SAN FRANCISCO, CA - AUGUST 1: Hunter Pence #8 of the San Francisco Giants strikes out looking in the ninth inning against the New York Mets at AT&T Park on August 1, 2012 in San Francisco, California. The Mets won the game 2-1. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Admit it. You probably read the headline and thought "Oh, jeez, Bryan. Tell me something I don't know! The guy plays baseball the same way the Kool-Aid Man enters buildings." So yeah, there's actually several things that are weird about Hunter Pence. Heck, just look at his name. But I digress. The point of this article is to talk about a specific weird thing about Hunter Pence, and part of it has to do with the fact that, since joining the San Francisco Giants, he has stunk hard.
Moving from homer-happy Citizen's Bank Park to the unforgiving (but lovely) AT&T Park is tough on any hitter. But Pence has, in the very small sample, struggled mightily since coming over in a mid-season trade. Given the issues currently facing the Giants and their outfield, Pence is needed to provide a hitting boost, hopefully similar to the numbers he's put up over the course of his career.
So why is Pence doing so poorly since coming to San Francisco? And, on another level, why is Pence having a down season at all in 2012?
First of all, let's briefly cover Hunter's current stat line. For the season, he's got a 101 wRC+, which is about league-average. This comes via a .259/.320/.426 triple-slash line, and a pretty-good 18 homers. Combined with his up-and-down, but mostly-up defense, Pence looks like a better-than-okay overall player. The problem is that Pence is actually, usually, a little better than this. Pence's career wRC+ is about 117. He's coming off the best season of his career. And he'd never before managed fewer than 3 fWAR in a season, only now he's more than halfway done with 2012 and hasn't cracked 1.5 fWAR yet. The last version of Hunter Pence was better than this version.
So we know there is a problem (sort of), but what's the problem? Well, Pence was close to his career numbers in Philly, but he's cratered since arriving in SF. Pence's batting average on balls in play, which was nutty last season (.361 is a pretty awesome number), is really, really terrible so far in SF, landing at .233. Also nutty, but in the other direction. He's striking out more, walking less, and hitting for no power since landing on the West Coast. Again, it's an extraordinarily small sample. Normally, I'd say that it probably reflects a slump rather than some long-term, extenuating circumstance for the player. I'd expect him to regress to the mean, and his mean is slightly-above average with the bat.
As part of my exploration (hunting the Hunter?) I looked a little deeper and saw something eye-catching in his pitch-type data: Hunter Pence appears to be really, really bad at hitting fastballs this season. He also appears to be bad at hitting changeups. Take a look at his FanGraphs pitch values, both versions. Compared to his usual self, he's not getting nearly as much success against either of those types of pitches. Weird.
Now, the changeup thing seems less weird to me, considering those numbers are all over the place for his career. But Hunter's been fairly consistent against fastballs, which makes me wonder why he's having less success against them in 2012. And, sure enough, take a look the numbers since he's joined the Giants ... not only is he hitting both fastballs and changeups worse, but he's seeing a marked increase in the number of fastballs thrown to him. According to pitch type, he's seeing almost 15% more fastballs than he had in Philly, or he'd seen throughout his career, for that matter.
Don't hitters want to see more fastballs, and less breaking pitches usually?
What I'd love to hear is from a Phillies- or Giants-watching fan with a better eye for scouting than myself. If Pence really is having less success against fastballs, what's the reason? Is he having more trouble catching up to fastballs? Is the ball coming off his bat with less force? Does he look the same, but fastballs are getting faster? Dumb luck? And why is it, that even in his awesome tenure with Philly last season, he had less luck against fastballs late in the season? And now his performance is down against them in the second half of this season? What's going on?
I don't have all the data, and even if I did, it wouldn't mean I have all the answers. But this one, seemingly small data point nudges me in the direction that maybe Hunter Pence has a bigger problem than bad luck and a small sample size. Maybe it's a fastball problem. I hope it's not the case (I've got nothing personal against the guy) that his production is falling apart, but maybe with a little more info, we can determine if this weird factor is something real, or just noise.