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How many home runs are left in Hunter Pence’s bat?

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In today’s McDeep Dive, we look at the cruelty of time.

MLB: Miami Marlins at San Francisco Giants Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

We just debuted “McDeep Dive”, our new series that will spotlight one Giants player every day for a week. We’ll move backwards and forwards through time, look at on the field stuff, off the field stuff, and see if we can learn something new about them. Here’s part 4 of this week’s subject, Hunter Pence.

The big hit isn’t always the hardest hit, and the hardest hit is sometimes just a single.

Those were, respectively, tweets regarding Hunter Pence’s walk-off hit on Sunday and his single Wednesday night.

The heroics have been a breath of fresh air when it comes to Pence, because as a 35-year old outfielder in the last year of his deal, the writing’s on the wall for everyone involved. It’s nice to not have to be reminded about it every time he comes to the plate.

And then there’s the matter of how much Baseball is left in that body and swing of his. That exit velocity suggests there still might be a little bit left, which is critical when you consider that he’s going to be on the roster for the remainder of the season, come hell or high water.

Looking at the Statcast data, he’s at a career low in exit velocity by a wide margin (85.6 mph on average in 2018 versus 89.6 mph for his career). Traditionally, his hot zones have been the middle of the plate (above and below the belt) and middle-in. Statcast shows that he’s really only “hot” dead red in the middle of the plate. His average exit velocity in all other parts of the zone are all below his career averages and way down just from last season.

But! Exit velocity doesn’t tell the whole story. Although Hunter Pence’s average exit velocity on his 66 Batted Ball Events (BBE; basically, fair balls) is the aforementioned 85.6 mph, that ranks him 346th in MLB, virtually tied with Alen Hanson (347th) and 7 spots below should-be-an-All-Star Gorkys Hernandez (who’s averaging 85.8 mph). He also hit the 3rd-hardest ball on the Giants this season with that 114 mph single the other day.

When he’s making contact, he’s not hitting the ball as hard as he used to, but sometimes, he can still put the same kind of swing on them that he used to. Maybe his swing could use some reconditioning, but his success this past week was all about giving up that new swing and going back to the old one, so scratch those plans. The new swing, though, could’ve been an attempt to mine the new hitting approach of getting more lift in order to get more home runs that has also led to a huge increase in strikeouts. His Statcast cold zones suggest this at least a little bit.

All this to say that we can’t discount his age. Baseball is one of the most cruel games we’ve invented and the 70% failure rate for good players only gets worse over time. But the Giants and their manager have seen this many times and they know that moments like Sunday afternoon are still possible if they’re not simply treated as used up trash.

Hunter Pence is at 106 plate appearances for the season and sports an ERA+ of 39. And he’s hit 0 home runs.

Barring another trip to the disabled list, he’s going to get to at least 200 plate appearances. What happens with his other numbers is up for debate. Bruce Bochy is hoping Hunter Pence can still be a league average hitter, so he’s going to give him that chance.

Part of Hunter Pence’s appeal after his hustle and alien physiology is his home run hitting power. My favorites of his have always been the ones that slice to right center field —

No, not like that. Like this:

He’s done this throughout his career. To me, it’s always been a sign when he’s “going good” at the plate. There’s been very little evidence of that this season. But let us suppose that he can find a vintage Pence streak for a week or so. How many home runs can he hit in what will very likely be his final season?

There have been 901 occurrences in MLB history of a player reaching 200 plate appearances and posting an ERA+ of 50 or less, but to keep this simple, I’m going to just pull out the 4 players who were 35 years old and go from there.

These four players round out the top 14 players under my search criteria. The 15th player on the list is 34-year old Roy McMillan, who played the 1964 season with the Milwaukee Braves and the New York Mets. I only mention him here because 14 of the top 15 players in this search were all infielders, and 9 of those 14 were shortstops.

The only outfielder with at least 200 plate appearances (290 to be exact) to post an OPS+ of 50 or less was 40-year old Willie McGee back in 1999, top the result in this search. That OPS+ was 62 the prior season, when he accumulated 286 plate appearances. And hit 0 home runs.

Oh, real quick: if you scoff at OPS+ because 1) you think advanced stats are for losers or 2) you just don’t understand it, here’s the endorsed definition by Major League Baseball itself:

OPS+ takes a player’s on-base plus slugging percentage and normalizes the number across the entire league. It accounts for external factors like ballparks. It then adjusts so a score of 100 is league average, and 150 is 50 percent better than the league average.

For example, Miguel Cabrera’s .895 OPS in 2014 was 50 percent better than the MLB average after being adjusted for league and park factors. As a result, his OPS+ was 150.

You can see from the above list that only 7 home runs have been hit by 35-year olds with an OPS+ of 50 or less. Why did I chose that number? Okay, fine. Let’s expand it out to 80 OPS+. That gives us 7,411 total instance, but this time only 2 players with an OPS+ of 80 or less: Roy McMillan (again!) in 1965 with 65 (in 574 PAs) an Dick Groat in 1966 with 76 (in 640 PAs). Again, both shortstops and only 3 total home runs between them.

I chose 200 plate appearances because he accumulated his current number of PAs through the Giants’ first half of games and I’m assuming he will accumulate them at roughly the same rate, injury or no. I picked an OPS+ of 50 originally because Pence’s is at 39 right now. I adjusted up to 80 because he had an OPS+ of 84 last season. It strains credulity to think he can be as good as he was last season, given how he’s never looked this bad for this long before. And he’s a 35-year old outfielder.

These are a lot of words to say that the situation doesn’t look great for Hunter Pence in terms of his power over the course of the season. This has nothing to do with what I think about him contributing to help the team win or about how he gives fans good feels. It’s just about the dingers. While it seems doubtful we’ve seen the last home run of Hunter Pence’s career — you can watch the last one he hit last season buried in the middle of this game recap reel —

... we might not see many more before he finally returns to his home planet.

Poll

How many home runs will Hunter Pence hit this season?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    0
    (43 votes)
  • 54%
    1-3
    (154 votes)
  • 22%
    4-6
    (63 votes)
  • 7%
    10-15* (even year, brah!)
    (21 votes)
281 votes total Vote Now