Straight talk for Giants fans: The Giants sure had a lot of surprising offensive performances last year. And when there are surprising performances, there's regression, waiting in the shadows, wearing a trenchcoat and breathing heavily. Joe Panik surprised us all by hitting like a mini-Boggs. That doesn't mean it has to happen again.
It might suggest that he'll be substantially less of a mini-Boggs next year. The projection systems think so.
That's not just a Panik problem, either. Brandon Crawford showed off power we didn't know he had, and Matt Duffy skipped Triple-A to finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Brandon Belt beat his projections, even though he missed substantial time because people won't stop throwing baseballs at him. Half of the lineup might be expected to take a step back, even if just a little one.
Here, then, is the most important player in the lineup. All of those players could take a tiny step back if Hunter Pence is healthy and productive. It would be even better if they all hit as well as last year and stayed healthy and had Pence around all year, but if you're looking for modest projections, note that Baseball Prospectus projects the quartet up there to be far less effective, yet the entire lineup is roughly as productive if you add in a healthy Pence.
Which is all to say, keep limber, Hunter Pence. Careful slicing those bagels, Hunter Pence. If that's Affeldt on the phone, don't even pick it up.
Pence is going to be 33, an uncomfortable age where muscles and ligaments don't have to keep working because they always have before. It's not just injuries we have to be worried about, either. Aaron Rowand was healthy as an ox. As a really healthy ox, at least. He was Pence's age when he floated away from baseball altogether. Gulp.
That written, there were seven outfielders Pence's age or older who were worth at least a win last year. Two of them played for the Giants, which is fun.
- Nelson Cruz, 34, 5 WAR
- Jose Bautista, 34, 5 WAR
- Curtis Granderson, 34, 5 WAR
- Andre Ethier, 33, 3 WAR
- Rajai Davis, 34, 2 WAR
- Marlon Byrd, 37, 1 WAR
- Nori Aoki, 33, 1 WAR
Pence doesn't have the raw power of either Cruz or Bautista, but he's a little more athletic than Ethier or Byrd. He doesn't fit as a comparison for any of those players, though. He doesn't fit as a comparison for anyone, really. Athletes who rely on fast-twitch reflexes and athleticism make me nervous -- really, I'm going to bring up Rowand for the next four decades, so settle in -- but Pence is more than a garden variety athlete. He's a freak among freaks.
Vladimir Guerrero was better at making contact, even if the athleticism is a match. Torii Hunter without the defense in center? Chili Davis without the walks? If you want to find a sunny comp for Pence in his early-to-mid 30s, they're out there. Just don't look under the bottom of the rock, where a lot more hitters throughout baseball history got mashed after 30.
Pence has nine seasons with an above-average adjusted OPS in his career, putting him in fairly rare company. It's not that unique to do it as an outfielder, but you've heard of most of the players who did it. Some of them kept going, like Bobby Abreu or Ken Griffey, and some of them disappeared entirely, like Dale Murphy.
Even for players who are relatively normal, there's no easy way to predict their mid-30s. Which makes it especially hard to predict Pence. Good thing only the entire success of the lineup as a cohesive unit is at stake.
One thing Pence doesn't have going against him, though, is pressure. He doesn't care about projected WAR and stuff, so the pressure manufactured in the preceding paragraphs doesn't count. We're talking about the pressure of having to do everything, like Pablo Sandoval in 2009, or Barry Bonds in just about every pre- and post-Kent season. Pence will hit third, unless he hits cleanup, unless he hits fifth, unless he hits sixth. There's a way to jimmy with the lineups to avoid stacking lefties together that would put him in the #7 spot, and he'd make sense there, too. After a season that was mostly lost to injury, it has to be nice to come back to a lineup that isn't top heavy.
I'm a believer in at least one more year of peak Pence, even if it didn't work out last year. If there's a dip, it will be with the batting average, and we'll barely notice. I just love the idea of getting to the bottom of the order and still being interested in the players who are there. No matter where Pence hits, he'll help with that.
Hunter Pence, 2016 projection
Why, is that one of his best years ever? Sure. Is there logic behind that projection. Uh, well, see, not as such. But it's my site, and I feel like we were robbed of a perfectly productive Pence performance last year. We get one of those back.