I firmly believe that every baseball fan over 15 years of age — old enough to remember 2012 with some clarity — has a story about the day they fell in love with Hunter Pence, who signed a major-league deal with the Giants last week. Mine was the day, sometime in the late fall of 2012, that I watched his San Francisco teammates demonstrate, through the very best impressions they could muster, that they loved him too. From that day forward, I was a fan of every bug-eyed, gangly, corkscrewed swing. I watched with delight as Pence helped bring a third title to San Francisco in 2014 (his second), then in dismay as he faded to a 60 wRC+, -0.8 WAR nadir in 2018 that spelled the end of his first Giants run. In reporting on his 2019 deal with the Rangers, I wrote that:
I’m never optimistic about players’ ability to re-tool their games after 35 — this is increasingly a young man’s sport, and there’s precious little margin to get it right — but in Pence’s case I hope I am wrong, and that Pence makes the roster and contributes for Texas this year. Hunter Pence is not like many we’ve seen before in this game, and we need more like him.
I was wrong. Pence rode a revamped swing (discussed here by Devan Fink) to a .297/.358/.552 line across 316 plate appearances for the Rangers in 2019. Pence’s 128 wRC+ was the fourth-highest of his 13-year career and his best since 2013’s 135 mark. Pence’s improvement was driven not by an increase in contact rate (his 70.3% mark was unchanged from 2018) but by a marked elevation of his launch angle (to 10.1 degrees, after sitting at 5.7 last year), which led to a substantial increase in his fly ball rate (35.6%; second-highest in his career, again after 2013) and an even more dramatic increase in his HR/FB rate (to 23.1%, more than triple last year’s mark and by three points the best of his career).
Now, it’s true that it’s a lot easier to reinvent yourself as a fly ball hitter in Arlington than it is to sustain that particular form of improvement in capacious Oracle Park, as Pence will have to do in 2020. But his 2019 improvements mean that it’s possible and even reasonable to interpret this reunion as more than just a nostalgia play for a Giants team in transition. San Francisco currently projects to start Alex Dickerson, Steven Duggar, and Mike Yastrzemski left to right across the outfield, and only one of those three (Duggar, who finished with -0.5 WAR in 2019) is under the age of 29. It’s hard to argue that Pence isn’t a better bet than whoever the worst of those three ends up being, just on performance alone. Throw in the nostalgia angle in what’s likely to be a dispiriting season, and Pence makes a lot of sense.
And if he doesn’t? The Giants signed another star of yesteryear, 29-year-old Billy Hamilton, just in case. Hamilton, unlike Pence, has never hit well enough to take advantage of his much-superior speed, and split time between Kansas City and Atlanta last year in putting up a highly-forgettable 50 wRC+. In San Francisco, Hamilton will get a look for a backup outfield role during spring training, particularly vis-à-vis Duggar, the other left-handed center field option on the Giants’ roster. I tend to think the structure of San Francisco’s deal with Hamilton (minor league, with an invite to spring training) accurately reflects his chances of winning that competition outright (he really can’t hit).
In a year in which even Aramis Garcia’s recent injury will likely fail to hasten Joey Bart’s arrival in San Francisco, these are the kinds of deals Giants fans will have to get excited about as they prepare for a season without Madison Bumgarner or Bruce Bochy for the first time since 2006, and without much chance of a run at the division, either. At least they have Hunter Pence, and, perhaps, Billy Hamilton.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.