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Hunter Pence is coming back, and I’m actually excited

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The Giants getting an outfielder back? That’s a good thing! On one condition.

San Franciso Giants v San Diego Padres
When your opponent draws two Glorybringers.
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Hunter Pence’s OPS+ is 8. His wRC+ is -1. Of the two walks he’s taken in his 61 plate appearances this season, one of them was intentional. He has exactly one extra-base hit in those plate appearances, which ties him with Dereck Rodriguez. He’s 35 years old, which isn’t an age commonly associated with career renaissances, and he’s coming back from a hand injury. His odds for success ... are low.

Hunter Pence will still get every single chance to stick on this roster, and he’s coming back.

Read this in your best Ron Swanson voice:

I worry what you just heard is that the Giants will give Hunter Pence a lot of chances. What I said was that the Giants will give him all of the chances they have.

Even if he’s as bad as he was in the first month of the season, Pence will stick around. This is the curse of being a Giants fan. This is the blessing of being a Giants fan. It’s beautiful and dumb at the same time, the best and worst, but I’m erring on the side of best.

I like having a team where I don’t have to worry about the Yankees swooping in and stealing away every under-30 All-Star the Giants develop. I like following a team that has an obsession with legacy. I like that the Giants are respected by veterans around the league as a franchise that treats their player right. The alternative would be to follow a team that trades everyone half-decent when they’re two years away from free agency, hoping to accumulate prospects that will turn into stars they can deal when they’re two years away from free agency. That doesn’t seem like a lot of fun.

This comes with some problems, though. The Giants gave Matt Cain more than 50 starts after it was clear he was one of the worst pitchers in the league. They gave Tim Lincecum more than 100. Part of that was a belief that they were two of the better pitchers of their era, so it was reasonable to hope they could find what they had lost. More than that, though, was the belief that, “If they return to form, it would be an awesome story. And we’re paying them anyway, so might as well ...”

They were right. Those would have been awesome stories. As is, the Giants lost a lot of games while they waited for things that would never arrive. And it’s probably going to be like that with Pence.

And I’m okay with this. On one condition. But we’ll get to that.

Imagine if Hunter Pence weren’t Hunter Pence, beloved goof and two-time World Series champion. Imagine if he were someone with a name that wasn’t associated with the happy fun championship times, like “Justin Ruggiano.”

Why, it would appear that his time with the team would already be at an end. In a hilarious bit of symmetry, Ruggiano got 63 plate appearances with the Giants, which is nearly identical to Pence this season. He had three extra-base hits, including two homers, and he struck out fewer times. He was also 35, and the odds were excellent that he wasn’t about to shock the world with a career renaissance. In fact, after the Giants released him, he never played baseball again.

If Pence were Ruggiano, he would be gone. I don’t mind, I don’t mind that there’s a different standard for Pence, though. He’s a mascot, and I mean that in the most flattering way. He’s a symbol of someone running to first like he’s trying to make varsity. He’s everybody’s best friend in the clubhouse, and he’s the first person on the top step after anything good happens, looking for a butt to pat.

Releasing someone like that is a tacit admission from a team that they’ll suck the life force out of you until you’re a withered husk, at which point they’ll jettison you out of the team plane in the middle of a poker game. It’s business, yes, but it’s not a great look. Remember that guy you loved? The one who always said the right thing and was there when you needed him? He’s unemployed now, and he’ll probably never work again. But you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re probably fine.

And if we’re talking about a fourth-fifth outfielder, the margin for error isn’t that daunting. There’s usually a range from -0.5 WAR to 0.5 WAR for backup outfielders, which suggests that the decision maaaaybe will cost you a win, and maybe it won’t. If you’ve got a guy who’s hitting .500/.555/.666 for 100 PA, sure, maybe he’s helping you win more than that. And if you have a guy going full Ledee, maybe it hurts more than that. But in general, there’s a lot of room for error at the back end of a bench.

I’m willing to see if Pence on the bench is as good as Pence on the fence. He’s always been a little better against lefties, which would be a nice balance to the super-Pablo construction of the bench right now, and you know his speed and effort aren’t in dispute. Let him float around, taking at-bats against lefties, and continuing to pat butts on the top step. The fans still love him. I still love him. This is a great denouement for his brilliant Giants career.

On one condition: He doesn’t start. He isn’t ripping at-bats away from Mac Williamson after Williamson has a rough week. Our new, brawny savior should get just as many chances to fail and pull himself out of the muck and mire as Pence would have. We have a new swing, we have instant results, and we have a ceiling that a 35-year-old veteran can’t possible compete with. If Pence is back on the 25-man roster, that’s fine. That’s great. I love the guy! Let him thrive in his new role.

But unless there’s an injury or an 0-for-40 slump, I’m not keen on seeing if Pence can add value as a starter anymore, even as he’s been hitting for average in Sacramento with his new swing. We’ve reached the point where we should be pleasantly surprised that Pence is doing better than expected, not relieved that he’s justifying the faith received from the front office and manager.

I don’t begrudge the Giants for treating Pence differently or respecting his legacy to the team. They absolutely should do that. My only request is that they limit the downside by maximizing the upside with Mac Williamson and the starting lineup. As long as they do that, I’m excited to welcome Pence back this weekend. Let’s see where this goes.