Hunter Back On The Prowl
by Jim Silva
For many teams, the outfield is where a lot of the fireworks are generated on offense and often where the stars play – not so for the Giants. Other than Hunter Pence, the Giants have filled in with players who are solid but not stars of the same quality as their infielders. That’s not to say that the outfield is bad, just that you aren’t looking at Mays or Bonds out there.
Hunter Pence is the “Ace” of the Giants outfield. In this, his 4th season with the Giants, Pence is second to perhaps only Buster Posey as the face of the team. The quirky right-fielder had two excellent seasons for the Giants before being derailed by injuries last year, managing only a half season. Pence is usually good for 20+ home runs, 50+ walks, and an OPS north of .800. You could have penciled him in for 150+ games until last season as he had met that mark every year since 2008. At 32, the hope is that Pence can hold onto some of that reliability for a few more seasons. He is lean and athletic so he is more likely to regain health than other players who are, shall we say, less wiry. Pence is 6’4 220 and built like a thin question mark. He doesn’t look like a guy who would have 194 career home runs in 9 seasons. The guy is all fast twitch and he looks wrong doing everything – but it works. His career .284/.327/.478 slash line is about what teams expect of him each year. He isn’t going to drill 40 homers or bat .330, but you know what you’re going to get out of him year in and year out.
Pence is slightly below average with the glove based on comprehensive defensive metrics, although his reputation is better that his stats. He has posted negative DRS (defensive runs saved) numbers three out the last four years (last year he broke even), although his range factor has been around league average or above in each of the last three campaigns. Like his swing, he looks a mess in the outfield even though he gets the job done.
The 2012 trade to acquire Pence looks like an incredibly one-sided deal, mainly because it is. None of the three players (Nate Schierholtz, Tommy Joseph, and Seth Rosin) the Phillies acquired in the deal are likely to do anything this season, or really much of anything at the major league level in the future. Scheirholtz hit some home runs for the Cubs and put up 1.5 WAR – his only season with a WAR above 1.0. – in 2013 (after the Cubs signed him away from Philadelphia), but is unlikely to see action in the majors again except as an emergency call up. The full picture with Pence is that he hits for average and power, runs the bases well, plays a pretty clean right field, is a blast to watch – even in the on-deck circle – and is a fan and teammate favorite. If he has fully recovered from his injury-laden 2015, he will garner some MVP votes and be in contention for the All Star team putting up nearly 4.0 WAR seasons.
The Giants have been hoping that Angel Pagan would be the starting center-fielder who saved the Mets 19 runs in 2010 while contributing 5.3 WAR. Pagan has contributed to the team since then, but not with his glove. The now 34 year old Pagan has cost the Giants runs with his glove every year since they acquired him in 2012 culminating in a DRS last season of -20 runs. Pagan has battled injuries for years and they appear to be winning based on his declining numbers last season. 2015 was the first season where Pagan failed to post an OPS+ (on-base plus slugging relative to the rest of the league) above 100 falling all the way to 77. He has battled injuries his entire career, but now that he has had a bulging disc and spinal stenosis, you have to wonder if he can be the guy who finished first in the league in range for center fielders in 2010 and 2012, or even the guy who slugged over .400. His career average slugging percentage is .406 but he dropped to .389 in 2014, and .332 in 2015. He moves to left field where his glove will be under less pressure – his body too probably, but his bat will have to produce like it’s 2013. Otherwise he will be pushed to the side by younger, healthier players with power as soon as this year.
Undoubtedly, Pagan’s precipitous decline was the main reason the Giants went out and signed Denard Span. To get Span, the Giants had to commit to him for three years (plus a mutual option for a fourth), which is a risk since Span is 32 and battled injuries himself last season. When healthy, Span contributes great range in center, speed on the bases, and excellent command of the strike zone. His career .352 on base percentage and .76 walks per strikeout make him a difficult guy to erase cleanly. Span has contributed with the glove as his stats show, although last season, plagued by injuries, he cost the Nationals 10 runs according to DRS in spite of his range, which at 2.62 was still above league average (2.41) for center fielders. Span’s best season with the glove was 2012 when he saved the Twins 19 runs and put up 5.0 WAR. His best season with the bat was 2014 – his last full season with the Nationals – where he put up 4.2 offensive WAR. Span will be a solid leadoff hitter and will likely track down a lot more balls than Pagan, but the contract he signed might turn into a weight around the Giants’ neck if injuries start to steal away his speed on the bases and cut his elite range down to where he turns into Angel Pagan.
Left field is usually where you stick your big slow guy who pounds the ball over the fence – think Dave Kingman or Pete Incaviglia here. With Pagan out there, there is lots of room for the 4th and 5th outfielders to get playing time. Gregor Blanco has been in the outfield picture for the Giants for four seasons and until 2015 appeared in 140+ games each season. 2015 saw Blanco’s playing time diminish even though he posted career-best offensive numbers for a full season. His .291/.368/413 slash line was the basis for his 1.1 WAR season. Blanco’s glove is about average like the rest of his game. He is an excellent 4th outfielder who can play all three outfield spots without killing the team and can get on base, but he is not a starting outfielder for a championship team. The amount of playing time he has garnered with the Giants shows you how much they rely on their infield for production. There is nothing wrong with that kind of team construction, but if the Giants give Blanco 450 or more plate appearances, they will be hurting their chances to have that weird even-season World Series mojo work out. This isn’t a condemnation of Blanco, but having two guys like Blanco essentially starting for you in the outfield means that you are probably leaving something on the table. So what else do the Giants have in their outfield cupboard?
Mac Williamson had a hot spring with a .310/.396/.667 slash line. That .667 slugging percentage comes via three doubles and four home runs in 48 plate appearances, and the three walks help the on-base percentage. Williamson’s minor league history shows him to have a good hit tool and some power – mostly doubles to go along with 15ish home run power. He cranked 25 jacks in 2013 in San Jose, but that’s the Cal League where even baby chinchillas hit double digit dongs. In his brief exposure to the majors he struck out almost 24% of the time, up from his minor league career rate of 20%. His minor league numbers (.291/.376/.486 slash line) say he is close to being ready even with a lower batting average of .249 in triple-A. His Arizona Fall League numbers and his spring numbers indicate that he might be ready to break out. He crushed AFL pitching to the tune of a .370/.442/.493 slash line, so Pagan and Blanco should be looking over their shoulders at the 6’4”, 240 pound youngster in the rear view mirror.
Jarrett Parker had a hell of an introduction to the big leagues in 2015 where he made the most of his 54 plate appearances, clubbing six home runs and hitting .347 with a .755 slugging percentage. Nobody, not even Mama or Papa Parker, believes that Parker can reproduce his numbers anywhere ever again, but his minor league numbers show him to be a patient hitter with real power. The main problem is that it took him so long to reach the majors – he is 27 – and is no longer really a prospect. It also seems like the book is out on him with pitchers striking him out in a third of his 60 plate appearances during his spring training battle with Mac Williamson. In his first full season at triple-A last year he put up nice numbers including a .283/.375/.514 slash line, 51 extra base hits (including 25 home runs), and 62 walks to somewhat offset his horrific 164 strikeouts. Striking out almost 33% last year in triple-A is slightly above his career minor league strikeout rate of 30% and neither are pretty.
Even though Parker has the better tasting cup of coffee stats, Williamson should beat him out eventually and then compete for the starting job in one of the corners. The Giants outfield is old so there should be plenty of chances to play, even as the 5th outfielder. Williamson supposedly has the glove, arm, and range to be an asset, so if he can hit a little he’ll get plenty of chances to show why he is the third best outfielder in San Francisco right now.