2012 Phillies Player Preview: Hunter Pence

Remember when Raul Ibanez began his Phillies career in the spring of 2009 and kicked off the season with several weeks of red-hot hitting? Everytime I heard someone bring up Raul on talk radio, the line was always the same: "It's so nice to have a leftfielder who's consistent. Not like that streaky Pat Burrell."

The point of this is not to criticize Ibanez for being streaky. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with streakiness as such. The point is that baseball fans tend to jump to unwise conclusions based on their first impressions. Fans who have seen a guy play for a couple of months rarely recognize that what they've observed, by itself, doesn't constitute enough data to evaluate that player. If you're going to rely solely on what your eyes tell you, then you need to watch the guy for a good while longer. An even better methodology would be to give due consideration to the guy's career statistics.

Not long before the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence last July, I wrote a post here that was provocatively titled Hunter Pence (Probably) Isn't That Good at Baseball. As I explained in the post, I wasn't saying that Pence wasn't good at all. What I was saying was that although Pence's batting average in 2011 was .318 at that time, he wasn't a truly elite player and was thus being overrated by many Phillies fans. His high BA was being fueled by an unusually high BABIP. He didn't have elite power (career ISO of .190), and was actually a bit below-average at walking (career BB% around 7.0).

Of course, Ruben Amaro decided not to listen to me and pulled the trigger on the Pence trade. And after the trade, Pence actually improved on his pre-trade 2011 numbers. His BABIP declined - but only slightly, to .348. His ISO shot up to .237 (with a 22.0% HR/FB). And his walk rate was an impressive 11.0%. All in all, he accumulated a .324/.394/.560 slash line, a 158 wRC+, and 2.6 WAR in 54 G, 236 PA (that's a 7.2 WAR pace over 150 G).

If Pence can maintain that level of offensive production for the next two years, the Phillies will have an elite RF, not just a good one. But therein lies the question: can he? On one hand, he's still pretty young (DOB 4/13/83) - maybe the explanation for his 2011 season is just that he suddenly hit his prime at age 28. It's not impossible.

Color me a skeptic though. For one thing, 236 PA aren't a whole heckuva lot. For another, he's had a high-walk-rate stretch in the past - over his first 236 PA for the Astros in 2009, he walked at a 12.2% clip. It didn't last. He slipped back to 7.1% for the rest of the season, 6.2% in 2010, and 6.9% in 2011 prior to the trade.

Still, no matter what happens, the good news is that RF won't be a position the Phillies will have to worry about in 2012. Whether Pence posts 3.2 WAR (like he did in 2010), 5.2 WAR, or 7.2 WAR, he will not hold the team back from returning to the postseason. The only reason why Pence's precise performance level will be important will be in informing our retrospective assessment of the trade that brought him here. Which is a topic we can hash out some other time.

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