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Hunter Pence is having a historically discouraging season

Players who hit this poorly at the age of 34 usually don’t get better. Sorry.

Philadelphia Phillies v San Francisco Giants
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The original headline/thesis for this article was this: The Giants will have a tough offseason decision to make about Hunter Pence. Then came the research. Now you have the new headline/thesis. As with everything the 2017 Giants come into contact with, things have gotten worse.

Hunter Pence is hitting .252/.307/.370 this season. That’s good for a 79 OPS+, which is bad. He’s been healthy, mostly, but he just can’t seem to hit. This wouldn’t be the first time in baseball history that a 34-year-old has lost just enough of his preternatural physical ability to fall behind the 750 best baseball players in the world. But the fun times were fun, and it’s not completely embarrassing to hope for the fun times again.

But Baseball-Reference’s Play Index tells a different story. Since 1913, there have been just over two dozen different 34-year-old outfielders to qualify for the batting title and finish with an OPS+ below 90. Those parameters were generous, considering that Pence is at 79. These were the older outfielders who kept their job and weren’t hurt enough to go on the DL at an advanced age. Many of them were former All-Stars, like Mookie Wilson, Jeffrey Leonard, and Felipe Alou, which is how they kept their jobs.

Just six of those outfielders qualified for the batting title in an above-average offensive season again in their careers. They were, in chronological order:

  • Ollie Pickering, 1907
  • Frank Schulte, 1918
  • Mike Kreevich, 1944
  • Dave Philley, 1955
  • Felipe Alou, 1971
  • Kenny Lofton, 2007

Only Lofton did it more than once (including in 2002). The other 20 outfielders who were Pence’s age drifted away, although a couple of them had nice seasons without qualifying for the batting title (Mark McLemore in 2001 and 2002 and Jim Rivera in 1957).

If you expand the search to players who were 34 or older, and not just 34 on the nose, it’s not like anything improves. The full list is mainly made up of players who used to be extraordinarily valuable. Their fates weren’t encouraging. Even Nap Lajoie was washed up after his season. Joe Carter had a memorable 115 plate appearances with the Giants, but that was almost certainly a fluke. Craig Biggio partially bounced back, but he was a Hall of Famer.

That brings us to the larger point with Pence, which is the kind of player he is. He’s not a slap-and-dash player like Lofton was. He’s not a hitter with an ungodly idea of the strike zone, like Biggio. He’s always been a player who has used his athleticism to succeed, someone who could chase the bad balls and make it work.

There aren’t any comps for players like that. There aren’t any examples of free-swinging players who stumble at age 34 or later and come back strong, like nothing ever happened. Felipe Alou comes close, but he was also adept at making contact, like most hitters of his era. Pence swings and misses a lot, and it’s not like that’s going to change with advancing age.

I can say, without reservation, that Hunter Pence is one of my favorite all-time ballplayers. He’s been a treat to watch, a constant fount of joy, just one surprise after the other. And he’s a hard worker, someone who isn’t going to give in to time easily. He’s someone who will take the struggles from this season, shove them up his nose, and work even harder. He would make the best comeback story.

That’s the heart talking. It’s okay to listen. It’s not like being a fan or following this silly sport is rational, so if the Giants decide to keep him as the full-time starter, that’s all we can do. Keep it positive.

There’s not a lot of evidence that this will work again, though. The Giants have to see this, and it’s going to be hard to parse it with the memories of Pence and just how tremendous he’s been for this franchise on multiple levels.

When the head talks, though, it’s probably better to listen. Scroll through this list and find the players who turned it around shortly after. I think I stopped looking after Magglio Ordonez in 2011. The Giants will have a tough offseason decision to make about Hunter Pence, and that’s because he’s having a historically discouraging season.