The Rise and Fall of Hunter Pence, or something like that

JUL 01 Giants at Pirates

PITTSBURGH, PA – JULY 01: San Francisco Giants right fielder Hunter Pence (8) shows a sign for two out in the seventh inning during an MLB game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Francisco Giants on July 01, 2017 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire) Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire

I remember seeing Hunter Pence for the first time, back in 2012 at AT&T Park when he was with the Phillies. He laced a double off the top of the archways, and I said to myself “damn, it’d sure be nice if the Giants had a guy like that.”

Sure enough, right at the end of July, the Giants traded for him. I went and bought a ticket for his first game in a Giants’ uniform, and that night he went 0-for-4 in a 2-1 loss to the Mets. He remained fairly stagnant throughout the rest of the season, averaging about a hit per every 4-5 at bats to finish out the season. Little did we know that he would become the offensive spark plug in the 2012 NLCS, and with his unorthodox play and silly faces, he quickly won over the hearts of Giants fans.

In 2013, he continued his duties as the Giants every day rightfielder. He not only played the full 162 games, but he gave it 100% out there every day. He repeated the effort in 2014, and was able to boost the Giants in the 2014 World Series to their third ring in the San Francisco era.

Out of all that glory, came the overwhelming joy that he was a part of this team. But three years have passed since then, and the glory that once was has become a barrage of question marks and speculation. After swinging badly through strike three and giving the Giants their 55th loss of the season, fans called for his head.

Of course, this has been going on all season, and it only continues to get more ridiculous. You can see it on Twitter, with people saying that his marriage has ruined his career. Some even question whether or not he’s actually trying out there. As frustrating as the season has been, Pence is really not to blame for all of the team woes. So what exactly is going on this Hunter Pence this season?

The Injury Bug isn’t to blame

While Pence played back-to-back complete seasons, one could wonder at the end of 2014 when his health would catch up. That next season, it finally did, and it hit hard. Getting hit by a pitch and dealing with tendinitis forced Pence to miss a good part of the 2015 season.

In 2016, Pence missed another big chunk of the season with a right hamstring injury. After going 383 straight regular season appearances, he failed to mount 162 games between two seasons. When Pence hit the DL last June, he was one of the best hitters in the lineup. After he came back it took a little while for him to find his rhythm, but he finished up the season on a high note.

Now in 2017, he hit the DL once again with a left hamstring issue. However, after coming back from it, he’s been hitting fairly well. His July numbers so far have been nothing to write home about, but we’re still only on the single digit days. So it clearly isn’t the injuries, although he could be playing more conservatively because of nagging problems. Still, he was clearly struggling at the beginning of the season before hitting the DL. Then after his return, he started contributing and boosting his numbers. The stats don’t lie!

Strikeouts aren’t the culprit, but might be a clue

I see plenty of people talking about how Pence is too wild at the plate lately. There is no doubt, now more than ever we have seen Pence swing at some awful pitches. We’ve also seen him swing through some really good pitches. Even with his approach, his strikeout numbers aren’t all that bad this season. In fact, they’re better than what they were in his best seasons with the Giants.

So what’s the real problem? Well, the problem is the balls he does put in play are becoming more fieldable this season. Yes fieldable…it might not be a word in your dictionary, but it is in mine! In all plate appearances this season, he is putting the ball into play 72% of the time. His groundout-to-airout ratio is about the same as what it was in 2013-14, nearly 1:1. More of those airouts are occurring in the outfield than in the infield.

Not only that, but his line drive percentage has been cut in half from previous seasons. So the real issue is that his contact is becoming more soft, likely due to timing and bat position on the ball. Your guess is as good as mine as to why he is not making the best contact on the ball. Perhaps he’s just not seeing the ball as well as he used to.

Even if you could replace him, why now?

Unless there is some critical problem with Pence, I see no reason to bench him. The Giants are paying him a lot of money to be their everyday rightfielder. It was probably foolish to not prepare for some kind of backup plan, but who else can fill in the position he plays now? The organization can keep calling up players until they’re blue in the face, but I firmly believe Pence stays where he is with some periodic rest.

Bochy, believe it or not, has given him a rest day this season. The day after that rest day, he went 3-for-4 with 5 RBI in the 13-5 rout of the Pirates. Since the season is pretty much a wash at this point, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be seeing a few off-days later on. The numbers are down for Pence this year, and the WAR stats speak for themselves, but the Giants have had auditions for a rightfielder while Pence was on the DL. Safe to say, I think they’re best suited trying to find a leftfield replacement at this point.

We all just have to accept that this is not the Pence from the championship years. The best-worst baseball player in the league is looking more human, but he is not the worst rightfielder out there. He comes out every day, and he tries, perhaps even a little too much. He has one more year on his contract, and let us hope he gives that last season a run for its money…pun intended.