewhat be attributed to an increase in flyballs. His 43.6% flyball rate that month was a season high. He hit more balls in the air and happened to benefit from a fluky hr/fb rate in September. Sure, he hit those balls, and likely hit them well, but it isn’t sustainable. Pence’s hr/fb rates by month heading into September (32% hr/fb) were: 16.7%, 17.9%, 10.8%, 3.0%, & 6.9%. His career rate – 2013 included – is 15.2%.
During drafts in 2013, Pence was knocked down a few pegs due to his poor finish in the previous season. The opposite will probably be true in 2014. I’m not sure it’s fair to draft Pence expecting a repeat of 2013. I ranked Hunter Pence as my 16th best OF entering 2014. Part of that ranking is his consistency. There are plenty of guys behind him that I feel have much more upside, but he’s relatively safe. For the record, Starling Marte, Jay Bruce, and Shane Victorino finished ranked at 16th, 17th, and 18th, respectively, on ESPN’s player rater in 2013.
It’s impossible for me to bank on a repeat of career highs in both homers and steals. If you draft Pence in 2014, expect more of the same old guy. The low twenties homers-near ten steals guy; not the 20/20 guy from 2013.