Hunter Pence: The Forgotten All-Star

Pence should be more than just nostalgia in 2020.

When the San Francisco Giants signed Hunter Pence in early February, it just felt right. There are certain players that just belong on certain teams, and Pence is one of those players. Not only was Pence a key contributor on some really great Giants teams in the last decade, including two championship teams, but he was also a fan favorite. That is what made Pence’s 2017 and 2018 seasons so hard to watch, as in that stretch Pence batted .249/.297/.368 for a 79 wRC+ and exactly zero WAR. With the Giants embracing changes after 2018 with new additions to the front office, the team made the obvious choice to let Pence leave as a free agent after the season.

There is definitely nothing wrong with that decision by the Giants, as the team looked to begin the rebuilding process and try and get younger as part of that. But now, here we are in 2020 and Pence has found himself back with the Giants. To a casual observer, it could be implied that the Giants brought back Pence as some sort of fan service while the team is not expected to be great this year.

It is easy to forget, though, just how good Pence was in 2019. He ended up as an All-Star in what looked like one of the most unlikely things that could have happened in baseball last season. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Pence played in just about half a season’s worth of games that his strong comeback season has been a little overlooked, and the sheer unlikeliness of it is maybe not viewed as all that repeatable. While there are reasons to be skeptical, Pence still may be been overlooked coming into this season. Not just by fantasy managers, but also by real-life front offices, as after all, Pence only did sign in February. Other contenders had their chance to sign them, but none of them ultimately did. It was a good opportunity for the Giants to land a player coming off a great performance, albeit not in a full season, play him a few days a week and maybe help fans relive the team’s more glorious days.

Circumstances have changed though, and it may help Pence be more than just that for the Giants this season. The Giants are already down Buster Posey and now have lost both Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria. No offense to Pablo Sandoval or Alex Dickerson, but there is now a hole in the middle of the Giants lineup. That hole, thanks to the new universal DH rule for this season, can be filled by Pence, as Pence appears likely to play mostly every day in a DH role in the middle of their lineup. With more results in line with what he did in 2019, Pence should play a valuable role and definitely make himself fantasy-relevant in a season where he perhaps wouldn’t be. With that being said, let’s party like it’s 2012 and see why Pence is worthy of a closer look.

First and foremost, the Statcast numbers. Going back to the start of the Statcast era in 2015, Pence’s Statcast numbers were as strong as they had ever been in 2019:

Statcast Metrics 2015-2019

From this, we see that not only were Pence’s Statcast numbers extremely healthy last year, but we also see it was quite the turnaround from years past. Even looking at 2015, the only season here that compares to 2019, Pence still was not generating enough lift and put the ball on the ground 53.5% of the time. Pence did not join the Fly Ball Revolution last season, but he did still improve his average launch angle by four degrees, which helped lead to the lowest ground-ball rate of his career, which was also better than the league average. He generated more fly balls, also at the highest rate of his career, and continued to hit a lot more line drives, which helps explain the huge increases in xSLG and xwOBA as well as his actual numbers. This certainly shows that there is something legitimate here, and Statcast, for the most part, agreed.

Why does this seem like something to buy into? Well, most should know that Pence made some adjustments and changed his swing a bit going into 2019. In-depth looks about what exactly Pence changed mechanically can be read here and here, but the gist of it is that Pence was dedicated to returning to his form and that he worked with hitting coach Doug Latta, most famous for helping Justin Turner turn his career around. Pence also even detoured out to the Dominican Winter League to test out these adjustments. While a side-by-side look at Pence’s swing in 2018 compared to his 2019 swing doesn’t show anything that immediately jumps out at first glance as overly different, Pence did make meaningful improvements that were intended to help get himself in a better position to drive the ball for power and keep the bat in the strike zone for a longer period of time. His unique look of awkwardness in the box that we all know and love is still there without a doubt, but these subtle adjustments definitely appear to have made a difference, as shown in the table above.

Now knowing that Pence’s excellent 2019 numbers are backed up by both tangible swing improvements and by Statcast peripherals, we can go deeper and see what these adjustments and changes may have done for Pence beyond just the surface-level Statcast numbers. Let’s compare some other levels of Pence’s game to his previous few seasons to see just where he has gotten better.

It is important to know that, even throughout the past few seasons where Pence was not the same player that he was in 2019, he has still been mostly a good hitter when he hits line drives:

Results on Line Drives 2016-2019

Going back to his last Pence-like season of 2016, we see that, excluding the 2018 season where nothing was working for him at all, Pence has generally gotten good results on line drives. While his numbers dropped in 2019 with this new-and-improved version of Pence, he was still towards the top of these leaderboards, and his 97.2 mph average exit velocity mark on line drives was one of the best in baseball.

Where it gets more interesting, though, is that during 2017 and 2018, even in that good 2016 season, Pence was only getting good results on this batted-ball type and not anywhere else. Compare his results on line drives to his results on fly balls from 2016 to 2019, and the obvious improvement becomes much clearer:

Results on FB and LD 2016-2019

When comparing Pence’s results on line drives to his results on fly balls, Pence severely lagged behind in the fly ball department, even going back to his last good season in 2016. That changed in 2019, likely due to those aforementioned swing adjustments. Pence actually ended up with a better slugging percentage on fly balls than he did on line drives and was a much better hitter overall. That also looks good considering the fact that he had a higher fly ball rate than ever last season. It appears that the adjustments that Pence made not only helped him once again become a much better line-drive hitter, but also made him a much more productive hitter when he put the ball in the air, all while hitting fewer grounders as an added bonus.

Combine Pence’s re-emerging solid results on line drives to his newfound success on fly balls, and Pence stacked up well to the rest of the league:

Results on FB+LD – 2019 (min. 300 PA)

From this, it looks like Pence was a top-50 hitter in baseball last season when he hit a non-ground ball. This is absolutely a positive mark for Pence, which, combined with his well-above-average rates of solid and barreled contact, makes this look like an overall sustainable profile.

Overall, Pence had a nice, sound, healthy profile at the plate in 2019 that does not appear to be too flukey when all of the aforementioned factors are considered. Pence, originally scheduled to be more of a part-time player in 2020, should now be allowed to display these new skills in an everyday role for the Giants. The team will not need to necessarily worry about tiring him out, as he can be limited to a DH role and not have to worry about playing the field much, if at all.

There are still reasons to be skeptical, as Pence is now a year older at 37, an age where players do not typically get better. Those reasons to be skeptical are reflected in current roster-percentage rates, as Pence is sitting readily available in many free agent pools in a whole lot of leagues right now (2% of Yahoo leagues). Pence has shown that he still has something left in the tank, and the new approach that he worked hard to develop and showed at the plate should still be with him this year. It is not so out of line for Pence to replicate what he did in 83 games last season over another short season, and it might just be worth it to find out.

Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wallach

Matt studied accounting at UAlbany, is a Yankee fan, and writes for Pitcher List and Rotoballer where he can work with even more numbers to analyze baseball players, which is a lot more fun.

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