Hunter Pence's extension, like Pence himself, is better than it looks
Twice in the last four years, the San Francisco Giants have won the World Series. On each occasion, their biggest moves the following offseason were to re-sign their own free agents. After 2010 it was Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, and Guillermo Mota. After 2012, it was Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, and Jeremy Affeldt. Both times, they failed to make the postseason the following year. Given that history, the news that general manager Brian Sabean considers re-signing Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum, and Javier Lopez his top priority this offseason seems problematic.
As a result, upon hearing the news that the Giants came to terms on Saturday with would-be free agent, right fielder and oddball mascot Pence on five-year contract worth $90 million, which is reportedly back-loaded and includes a no-trade clause, my initial reaction was a negative one. A closer look at Pence and his contract, however, leads to a more favorable view of the deal.
Pence's new contract will cover his age-31 to -35 seasons, but among the top free agent outfielders this season (and despite it being a generally weak free agent class, there are several compelling outfielders about to hit the market including Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson, and Nelson Cruz), only Ellsbury is younger than Pence, and that's only by five months. What's more, among those named above, all have lost significant time to injury in the last four years, while Pence is a model of durability.
With a start on Sunday, Pence will become the first Giant to play in every game of a season since Will Clark in 1988, the first Giant to start every game of a season since Alvin Dark in 1954, and will make his 170th consecutive start. In his six full seasons in the majors, Pence has averaged 158 games a year, his only disabled list stay coming in his rookie season of 2007, when he injured his wrist sliding into second base.
Pence is a good player, not a great one, but he has been very valuable in two of his last three seasons. In 2011, he hit .314/.370/.502 for the Astros and Phillies, a performance that owed more than a little to a fluky .361 batting average on balls in play. This year, however, he has been almost as good, a fact masked by playing his home games in an extreme pitcher's park.
Pence's .282/.339/.484 line this year looks a lot like his career performance (.285/.339/.475), but looking at Baseball-Reference's neutralized batting statistics, that line translates to .302/.360/.522 in a neutral environment. In raw numbers, Pence has hit for more power that in any other season in his career, setting a career high in home runs (27), posting his second-highest doubles total (35), and needing just two total bases on Sunday to match his career high in that category, set in that BABIP-assisted 2011 campaign. He has also set a career high in stolen bases, stealing 22 bags at a career-high 88 percent success rate.
Generally speaking, as a right fielder of questionable defensive skill (the advanced fielding metrics are all over the place) who averages 25 home runs and 50 walks a season (those are Pence's exact averages in his six full major league seasons), Pence is barely above average. In 2013, the average right fielder has averaged 21 homers and 54 walks. What gives Pence a slight edge is the fact that he typically hits for solid averages (.285 career compared to mid-.260s for the average right fielder), but that cuts both ways. A dip in average, such as his .253 mark in 2012, can drop his overall production below average (he hit 24 homers, drew 56 walks in 2012, but his .253/.319/.425 line that season fell short of the average right fielder's .262/.327/.434).
If Pence can continue to supplement his established value by adding bases with power and speed, however, he'll earn his keep over the course of his new contract. That contract, incidentally, is comparable to the $85 million, five-year deal the Dodgers gave rightfielder Andre Ethier, who has averaged 20 homers and 60 walks over the last six seasons, last year, a deal which also includes a $17.5 million vesting option for Ethier's age-36 campaign absent from Pence's deal. Pence's contract looks more likely to pay off and has, in combination with Ethier's contract, set the market in such a way that other teams are unlikely to secure comparable players for less. That's all generally favorable for the Giants. Unless it happens at an extreme discount, however, the same is unlikely to be true of re-signing Lincecum, which is reportedly the next step in Sabean's plan.