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Hunter Pence: First Half Hero

It’s time again to jump back into Zach Sander’s Outfield End of Season Rankings and pull out another gem for us to discuss. And since I live in the Bay Area and have a hankering to “poke the bear in the zoo” and have my house egged next Halloween for blasphemy, it’s time to fire up all you Giants fans and dissect one of your darling World Champions. So let’s scroll on down to good ol’ number 29 and talk about Hunter Pence.

What I actually love about Pence, first and foremost, is the awkwardness with which he does everything. He looks so ridiculously ungraceful when he runs the bases or tracks down a fly ball in the treacherous right field corner of AT&T Park that I can’t even fathom how he finds success half the time. He also cracks me up every time I see him in all his herky-jerkiness taking practice cuts in the on-deck circle and in between pitches and I realized one day that if you just imagine yourself listening to some sort of Scott Joplin old timey music, it’s the perfect accompaniment for his movements.

But that’s strictly for fun. What I’d really like to discuss and something that is relevant to the fantasy world, is the fact that, based on both his career trajectory and in-season performance, Pence is the perfect guy to grab on draft day, reap the benefits of a solid first half and sell himĀ  as high as you can just prior to the All Star break. He is the classic first half hero and someone you want nothing to do with in the second half.

Let’s start with the career. When the 24-year old Pence first entered the majors in 2007, he was touted as a solid power/speed combo and finished his rookie year batting .322 with 17 home runs and 11 stolen bases over 484 plate appearances. In his second year, we got a full season out of him with 25 home runs and another 11 stolen bases and while he sacrificed some batting average while swinging for the fences, he also started to improve his plate discipline, particularly his walk rate. Year three saw similar power but much better plate discipline, a few more steals and a nice batting average increase until finally in his fourth season, at the age of 27, he put it all together. He hit for similar power, kept his strikeout rate down (sacrificed some walks), and posted career-highs in stolen bases, runs scored and RBI. The career trajectory was exactly what you’d expect from a player entering his prime years.

Since then, it’s been mostly downhill. In 2011 his home run total dropped slightly, the steals were cut in half and the strikeout rate went up. Sure, his average spiked a .314, but that seemed to have more to do with his .361 BABIP than anything else. Last season there was again similar power, but the stolen bases dropped again, the strikeout rate went up a little more and he posted a career-worst .253 batting average. Obviously it’s a common path for athletes — they rise up, they peak, they fall — and we’re not just seeing the pattern in Pence’s whole career, but it breaks down similarly in each season since his decline first began.

Check out these splits over the last two years:

1st Half 353 44 114 24 2 11 60 23 79 5 .323
2nd Half 253 40 76 14 3 11 37 33 45 3 .300
1st Half 340 58 97 15 2 16 50 33 68 4 .285
2nd Half 277 29 59 11 2 8 54 23 77 1 .213

As you can see, in both seasons since his peak year, Pence came out of the gate firing on all cylinders only to peter out once the second half began. In 2011, the hitter-friendly ballpark in Philadelphia helped mask the power decline as he hit the same number of home runs in each half, but in 2012, the move to pitcher-friendly AT&T Park revealed the truth. In looking at the rest of the numbers, the overall decline in the second half is a lot easier to spot — batting average, strikeouts, steals doubles, hits. A slight exception in RBI in 2012, but what can you expect when you’ve got Buster Posey hitting in front of you on a regular basis?

The bottom line though is that Pence is on a downward trend right now and there’s little evidence to suggest that it will suddenly turn around for him. He played well early on, hit his peak and is on the decline and now each season since that peak is nothing more than a microcosm of his career trend. For at least the next two years, I’d say it’s probably safe to draft him and use him for the start, but just make sure you start lining up deals once the calendar flips to July. After that, unless he miraculously does turn things around, you might end up wanting to just leaving him alone altogether