Hunter Pence’s hidden skill

Despite appearances, Hunter Pence has been a well above average player since he debuted in 2007 with the Houston Astros. Since 2007, Pence has averaged 3.2 wins above replacement (Fangraphs method) per season. If you prorate his WAR to 162 games — he’s played just 52 and 106 games over the past two seasons — you arrive at 3.8 WAR per 162 games played. Pence does it by being a well rounded player; he’s posted positive run totals over his career in hitting (141.4 runs), fielding (33.4), and base running (7.1).

This is nothing new, of course, but what else does the current San Francisco Giants right fielder bring to the table that might go unnoticed? The ability to get hits on infield balls in play. Consider the following table — it’s raw infield hit totals since 2007.

Infield Hit Totals, 2007-2016

Name G IFH
Ichiro Suzuki 1543 335
Hunter Pence 1376 219
Dustin Pedroia 1367 198
Derek Jeter 1068 187
Adam Jones 1362 182
Alexei Ramirez 1371 177
Ryan Braun 1354 175
Michael Bourn 1344 169
Elvis Andrus 1221 167
Erick Aybar 1312 160

When looking at Pence, only the masterful Ichiro has had more infield hits since 2007. While Ichiro’s infield hit totals are staggering, Pence’s 219 infield hits are the second most in the majors in this time frame and he is the only other player to break the 200-hit mark.

It’s clear that both Pence and Ichiro posses an infield hit skill. Ichiro’s historic bat control, speed, hitting stance, and left-handedness make him a prime candidate to rack up infield hits. Often times when Ichiro makes contact with the ball, he’s already moving out of the box. Pence, however, is a right handed hitter and thus has to take a couple of extra steps to get out of the box and head toward first base.

You’ll note that since we are just looking at raw totals, Ichiro has an obvious games played advantage — he appeared in nearly 200 more games than Pence over this time period. If we adjust the infield hit totals per game, and then prorate that to a 162 game season, we get the following table.

Infield Hit Totals Per 162 games adjusted, 2007-2016

Name G IFH IFH/G IFH/162
Ichiro Suzuki 1543 335 0.22 35
Derek Jeter 1068 187 0.18 28
Hunter Pence 1376 219 0.16 26
Dustin Pedroia 1367 198 0.14 23
Elvis Andrus 1221 167 0.14 22
Adam Jones 1362 182 0.13 22
Ryan Braun 1354 175 0.13 21
Alexei Ramirez 1371 177 0.13 21
Michael Bourn 1344 169 0.13 20
Erick Aybar 1312 160 0.12 20

Ichiro, expectedly, keeps his title as the infield hit king. There’s a little jockeying when you adjust things (Jeter moves up to #2 and Pence falls to #3) but it’s still an interesting list.

The other question that I think we should ask is: Infield hits are obviously a good thing, but how much value does it add to the player? Using linear weights we can get a rough idea of how much value Pence is gaining from his annual 20-plus infield hits a year. I am using a simple equation based on  Tom Tango’s base run values. Essentially, a single, which all infield hits should be, are worth .46 runs. So, our basic equation is (IFH*.46 = run value). (I am open to debate on whether or not this is the best way to do this, but for now, it’s where I am headed.)

Doing so, we get the following table.

Infield Hit Total Run Values per 162 games adjusted, 2007-2016

Name G IFH IFH/G IFH/162 RV
Ichiro Suzuki 1543 335 0.22 35 16.3
Derek Jeter 1068 187 0.18 28 13.1
Hunter Pence 1376 219 0.16 26 11.9
Dustin Pedroia 1367 198 0.14 23 10.9
Elvis Andrus 1221 167 0.14 22 10.3
Adam Jones 1362 182 0.13 22 10.0
Ryan Braun 1354 175 0.13 21 9.7
Alexei Ramirez 1371 177 0.13 21 9.7
Michael Bourn 1344 169 0.13 20 9.4
Erick Aybar 1312 160 0.12 20 9.1

Per 162 games, Pence is adding nearly 12 runs of value. Thinking of it in terms of WAR, that’s one win of value based on just infield hits. That’s an amazing amount of value added. As stated above, Pence does nearly everything well, but if you took away his ability to reach base on infield hits, he moves from a four-win player to a three-win player; he would still be a worthwhile addition to the team, but not nearly as impactful.

It’s easy to say that’s the beauty of baseball — players excelling in weird and unexpected ways — but, honestly, that’s the beauty of baseball and one of the reasons why I love the game so much.

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