Is Hunter Pence The X Factor For The San Francisco Giants?

You should already have the Baseball Prospectus 2017 Annual. I wrote a chapter, after all, and I’m the most recent writer you’ve read. But if we’re going to talk about Hunter Pence, we need to talk about the comment about him that was written by Patrick Dubuque. It’s a longer comment than most in the chapter, probably because it says the most. Here’s a snippet:

Old age is doing the same thing you do every day, like going to the gym or composing a sonnet or hitting a baseball, until something goes wrong. And then it takes a little longer to get back to 100 percent, and a little longer, until you never quite make it back before the next thing, and again, until you no longer remember what 100 percent is.

Oh, entropy. You cold, unfeeling bastard. This comment is perfectly applied to Pence, of course, and it’s as universal as truisms get. He used to be an iron man who played every game, and then he wasn’t. Because he’ll be 34 next month, there are concerns about his ability to be the lineup fixture he was in the past, and that’s before you get to the standard worries about age-related decline.

We were expecting this, in a way. Back in 2013, when Pence signed a five-year contract extension, the conventional thinking was that he would help for two or three of those years, but he would be a drag right around the fourth year. Considering that Shin-Soo Choo got an extra two years and $40 million just a couple months after Pence, it still seems like the Giants did well, even if that fourth year is about to start.

And yet, do you feel like this is the end for Pence, like he’s doomed to hit .240 and flail at sliders in the dirt for eternity? You do not. At least, I don’t. His 115 OPS+ last year was right around his career 119 mark, and while he matched his career high when it came to strikeout rate, he also set a new career best with his walk rate. When he was healthy, he hit for a high average, got on base, and ran the bases like a xenomorph.

When he was healthy. This is the theme of his 2017 preview, for better or for worse.

The news didn’t start out so hot this spring, with Pence nursing an oblique tweak, but he made it a point to get into the first spring training game, almost as if to shut up the worrywarts like me who were concerned about his health. He roped a double in his first at-bat, and he looked good doing it. You know that Pence works as hard as anyone in the game, and that he’s probably eating a pine cone right now, assuming that pine cones are healthy, which, idk. My faith in his ability to stay healthy is overwhelmingly based in the training legends.

It’s also based in the part that, well, I like the guy and want him to succeed because he makes baseball way more fun. That’s my right as a quasi-fan-journalist-shill, and I’m not gonna apologize. But it’s not just that Pence would make baseball more fun by staying healthy; he would make the Giants so much better if he performed at a high level for 150 games. The lineup without him is incredibly thin, and he’s become the new Angel Pagan, where you can chart the team’s overall success based on his availability.

Is it realistic to expect Pence to play all season? Probably not. Two seasons with injuries from a 30-something generally become three seasons with injuries from a 30-something. I didn’t write the rules, and they’re hideous.

Is it completely unrealistic that he’ll be healthy all year? Nah. It’s a fine line between injury prone and unlucky, and it’s impossible for us to tell which is which from back here. Think of it like clutch hitting. Does it exist? Sure. Can you tell the difference between clutch hitting and excellently timed hitting that doesn’t have the show up again? Probably not. It’s the same with players who suffer several different injuries in a short stretch.

Also, if Matt Holliday can play in 156 games when he’s 34, why not Pence? The two have nothing in common other than being outfielders, but I’m talking about this as an issue of fairness. IT’S ONLY RIGHT.

Last year, we were similarly excited about Pence:

Hunter Pence, 2016 projected
PA: 599
AVG: .281
OBP: .334
SLG: .465
HR: 23
SB: 21
CS: 3

Hunter Pence, 2016 actual
PA: 442
AVG: .289
OBP: .357
SLG: .451
HR: 13
SB: 1
CS: 1

Just missed on the stolen bases. You can smell the optimism in those projections, though. And even though the dingers weren’t there, Pence was the hitter we expected. There just wasn’t enough of him.

This year, there will be enough of him. Because I said so. You might remember me from past projections like, “Tim Lincecum is totally back,” and “Matt Duffy could hit .380 this year, y’all,” so take it with a grain of salt, but I’m looking forward to a healthy Pence.

Hunter Pence, 2017 projected
PA: 557
AVG: .281
OBP: .344
SLG: .449
HR: 18
SB: 4
CS: 2
WAR: 2.8
GIFs: 48

By Grant Brisbee