Despite being one of the hottest commodities at the major league trade deadline last year, Hunter Pence was an utter fantasy disappointment in the second half of the season. Can he rebuild his fantasy stock in his first full season by the Bay?
When Hunter Pence arrived in San Francisco after being traded from the Phillies, he received a hero's welcome. Seriously, I was watching the post-game show the night Pence landed for the first time in SF to meet his new teammates. The Giants broadcast crew treated him like he was the President, tracking him everywhere with cameras and hounding him for short sound bytes. You couldn't blame the Giants for being desperate for Pence's production, though. At that point in the season, on August 1, they hardly looked like the Championship team they'd become. They had just lost Pablo Sandoval to another injury, they were struggling to score runs, and they were losing ground fast to the Dodgers. Pence was supposed to provide the added punch the Giants needed to win the division.
Of course, the Giants would go on to win the division and the World Series, their offense surged down the stretch...and Pence didn't do a darn thing to help with any of it. Well, that's not totally true, but Pence wasn't anything close to the offensive catalyst that the Giants were expecting when they traded for him. In the Orange and Black, Pence hit a paltry .219/.287/384, with just seven home runs. That isn't quite as bad when you factor in AT&T Park's homer-squashing ways (his OPS+ was still 91), but it was still a major disappointment.
He just never got it going, and his contact rate went into the crapper, as he appeared to be pressing at times. He struggled all the way into the playoffs before finally stringing a few hits together in the playoffs. In fact, he drew headlines more for his fire and brimstone speechifying off the field than anything he did on it. To wit, his biggest postseason hit was a bizarre broken bat ground ball single that in a sane world would have been a rally-crushing double play.
Pence's slump with the Giants was actually an extension of an overall down year that began in Philadelphia. Pence was hot off the heels of a superlative 2011 season in which he hit .314/.370/.502 with 22 homers. A lot of fans appreciated his "see ball, hit ball" approach, and his ability to cover the plate and hit bad balls helped him to a scorching-hot final two months in Philly, as he helped the team to another playoff berth. This strong finish had many anticipating more of the same in 2012.
Pence didn't deliver on those lofty expectations, but his first four months in Philadelphia were, really, much in line with his career norms. Before being traded, Pence was OPSing .784 with the Phils; had he ended his season with that mark, it would have been the third time in his career that he's finished with an OPS in the .780s. Going into 2011, he'd accumulated an .817 OPS with an average of about 23 homers a year. That's solid, but nothing approaching a fantasy star. His hot hitting in 2011, which may or may not have been aided by a .361 BABIP, probably created some completely unrealistic expectations.
Pence now enters the 2013 season trying to recoup his fantasy value in perhaps the worst place on the planet in which to do it. As mentioned before, AT&T Park destroys home run power. The Giants finished dead last in the majors in home runs hit at home with an almost unbelievably low 31. Pence hit two of his seven Giants home runs at home, which actually isn't a horrible ratio, considering. I wouldn't put it out of the question that Pence will hit more than 20 homers again, but I wouldn't exactly bet my life savings on it, either.
The other areas where Pence struggled offensively while with the Giants seem correctable. His 24.2% strikeout percentage was so out of line with the rest of his career that it was probably a fluke. Perhaps he really was pressing while trying to impress the new hometown fans. With the Giants, Pence had stretches where he'd take pitches down the middle while hacking away at garbage off the plate. He looked totally flustered, and that's just out of whack with his usual solid-contact self. The low average and elevated strikeout rate are both destined to be corrected over a full season, and expect Pence to get back to his career rates in those categories.
So is he worth drafting? Can fantasy owners get him at a bargain because of his move to the extreme pitcher's park? Perhaps, but I'm bearish. I think he'll bounce back to something like a .270-18-90 line, with a chance for more RBIs if Buster Posey stays otherworldly and if Pablo Sandoval stays healthy. That's fine in "real" baseball, but we fantheads are generally looking for more. Pence hasn't been a base stealing threat since 2010, either, further marginalizing his value to your team.
On top of all that, he was never that great to begin with. Other than his awesome 2011, he was always a 25-homer outfielder who would OPS around .800 and bag you 80-90 RBIs. That's perfectly fine, but it's not star production, or anything close. Pence will rebound from his miserable two month stretch with the Giants, but he's still landing squarely on my "avoid" list come draft day.