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.