The Giants offered Hunter Pence arbitration last offseason, expecting him to bounce back from a down half-season after being acquired in a July trade with the Philadelphia Phillies. Pence rewarded the Giants’ faith, and he became a wealthy man as a result. Alex Pavlovic of San Jose Mercury News reported on Saturday night that the Giants and Pence had agreed to a five-year contract worth $90 million. By agreeing to a deal now, the Giants avoided the uncertainty that would have come with offering Pence a qualifying offer and allowing him to test the free agent waters. The cost of certainty wasn’t cheap, so why were the Giants not only willing to, but seemingly hellbent on signing him now?
For starters, the outfield free agent market is lackluster. This year’s outfield free agent class is headlined by center fielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson, as well as right fielders Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, and Nelson Cruz. A complete list of projected 2014 free agents can be found at MLB Trade Rumors. Out of that group of outfielders, only Ellsbury is younger than Pence. Granderson is coming off an injury marred season, Beltran is likely best served changing leagues and being used as a designated hitter, Choo is dreadful against left-handed pitching, and Cruz served a 50-game suspension during the second-half of this season for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy. Pence has his flaws, but it’s not hard to envision a scenario where he would have been the second or third most coveted outfielder in free agency had he not been locked up. That’s not to say he would have fetched the same offer in free agency, or a larger offer, but if the Giants wanted to retain his services he was going to be expensive no matter how they went about doing so.
Pence was able to position himself for a big payday in large part because he had a big season at the dish. Despite spending the entire season in the least homer friendly ballpark of his career, Pence was able to belt a single-season high 27 homers, and he still has one game remaining to add to that total. His power wasn’t just reflected in his homer total either, as his .202 ISO is currently the second highest mark of his career, and his .484 slugging percentage is the third best mark of his career. His triple slash line of .282/.339/.484 this year is a near carbon copy of his career line of .285/.339/.476. In other words, Pence basically played at his peak level. That’s an impressive feat for a 30 year old playing half his games at AT&T Park, which suffocates offense.
Pence did more than just swing a solid stick this year. He stole a career best 22 bases and was caught stealing just three times. Good baserunning is about more than efficiently stealing bases, though, and sites such as Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and Baseball-Reference attempt to quantify a player’s contributions on the bases. Baseball Prospectus has a stat called Base Running Runs (BRR) that they use for measuring a player’s baserunning value, and they actually had Pence hurting the Giants on the bases with a -0.6 BRR. However, both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference credited Pence as being a very helpful runner on the bases. FanGraphs uses Base running runs above average (BsR) to measure the value of a player’s baserunning,and Pence’s 5.7 BsR was the best of his career, and also the third highest among 22 qualified right fielders, trailing only Alex Rios and Justin Upton. Baseball-Reference’s stat of choice for measuring a player’s baserunning value is Runs from Baserunning (Rbaser). This season Pence tied his career Rbaser high of four, previously set in 2011. While it isn’t entirely clear how valuable Pence was on the bases this year, two of the three most well respected sites covering baseball felt he added value on the bases.
Even less clear than Pence’s baserunning contributions are his contributions in the field. Fielding metrics are heatedly debated by very intelligent people in the baseball community, and glancing at Pence’s defensive metrics makes it easy to understand why. Baseball Prospectus uses Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) to quantify fielding value, and his 13.0 FRAA deemed him an excellent defender. FanGraphs uses a wide variety of defensive stats that include, but are not limited to, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Pence posted a -6 DRS, which ranked 13th out of 18 qualified right fielders, but his 5.5 UZR ranked sixth in right field. Like FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference provides a variety of defensive metrics, two of which are Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average (R tot) and BIS Defensive Runs Saved Above Average (R drs ), and both stats disagree on the value of Pence in the field with him scoring an R tot of seven and a R drs of -6. It’s usually best to look at multiple seasons for defensive metrics, but doing so with Pence doesn’t do much to clear up whether he’s a good defender or not. He has had very good and very bad years in the field by each measure, so perhaps he is an inconsistent defender that has good and bad years, much like players do at the plate.
All-in-all, Pence’s play at the plate, on the bases, and in the field resulted in him setting new career highs in all measures of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Baseball Prospectus uses Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), FanGraphs uses Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), and Baseball-Reference uses their own version of Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) to neatly roll up a player’s value into one convenient all encompassing stat. While the three sites don’t use the same means of calculating their all inclusive stat, they do all agree that Pence had a career year with him posting 5.2 WARP (previous high was 4.0 WARP), 5.3 fWAR (previous high was 4.3 fWAR), and 4.2 bWAR (previous high was 4.0 bWAR). Clearly the Giants are buying into his 2013 season and believe he’ll continue to play at a high level as he ages, but given that he’s signed for his ages 31 through 35 seasons, an eventual collapse that makes this contract look terrible in retrospect is a distinct possibility. For now, though, the Giants decided that was a gamble worth taking after missing the opportunity to defend their 2012 World Series title by failing to reach the postseason this year.
Sources: Baseball Prospectus, Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and StatCorner.