Picking On Pence

A couple weeks back, the Astros made the unusual announcement that they would definitively be going to an arbitration hearing with Hunter Pence. This was unusual, because generally team execs like to leave things open-ended. But sometimes, when you know you have the advantage, you choose pistols at dawn. And in their case with Pence, the Astros clearly have the advantage.

Pence filed at $6.9 million, the Astros at $5.15 million, a difference of $1.75 million. While not the largest difference of those who exchanged figures this offseason, it was nearly double the median difference between player and club. Like Jose Bautista, Pence’s figure was high enough that there are no good recent comps among his position group on his side of the midpoint. Unlike Bautista, Pence’s platform season wasn’t good enough for him to float such a high number. However, he does have a small window from which to build his argument. As a three-plus player, it is open to each side’s discretion how they would like to weight career and platform season, and Pence does have some bulk advantages for his career.

Pence’s main comparables are Andre Ethier ($5.5 M, 2010), Alex Rios ($4.84 M, 2008), Matt Holliday ($4.4 M, 2007), Luke Scott ($4.05 M, 2010), Shin-Soo Choo ($3.98 M, 2011), Ryan Ludwick ($3.70 M, 2009) and Nelson Cruz ($3.65 M, 2011). Ethier, Rios and Scott are good ones in particular, as like Pence, they were Super-Two’s. Among the group, we find that the only one with as many career games played is Ethier, but even though they had both played 580 games, Pence accumulated 204 more plate appearances than did Ethier. As a result of the extra playing time, Pence has piled up more hits, homers and RBI than his peers. But despite his 200-plus plate appearance advantage over everyone in the group, he is not tops among runs scored, doubles, triples or stolen bases. In addition, Pence drags in terms of rate stats – he places fifth out of eight in batting average, seventh in slugging, and tied for last in on-base percentage.

To make matters worse, Pence’s platform season just doesn’t stack up:

Shin-Soo Choo 2010 646 31 22 90 0.300 0.401 0.484
Matt Holliday 2006 667 45 34 114 0.326 0.387 0.586
Ryan Ludwick 2008 617 40 37 113 0.299 0.375 0.591
Nelson Cruz 2010 445 31 22 78 0.318 0.374 0.576
Andre Ethier 2009 685 42 31 106 0.272 0.361 0.508
Alex Rios 2007 711 43 24 85 0.297 0.354 0.498
Luke Scott 2009 506 26 25 77 0.258 0.340 0.488
Hunter Pence 2010 658 29 25 91 0.282 0.325 0.461

As you can see, Pence comes in dead last in OBP and SLG, and the highest he placed in any category was fourth. Even in those instances, the edges were slight, unlike in OBP, where he was 43 points below the group’s median. Furthermore, while Pence’s season didn’t garner any special recognition, the others did. Holliday, Ludwick and Rios were All-Stars during their platform season; Holliday, Ludwick and Ethier were awarded Silver Sluggers; and Holliday, Ludwick, Ethier and Choo all finished in the top 16 or higher in their league’s MVP vote (Ethier was the highest at sixth).

With all of these players safely on the Astros side of the midpoint, it seems as though it would be tough to argue that Pence deserves more than them. It becomes even tougher when you realize that the only corner comps on his side of the midpoint are slugging first basemen. And if Pence’s platform season can’t compete with the power numbers of the Ludwick’s, Choo’s and Rios’ of the world, he certainly doesn’t have any business claiming his numbers go toe to toe with the Ryan Howard’s, Justin Morneau’s, Miguel Cabrera’s and Prince Fielder’s of the world.

Hunter Pence has been a durable player whom the Astros have relied on heavily these past four seasons, and as a result, he has accumulated some shiny bulk statistics. But his career numbers are not bulletproof, and his platform numbers are bullet-riddled when compared to others who earned less than for what he is asking. Add these factors to the Astros’ recent success in arbitration hearings, and I would be surprised if Pence emerges from his hearing with the Astros victorious.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.