Watching Hunter Pence go down swinging on one knee, hacking at a slider in the dirt, in a crucial at-bat in the 7th inning of yesterday’s Game Three against Mitchell Boggs was a painful sight. Pence, acquired at the trading deadline to bolster the outfield depth and add offensive firepower to the lineup, has struggled with the Giants and is now struggling in the postseason. Pence’s problems with the Giants are twofold: 1) He’s expanded his swing zone (for an aggressive hitter with an already pretty large swing area, this is a pretty big deal) and 2) He’s having fits with “soft stuff” — i.e., changeups, curveballs, and sliders.
(1) Aggressively expanding the swing zone:
Here’s a heat map of Pence’s swing rate pre-trade.
As you would expect, Pence likes to swing the bat. He primarily focuses on up in the zone pitches, with a preference to the ones that are up and in.
Now, here’s a heat map of Pence’s swing rate post-trade as a Giant.
The heat map is similar, but notice that he’s swinging more down and out of the zone. Pre-trade to the Giants, Pence didn’t go down in the zone nearly as much. Now that he’s a Giant, it looks like he’s expanded his zone.
(2) Struggling with the “soft stuff”:
The biggest difference between Pence’s time with the Giants and the Phillies has been his ability to hit changeups, curveballs, and sliders.
Pence has dropped nearly 100 points of wOBA on “soft stuff” since he became a Giant. He’s swinging more; whiffing more; hitting the ball in play less often; and he’s chasing more. Those seem like the characteristics of a player that’s expanded his zone, or one that is constantly being fooled by offspeed pitches.
The Giants might consider dropping Pence in the order:
“We might talk about it,” Bochy said. “We had our chances. We left too many on base. What you try to do in a game is create those chances, and he’s the guy we want up there with men on base. He knocked in over a hundred runs this year. He’s got a knack for driving in runs. They made good pitches. He’s got to put this behind him.”
Dropping Pence probably isn’t the worst idea, but I have a hard time believing that the Giants will actually go for it. Moving Pence down should result in Belt moving up. Belt has hit .273/.333/.364 in the NLCS. And, while that’s not fantastic production, Belt has put together some pretty good at-bats recently. At least, comparatively to the whirling dervish of hacking and twitching that is Pence.
It’s also probably just as likely — if not more — that the Giants will use Hector Sanchez behind the plate and move Posey to first base in order to “improve” the lineup. It’s possible because it’s probably the most Giants thing that could happen. Downgrading the defense and offense in a single move? Why, yes, please!
Most likely, though, Pence will stay put hitting behind Posey. With his track record of being a pretty decent hitter at times, he should get a chance to work his way out of this slump, but, man, he’s struggling something awful right now. It’s become quite clear that opposing teams are more than happy to pitch around Posey to get to Pence. If Pence can pull back his approach just a little bit, and have some good at-bats, teams might be less likely to pitch around Posey. My fear with Pence is that he’s just a league average hitter with the impressive occasional home run and awkward defense.
The Giants need more. Much more. Let’s hope they get it.