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Ryan Braun: The Player You Wish Hunter Pence Was?

Hunter Pence is doing his best, but the Astros offense still has that one glaring missing link: a clean-up hitter.

The Milwaukee Brewers and Ryan Braun made the headlines this week, agreeing to an extension that saw the left-fielder signed through 2020. It strikes be that the comparison between Braun and the Houston Astros' Hunter Pence is not brought up more often, not because they are similar players, but because they play in the same division and their careers have run along parallel tracks ever since they were both called up in 2007.

Pence may be earning more money in 2011 thanks to Braun's 8-year $45m contract and Hunter's $6.9m arbitration win last February, but you can guarantee there will be no multi-million dollar extensions for the Astros' right fielder. 

Ever since Braun was called up to the big leagues, nearly an entire month after Pence was, he left him in the dust, just as Ryan Howard did to Willy Taveras two years earlier in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. When Braun debuted on May 25th 2007, Pence had 24 starts under his belt and a .998 OPS, fueled in part by a .368 BABIP. He mashed his way through the next month, putting up a silly .438 BABIP through his next 25 games.

A slowdown was perhaps inevitable, and he finished third in the ROY voting after a solid debut season, a season where he missed a month after spraining his right wrist. How long ago that all seems, when Pence became the first rookie since 1957 to lead either league in BA at the All-Star Break. 

Neither rookie's walk rate was particularly impressive in 2007, but both have improved in recent years, Braun's BB% has sat at around eight in the last two years, but Pence's continues to yo-yo about between six and nine. 

And this is where it starts to get interesting my friends. Braun's career fWAR is 17.8, and his bWAR is 15.3. But Pence? His fWAR is 15.0 but his bWAR is 7.2. Defensive metric capability certainly must have a lot to say about this, but so must the way in which each site calculates the offensive component of WAR.

Yet there can be no real comparisons, as Braun's career OPS is a good 100 points higher than Pence's (.927 to .816). 

FanGraphs Dave Cameron took the usual savage delight in toasting the Brewers for his new contract, but taken on balance $150m for 13 years of Braun, even if they had to buy out some league minimum years, should probably be regarded as a small success for Milwaukee. 

And it may pay off even more, if Braun continues his blazing start to 2011, and although his OBP and SLG% are inflated by a .386 BABIP, he is tied for the NL lead with Albert Pujols and Troy Tulowitzki with seven home runs. 

I obviously don't see Braun play the field everyday, but there is always room for improvement for guys who work hard and get the fundamentals right. 

Does Pence have a jump left in his career, or has he reached his ceiling already? On a good offensive team, which the Astros aren't, Pence would not figure as high in the order as he does, but you have to wonder how much strain Pence is under with the lack of protection he has behind him. Hitting third in every game this season, he's scored a paltry seven times. 

Surely Carlos Lee batting behind him must have some effect? Lee's approach at the plate continues to bamboozle me. Sometimes he is ultra patient, other times he sits on a first-pitch fastball. Even more bewildering are UZR's current findings on Lee's defense. Admittedly UZR struggles with small sample sizes, but still, Lee's UZR/150 at first base is 30.1 and for left field it is 23.2. Get the guy a gold glove. 

35 and heading south, his HR/FB% has dropped to an ugly 5.7% in 2011, and he has a 12.8% mark for his career.

With El Caballo pacing around on deck, these things must cast a shadow over Pence as he steps into the batters' box. It heaps the pressure on the batter, and off the pitcher. What's the point of getting on base, I would probably think to myself, if those chumps behind me can't drive me in? Start fixating on trying to smash the ball out of the park, and the death spiral begins. 

Even if Pence were to step up, even if Michael Bourn can bump his OBP up to .380, even if Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson exceed expectations the Astros still lack a league-leading power hitter. This is the biggest flaw I see in Ed Wade's short-to-medium-term strategy, the one missing piece. But how easy would it be to find a .900 OPS hitter who plays either second, shortstop, or left field that you could just slot into the clean-up spot?

What the Astros could do with a Joey Votto or Colby Rasmus right now from their once-barren farm system. 

For now Hunter Pence will have to do. 

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.