SAN FRANCISCO — In the down years, the Giants have shown a remarkable ability to send some of their fans away from the final games with positive vibes. Three years ago, Barry Zito faced Tim Hudson in a meaningless late-season game that garnered a lot of hype. Last year, Pablo Sandoval’s walk-off sent the Game 162 crowd home happy, and the Giants promised afterward that they would not repeat their failures (they nearly did).
Hunter Pence has twice been involved. In 2013, Pence signed a massive contract, giving the front office plenty of positive headlines at the end of a season that ended without a playoff appearance. This season, the Giants sent Pence out with an ugly blowout loss to the Dodgers, but he gave an emotional speech and then rode off on a scooter. It was a memorable scene, and it also, unfortunately, served as one of the only highlights of Pence’s final year in orange and black.
This was not how Pence wanted to go out, and he has vowed to remake his swing and try to win a job somewhere next spring. Even Pence, as positive a person as you’ll ever meet, would tell you there’s plenty of work to do after the way his 2018 season went.
What Went Right: The final speech was another good one and the scooter ride was a fun moment, and on the field, Pence did finish with his best stretch of the season. He hit .308 over his final 10 games, with two homers, three doubles and five RBI. Manager Bruce Bochy vowed to play Pence every day on the final homestand, and he responded with three multi-hit games.
From a purely physical standpoint, Pence, 35, is still impressive. He led the Giants with five balls hit at least 110 mph. No other member of the opening day lineup had more than one. Pence had an average sprint speed of 28.2 feet per second, which ranked fifth on the team, ahead of more noted speedsters like Chase d’Arnaud and Kelby Tomlinson. The 28.2 mark is well above the MLB average.
What Went Wrong: This was, in every way, the worst statistical season of Pence’s career. He batted .226 with just four homers, and his .590 OPS was the lowest of his career by more than 100 points. Among NL players with at least 200 plate appearances, Pence had the fourth-worst on-base percentage (.258). He hit a groundball exactly 50 percent of the time when he put the ball in play; the hard chopper to short became an all too familiar part of his game.
Pence sprained his right thumb in the opener and was put on the DL on April 20. He was hitting .172 at the time, and it was clear that the move would not have been made if he were performing better. He wasn’t reinstated until June 2, in part because the Giants were trying to figure out how to handle his rehab. It was start-and-stop in the minors as the front office waited for a way to slide Pence back onto the big league roster. During that time, he tried to make swing adjustments, but he went back to his old swing soon after returning to the big leagues.
Contract Status: Pence is a free agent for the first time in his career. He just finished a five-year, $90 million deal that he signed right before he was set to hit the market in 2013.
The Future: Pence, 35, wants to keep playing. He is currently in Los Angeles overhauling his swing with Doug Latta, a private instructor who helped Justin Turner and Mac Williamson, among others. He plans to play in Mexico or the Dominican Republic and he hopes that leads to a camp invite. Even after a year like this one, he may still find an opportunity. A young team could certainly use his presence in the clubhouse; this year, he nearly won the Willie Mac Award for the second time. The opportunity will not come in San Francisco. Neither side has officially ruled out a reunion, but the Giants plan to go in a different direction with their outfield. That ceremony last Sunday was about saying thank you, but it was also a chance to say goodbye.
Pence is not done with the organization, though. The Giants hope to have him around when his playing days are over, and while Pence has shied away from any retirement talk, he looks as likely as any member of the title teams to be involved in some capacity for years to come. He met his wife, Alexis, here, and they truly seem to love the city. That scooter will be headed back towards AT&T Park at some point.