Hunter Pence, No. 1 Outfielder?

At first glance, the question posed by this article’s title might seem a bit strange; Hunter Pence, if anything, comes to mind as a prototypical — perhaps the quintessential — No. 2 outfielder in fantasy. He doesn’t hurt you in any major category, he never gets injured and the final results, while rarely flashy, get the job done — especially if you have a true bopper anchoring your outfield and can afford to make Pence more of a supporting part of your fantasy squad.

In fact, Pence was ranked No. 15 in Zach Sanders’ preseason outfielder rankings, which, in a sense, was the definition of a No. 2 outfielder in standard leagues. But in his age-31 season, the Marv from Home Alone lookalike contest winner put together another solid, well-rounded effort, finishing with a .277 average, 20 homers, 106 runs, 74 RBIs and 13 steals — nothing flashy, perhaps, but good enough to finish 10th among players at his position.

The 106 runs is the first thing that jumps out about Pence’s statsheet, and it easily set a new career high for him. That can be largely chalked up to Pence serving predominantly as a No. 2 hitter for the first time since his rookie year, and enjoying the likes of Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval hitting behind him.

Unfortunately, while Pence’s runs scored soared, his power numbers diminished. Twenty home runs is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s the lowest total since his rookie year, and those 74 RBIs represent his lowest output since 2009. The RBIs weren’t for a lack of seizing opportunity — look no further than a .351 batting average with runners in scoring position for proof — but owed largely to the combination of Brandon Crawford, the pitcher and mediocre production out of the Giants’ leadoff spot typically hitting (or not hitting, as it were) directly ahead of Pence.

As for the home runs, Pence’s 11.3% HR/FB rate was easily the lowest of his career despite a not-awful average batted ball distance of 283 feet. Although the distance is starting to droop a bit as Pence gets older, he’s done worse in his career despite never previously putting up a HR/FB rate lower than 14.6%, so I think it’s safe to assume a rebound is in order. And yeah, while a 52.2% ground ball rate is disappointing for fantasy reasons, burning worms is simply part of Pence’s game; his 1.54 GB/FB rate was completely in line with his career average.

Of greater concern, perhaps, was a 14% line drive rate that ranked second-to-last among qualified hitters (Josh Donaldson takes top honors, in case you were curious). As it happens, Pence’s productivity has never relied on a high line drive rate — he hasn’t reached 18% since his rookie year — and perhaps he altered his approach at the plate hitting in the No. 2 hole. He did, after all, produce the highest O-Swing% of his career, even though his swing rate in general was below his career average.

One last note about Pence’s batting average: He was slashing .287/.341/.470 on Aug. 27, but a lackluster September pulled down his final batting rates to .277/.332/.445. Why pick that particular date to draw the line? Because the very next day, Joe Panik settled in as the team’s No. 2 hitter for the rest of the season, bumping Pence down to the fifth slot. Given that Pence has spent most of his career hitting fifth, one imagines this tidbit shouldn’t be too much cause for alarm, and we can assume that fatigue wasn’t an issue considering that Pence had an absolutely torrid postseason. But given Panik’s successful rookie year, and the Giants’ World Series run in October, one imagines that manager Bruce Bochy will be inclined to keep Panik and Pence hitting where they were at season’s end, so it’s worth keeping an eye on.

But whatever Pence lacks in gaudy production, he more than makes up for in consistency.

Consistency: He has now appeared in 383 consecutive games, and has averaged 158 games played each year since his first full big league season in 2008.

Consistency: Since 2008, he’s averaged 24 homers, 88 RBIs and 13 steals, and owns a career .284/.338/.472 slash line.

Consistency: In 2014, Pence put up a 7.3 BB% and 18.4 K% — basically carbon copies of his career 7.4 BB% and 18.3 K%.

Pence, who turns 32 in mid-April, is indeed entering a period during which players begin to fade, he plays in a notorious pitcher’s park and the Giants’ lineup will likely be weaker without Sandoval’s presence. And, of course, there’s no such thing as a guaranteed commodity in fantasy, regardless of what Pence has done in every single season since 2007.

But the point is Pence offers more of a guarantee than most others, helped immeasurably by his ability to stay on the field and contribute across the board. Even if he doesn’t have the upside of low-end No. 1 outfielders like Yasiel Puig or Justin Upton, what he delivers in baseline production is extremely valuable, especially when it comes at a discount compared to other top players at the position. For the fantasy owner looking to spread out his auction dollars across the roster, that’s a deal worth considering.

Editor’s note: Pence also seems like a cool guy with a good sense of humor, and given his rising baseball pop-culture status, I figured a GIF of the game’s most expressive face was in order …

pence-catch

… as well as some motivational words from the Giants’ chief cheerleader (beware the foul language) …

We hoped you liked reading Hunter Pence, No. 1 Outfielder? by Karl de Vries!

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Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.

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quinceleather
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quinceleather

I thought Pence was grossly undervalued last year because he isn’t a category or sexy….I think he proved to be cheap in lower middle rounds last year…this year who knows…..