A Pence for a Championship?

You’re the shepherd of a contending team. Your veteran left fielder is 10% worse than the average major leaguer and your young right fielder is part of a tandem that’s third-worst in the National League at he position. An exciting young corner outfielder is available on the market. Acquiring the upgrade is a no-brainer, right?

A lot of ink will be spilled about how Hunter Pence is over-rated. You can point out that he’s got a below-average walk rate. You can say his strikeout rate is only average. It’s true that his power looks above average when compared to the league but is only about the same as the average right fielder (.163 ISO for Pence, .168 for the average right-fielder). It’s even true that he steals bases at a less-than-efficient rate (63%).

And yet, acquiring Pence makes sense for the Phillies.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: Even with his flaws, Hunter Pence is now the best corner outfielder the Phillies have. In fact, only Shane Victorino and Chase Utley are better hitters when measured by wRC+, period. No matter what, Pence will upgrade a position in the lineup.

The open secret about the Phillies offense is that it is worse than average. On the year, the Phillies’ batting line (.248/.321/.386) is about 6% worse than league average. At seventh in the National League in wRC+, their offense lags behind their pitching. Judge it by runs, hits, isolated slugging percentage… it doesn’t matter, the offense could use a boost. It’s well behind their excellent pitching staff.

A contending team can lose a prospect or two on the way to the prize. Making the playoffs means more money. Research by Vince Gennaro and Nate Silver has suggested in the past that the making the playoffs can be worth more than $20 million to a team going forward. Not only is there the $1.5-2 million in gate receipts per game, but there’s also the less quantifiable good will that leads to more regular season ticket sales in consecutive seasons. If the Phillies are already a virtual lock to make the postseason, another series could still be worth at least $10 million to the team.

No matter the exact number, it’s clear that there is some value to be had by going further into the playoffs. So any analysis of Pence’s surplus value and the value of the prospects going to the Astros must have an asterisk next to it. Sure, Jonathan Singleton might be worth as much as $25 million by Victor Wang’s research. And Jarred Cosart probably around $15 millon. Even the friendly projections for Pence have his surplus value falling well short of that combined number.

And yet, the revenue that teams reap from a long run at a championship, successful or not, is hard to quantify and easy to ignore. That’s quite a mouthful. The short-hand, flags fly forever, works just as good. Any contending team that acquires a young, proven, cost-controlled upgrade without giving up their best prospect has to call the trade a win, flaws and all.




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


46 Responses to “A Pence for a Championship?”

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  1. brett says:

    ‘Any contending team that acquires a young, proven, cost-controlled upgrade without giving up their best prospect has to call the trade a win, flaws and all.”

    I’m going to use this to defend the Tigers acquisition of Doug Fister. But man are they giving up a lot.

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  2. brett says:

    Anyway, yeah. It’s hard to argue with this move too much for the Phillies. Good deal for both sides.

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  3. Richard says:

    This post reveals the problems with nationally-focused sites zeroing in to occasionally comment on a given team. Yes, as a whole, the Phillies offense is middle of the pack. But if you measure from the return of Utley to the lineup (which also just happens to coincide with Brown’s call-up and misses Ibanez’s brutal April [but also Polanco’s great one]), and they vault to second in the league. You can say I’m cherry-picking, but which offense really represents the team going forward? The one with Utley, or the one with a second base rotation of Wilson Valdez, Pete Orr, and Michael Martinez?

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      I wouldn’t say that I’m a typical national writer coming down to write about a team I never see. I’m a Mets writer too, so I see a ton of the Phillies. Sure, the offense is better with Utley back, and has Polanco coming. But no matter what, the offense is behind the pitching. So if they are going to look to get better, it’s the obvious place to look.

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      • Richard says:

        Yes, actually, I know you see the Phillies a lot, but you still resorted to full season stats for your analysis, which are often misleading, and especially so in this case. The offense has been VASTLY better since Utley’s return, to the tune of about a run/game average.

        My overall point was they didn’t need to “get better”, not for this year. I don’t think Pence really adds much of anything to their chances to win. Locking in their outfield for next year doesn’t hurt, though, so that’s worth considering.

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  4. I had to laugh at this ‘article’. It seemed to basically say Pence is justified by the stats, but there are ingredients to the game that go beyond stats and then search for a stat to justify the Philly’s move. Are you seriously saying a 6% difference from the league mean batting average is significant? Whatever ones point of view and rational for or against the Pence move, this article is embarassingly irrelevant to that rational.

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    • Devern Hansack says:

      Ingredients…like heart, grit, determination, and chemistry! Intangibles, Jerry, intangibles!

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Oh that was not 6% in batting average. That was 6% in wRC+. Sorry I mentioned there batting line right before I said that, but 6% worse than the league in wRC+ is significant. It means their offense is middle of the pack and could easily be upgraded.

      Also, the research into the added value of going further into the postseason is maybe not all accepted, but there’s something there. Teams that go further into the postseason make more money. That money will help offset the loss they got by paying two of their best three prospects for a slightly overrated player.

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      • Several years ago, I read Nate Silvers comments on what I’d call added value accounting as a means of assessing player value. I don’t recall the details, but something about diminishing returns seems to have been an issue. Although a poor example, filling seats in a sold out stadium isn’t productive. Maybe with the sort of flexible pricing scheme that teams like the Giants are using, the boundaries of the value proposition have been extended, but they still aren’t unlimited. It’s a little like a Utility analysis, you can extend it, but it’s still results in a sigmoid distribution. Sorry about misunderstanding the BA % point. I still think the Astros got the better of the deal, but time will tell.

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      • Jake R. says:

        By how much?

        I accept that advancing in the post season is very valuable. I accept that Pence improves the odds of the Phillies advancing. However, I believe his impact is marginal enough that this is a terrible trade for the Phillies.

        If he increase the odds of winning the World Series by 2% or 3%, which is probably generous, how much is that worth and does it really justify his acquisition cost?

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      • Phillie697 says:

        There is no satisfying the critics on this one. While I agree the Phillies gave up a lot, but that’s what happens when you do a deadline deal. If the Phillies win the WS, the critics will claim that they would have won without Pence. If the Phillies lose, then obviously they’ll claim that Pence didn’t make the difference everyone wanted him to make. Either way there is no reason to even continue this debate, since you can’t really convince the other side of anything.

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  5. J Hey says:

    The word you’re looking for is rationale it’s a noun.

    I guess it makes sense that the people who rip FG articles are not very smart.

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  6. Zach says:

    If the argument is that the Phillies will benefit financially there is no evidence to support the argument.

    “If the Phillies are already a virtual lock to make the postseason, another series could still be worth at least $10 million to the team.”

    Even if the team is marginally better going forward, they were already a lock to make the playoffs and reap the financial benefits. There is no way to say that Pence now makes them more likely to advance in a highly random tournament like the MLB playoffs. Add the cost of giving up 4 prospects and I don’t think there’s anyway to justify this move. It was a case of talk-radio hysteria affecting a headlines-driven GM to make a rash move.

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    • Anon21 says:

      I think it’s too extreme to say that Pence makes them no more likely to advance. Because he’s an upgrade over what they had, he makes them somewhat more likely to advance. If you can figure out how much more likely, you can prorate the revenue from advancing to the NLCS, advancing to the WS, and even winning the WS. I would speculate that this prorated revenue does not make up for the loss of the prospects minus the on-field value that Pence provides going forward, but there’s no reason to categorically discount Pence’s impact on the Phillies’ chances of making a deeper playoff run.

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    • The better team advances in the playoffs more times than not. If you are better, even marginally, you are more likely to advance. Just because there’s a large degree of randomness in the playoffs does not make it true that getting better does not make you better.

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    • batpig says:

      there is no way that Pence makes them more likely to advance in the playoffs? are you high? you are aware that the playoffs are not coin-tossing tournaments, and the actual players on the field have to play the game, right?

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    • Jake R. says:

      Wrong. Pence clearly improves their chances of advancing. But, by how much? I don’t know how to calculate this, but given the fairly random nature of the playoffs to begin with and the fact that, while a very real upgrade, he’s still just a good player, not great, it’s hard to see him improving the odds in any given matchup by more than a percentage point or two.

      This was a bad deal for the Phillies because it’s always a bad idea to give up great prospects for marginal upgrades to a team that is already better than the competition.

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      • noseeum says:

        “This was a bad deal for the Phillies because it’s always a bad idea to give up great prospects for marginal upgrades to a team that is already better than the competition.”

        That’s why you’re writing comments on fangraphs and not working as a GM. That is an utterly ridiculous statement.

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  7. Chris says:

    Pence will get at least 12 playoff at bats this season and for each one I would prefer him over Brown. Therefor the Phillies are better. Advanced metrics are awesome, but lets not ignore the basics.

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  8. Raul Ibanez says:

    At least I get to keep playing.

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    • Robbie G. says:

      This is what is so frustrating. The reason why Philly needed to trade for a player such as Pence (although it would’ve been awfully nice if they hadn’t overpaid) is two-fold: 1) the obvious need for a right-handed slugging OF to replace Jayson Werth, and 2) the obvious need to get Raul Ibanez, who is an awful fielder and an awful baserunner (and a below average hitter, which, to be fair, beats an awful hitter), the hell out of the lineup and the field. Sadly, Charlie Manuel will be allowed (by management/ownership) to continue to trot Raul Ibanez out there in RF every single day. The extremely obvious move here is to place Pence in LF as your every day LF and to go with a Domonic Brown-John Mayberry platoon in RF. Give Ibanez a start once every 5-6 games, so he doesn’t get too rusty at the plate, since Ibanez is your DH in World Series ballgames played in the AL park.

      My recommended lineup:

      1 Rollins
      2 Victorino
      3 Utley
      4 Howard
      5 Pence
      6 Brown/Mayberry
      7 Ruiz
      8 Polanco (or, until he comes back, Martinez/Valdez)

      My feared Charlie Manuel lineup:

      1 Rollins
      2 Polanco/Martinez/Valdez
      3 Utley
      4 Howard
      5 Victorino
      6 Pence
      7 Ibanez
      8 Ruiz

      Domonic Brown may be “overmatched by major league pitching” to a certain extent, but he has his moments, and he’s better than Ibanez, as is Mayberry. Furthermore, Philly is going to need Brown and Mayberry next season, anyway, since they’ll obviously let Ibanez walk and will obviously use Brown as the every day RF and Mayberry as a fourth OF (and Mayberry strikes me as a very nice fourth OF). Why not develop these two players for next season, particularly since they’re both better than the alternative (Ibanez)?

      If you’re management/ownership, my god, why are you not directing Charlie Manuel to do this? Very frustrating.

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      • Robbie G. says:

        Sorry, I typed that Ibanez will be trotted out there in RF every day. Typo.

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      • agam22 says:

        Completely agree, with the Phillies being a virtual lock to make the playoffs where’s the harm in letting Brown play every day and see as much big league pitching as possible? Sending him down is stupid, he’s done everything he can do at AAA, give him the next two months to keep developing. If he’s struggling heading into the playoffs you have other potential options but the best thing would be to keep playing him and use Ibanez as a bat off the bench.

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      • Dave S says:

        YES! Thank you. The problem is not Brown. The problem is IBANEZ!!!!

        Very OK with the price paid for Pence.

        Brown has NOT been overmatched at all against MLB pitching. He has been making pitchers throw a ton of pitches. Brown has good strike zone judgement. He needs to work on his defense. I am appalled at his lack of defensive skill. I am hoping he has been sent down to learn LF. There is no other reason for him to be in triple A.

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      • Raul Ibanez says:

        Hey guys, I had a pretty good game yesterday… no big deal.

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      • Phillie697 says:

        I wouldn’t call .750 OPS over-matched. Don’t believe the homer Phillies fans who obviously were expecting the second coming of Barry Bonds or something in RF with Dom.

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      • Phillie697 says:

        Yes, because we should make lineup decisions based on one big game, which you have, what, every two months or so while hitting worse than my cat the rest of the time (and worse defense than my cat ALL the time). Unfortunately, that obviously is how Charlie base his lineup decisions on, so I guess you have that going for you.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        While cleaning out the garage over the weekend, I found my 2009 BP Prospects Guide and was reading about some of the prospects.

        In the end, we REALLY need to temper our optimism on prospects and stop acting like they are gold. The top 1-20 of the top 100 seem to be, generally, pretty good bets at being decent. After that, it’s a hodge-podge mismatch of disappointment and surprise.

        Anyway, the expectation (reading the book) was not that Brown would become Bonds, but that he was Darryl Strawberry. BO actually did a pretty good job dispelling that expectation.

        We HAVE TO stop looking at prospects and seeing the “Name of Hall of Famer” (or borderline Hall of Famer) that they will become.

        When we look at guys like Brown and Rasmus, we need to see Brown and Rasmus … not Edmonds and Strawberry.

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  9. I think the more interesting argument is the relative added value of Pence when compared to Beltran. It’s my feeling that the experience with the Giants last week pushed them into sweetening the pot with the Astros to get Pence, something the Phillies were previously not going to do. What about the Phillies perception of Beltran’s addition to the Giants changed their minds. With the trade they offered the Astros, they could easily have had Beltran from the Mets. Maybe an exercise for Mr. Bayes, but you would statistically have to assign the probabilities via each player performance measures.

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  10. TK says:

    Utley’s return and their improved offensive numbers have two factors: Utley is way better than his replacements and coincidence. Utley is not worth a run per game over replacement. Ignoring what the other 7 guys did before utley returned is cherry picking. Also, I absolutely love that ibanez kept his starting job. Classic.

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    • Richard says:

      I didn’t say Utley was worth a run per game over replacement. Call it coincidence, or whatever, but the offense has been functioning much better since his return. I should say, I also said above that his return more or less coincided with Brown’s call-up, so we’re talking two players’ individual contributions and how they interact with the others (meanwhile, Ibanez has been much better since April).

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    • don says:

      The hitters Utley replaced were hitting below replacement, combining for a WRC+ in the 50s. He doesn’t make them a run a game better, even Bonds at the peak of his powers couldn’t do that, but he may make them a third of a run better by himself while also playing better defense. It’s really a huge swing.

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  11. Tim says:

    maybe it was a lot to give up, but it was the right move for sure, If the Phillies make it to the world series no one will be thinking about Cosart or Singleton. Think Phillies fans still wish they had Kyle Drabek or Michael Taylor or JA Happ? No way.

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  12. greenfrog says:

    Point taken, although Phillies fans probably wouldn’t mind having Travis d’Arnaud in the fold (318/387/535 at AA with good defence at a premium position).

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    • Nik says:

      I hope d’Arnaud becomes a great player considering what the Phils got in return.

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      • greenfrog says:

        Gose is holding his own as a 20-year-old at AA as well, hitting 253/349/399 with 48:14 SB:CS and playing gold-glove calibre defence.

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  13. Nik says:

    You do realize that Beltran is a 2 month rental and Pence is here for 3 pennant races, right? Hence the reason they went after Pence. With Ibanez leaving, they don’t have to worry about their outfield next year.

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