A Look At The Giants Roster: The Outfield

(flickr/Stanislav Sedov)

Yesterday I took a look at the infield. Today, let’s look over the options in the outfield.

Definite Starters: Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence.

Angel Pagan is the one of the streakiest players I’ve ever seen. What’s truly amazing is he might not even been the streakiest player on the Giants (looking at you, Belt). Check out his wRC+ numbers by month: 103, 144, 72, 50, 174, 105. All told, however, Pagan was a pretty good player: 113 wRC+, great baserunning, and average defense in center.

All in all, a solid player. He’ll bat leadoff again, which isn’t ideal – I’d like to see something better than a .338 OBP in that spot – but it’s not bad by any means. He, obviously, is in the first year of a brand new 4-year, $40 million contract, and while that might not look so good in 2016, he should generate more than enough value to make it worth it in 2013.

Hunter Pence is another key player for the Giants next year. There’s really no two ways to say it: Pence was pretty bad as a Giant. A triple slash line of .219/.287/.384 reveals a lot of information though: Pence showed decent power (.164 ISO) and he walked an acceptable amount (7.7% of his PA); he just didn’t hit. His BABIP with the Giants was .261, and his career mark is .321.

Why was his BABIP so low, though? Well, we can look at his batted ball data to see if we can glean some conclusions. Line drives are, obviously, the most likely batted ball to fall for a hit. But his LD% was actually above his career mark: 16.7% with the Giants, 16.1% for his career. The next-most-likely batted ball to go for a hit is a ground ball, and here we see something: for his career, Pence’s GB% is 51.6%, but with the Giants it was only 45.7%. And, as you may have suspected, we see a reverse trend in his flyball percentage. Fly balls are the least likely to fall in for hits, and with the Giants Pence’s FB% soared – 37.7% of batted balls, against a career mark of 32.3%.

So was batted ball luck the the reason for Pence’s struggles? In a word, no. Even after normalizing his batted ball rates to his career norms, Pence still only hits about .235 – we’re only talking about a hit or two difference. No, there is still one aspect of Pence’s game we haven’t talked about yet – the strikeouts. For his career, Hunter has struck out in 18.5% of his plate appearances. That’s pretty much exactly average for MLB hitters over the last few years. But in his 248 plate appearances with the Giants, Pence struck out 60 times. That’s an 24.2% rate, much higher than his career norm. Hunter’s struggles were almost entirely related to poor plate discipline. Once again, let’s look at the stats.

Let’s start simple. Pence swung at 48.4% of the 907 pitches he saw as a Giant. That ratio is almost exactly in line with his career rate of 48.3%. The trouble starts with what pitches he was swinging at. He swung at 33.7% of pitches out of the strike zone, against a career rate of 31.7%. Conversely, he swung at 65.3% of pitches inside the strike zone, against a career rate of 67.1%. So, he swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone and fewer pitches inside the strike zone. That’s not good. He made contact with 55.8% of pitches he swung at that were outside the strike zone. His career rate is 62.6%. His contact percentage was 70.8% as a Giant, while his career mark is 76.9% in that stat. So he swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone, swung at less pitches inside the zone, and made less contact overall. That, my friends, is how you see a 6% increase in your strikeout rate.

But you probably didn’t need an in-depth look at plate discipline stats to know that Pence struggled. But should Giants fans be worried Hunter is turning into – gasp – Aaron Rowand 2.0? Well, there are some warning signs. Rowand’s swing percentage as a Giant was slightly higher than Pence’s, just a shade over 50%. Rowand’s contact percentage, however, is significantly higher than Pence’s, around 75%. One thing that is encouraging for Giants fans is that Rowand’s swing percentage at balls out of the zone is much higher than Pence’s, about 5% higher.

A lot of this may strike you as wishcasting, and it is to a certain extent. If Hunter gets a little luckier, and strikes out less, and swings at better pitches, he’ll be a better hitter. You don’t need to be a stats whiz to figure that out. But the simple fact of the matter is that Pence is going to need to reverse some of the trends he showed during his stint with the Giants if he’s going to be a positive contributor to the lineup. And his contributions could be very important. This Giants team has two legitimate sluggers in Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, a decent leadoff hitter in Pagan, and a collection of hitters that range from average to below average in Brandon Crawford, Marco Scutaro, and whoever ends up playing left. The two players who could really take this offense from slightly below league average to solidly above average are an improved Brandon Belt and a Hunter Pence who hits a little closer to his career line (117wRC+) and a little less like how he’s hit as a Giant so far (84 wRC+).

Now, about that left fielder. Gregor Blanco was a revelation last year, providing slightly below league-average offense, outstanding defense*, and excellent baserunning while stepping up into the starting role after Melky’s suspension. Although he struggled mightily in July and August, he was absolutely integral part of the Giants’ run to the division title and ultimately to the division title. That being said, the Giants made it clear they would like a RHH platoon partner for Blanco going into the 2013 season – somewhat strange, considering he actually hit lefties better than he hit righties in 2012, but it’s a pretty small sample so I wouldn’t make too much of that. After rumors linked the Giants to a variety of unpalatable options, such as Scott Hairston and Shane Victorino, they settled on a fan favorite – Andres Torres. Torres had an abysmal year with the Mets, however, and it’s an open question as to how much he has left in the tank. However, all indications seem to be that these four will all have spots on the 25-man roster come April.

*FANBOY ALERT: this isn’t based on any empirical evidence or UZR stats or anything like that, but Blanco is among the best defensive outfielders I’ve ever seen. His arm is below-average, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player with as good of instincts as Blanco has. His perfect-game-saving catch – you know the one – is a perfect example of this. He might be the only outfielder in the majors who makes that play. Ok, maybe Mike Trout. But the point stands – he’s an incredible fielder.

If the Giants choose not to sign another veteran to compete for the fifth outfield spot, there are a variety of prospects that will fight over that last spot come spring training. First, let’s talk about Gary Brown. He’s a top 5 prospect in the Giants system no matter which way you slice it, and despite a mediocre season at Double-A Richmond, he still has a ceiling of a first-division starter in the majors. However, he will almost certainly not make the roster out of spring training. For one thing, he’s not on the 40-man roster, and would likely require the removal of another player. Second, I think the Giants aren’t keen on rushing one of their top prospects to the majors, especially when he wouldn’t be getting regular playing time, but would rather be filling the fifth-outfielder role as primarily a defensive replacement. It would be better for his development to get regular at-bats in Fresno instead.

There are three outfield prospects who are on the 40-man roster and could, and will, compete for the last outfield spot. Let’s go over them (briefly, I promise) in order from least- to most-likely.

First, Juan Carlos Perez. He hit well in Richmond this year (116 wRC+), although he was repeating the league. He’s old – just turned 26 – but he’s never played above AA. I imagine he’ll get an opportunity to win the spot but we’ll probably see him in left field in Fresno.

Roger Kieschnick absolutely mashed the ball in Fresno this season to the tune of a 147 wRC+, but then he got hurt. This is a recurring theme with Kieschnick; he simply can’t seem to stay healthy for more than about 3 months at a time. There are a few other reasons he might not make the big club. He strikes out a lot, and he hadn’t shown a penchant for walking until this year, so time will tell whether that’s a change in approach or just an anomaly. One major factor working against him is the fact that he bats left-handed. Despite the fact that he hasn’t shown a significant platoon split in the past, the fact of the matter is the Giants are pretty lefty-heavy, and probably won’t want to carry another LHH on the roster.

Which brings us to our preseason favorite to win the fifth outfield spot, Francisco Peguero. The good news about Peguero – he’s shown speed in the minors. In 2010 he hit 16 triples and stole 40 bases at High-A San Jose. Although he only stole one base in Fresno last year, he did hit 10 triples, and there are reasons to believe that the Giants organization ordered him not to steal last year while he recovered from a hamstring injury he suffered in spring training. He plays good defense, with a plus arm and good range. He would likely be at least a league-average right fielder, and above-average in left. Also, with the exception of 2012, he’s hit for high averages. He hit .340 in half a season in Augusta in 2009, then hit .329 in a full season in San Jose in 2010, and then hit .309 in a half-season in Richmond in 2011.

The main knock on Peguero is that he doesn’t walk. Like, ever. His highest walk-rate in any partial season of more than 100 plate appearances was a 6.2% rate he put up in Augusta…in 2008. Last year it was a 3.2% rate in 476 PA in Fresno. The year before that it was a 1.7% rate in 296 PA in Richmond. In 2010 it was a 3.3% rate in 538 PA in San Jose. You get the point. Looking back at the last 6 seasons, from 2007-2012, setting a minimum of 600 PA, the lowest walk rate among outfielders is DeWayne Wise at 3.9%. Wise isn’t a bad comparison to make for Peguero actually, he’s a guy who’s accumulated over 1000 career PA on the strength of a great outfield glove, and in spite of a career 65 wRC+. His career OBP is .264. He has over 1900 career PA in Triple-A. You probably see where I am going with this.

As with the infield, the Giants could conceivably sign a free agent to fill that left-field hole. Grant Brisbee of SB Nation today suggested that the Giants could sign Delmon Young to play left. My response is simple: please, no. Young can’t play defense, like, at all, and last year he had a .296 OBP. The year before that, he had a .303 OBP. He’s just not a good player, in any way, shape or form. Yes, he’s got some power (career .141 ISO) but it comes at the cost of four other abysmal tools. Delmon Young looked like the worst athlete by far on last year’s Detroit team, and that’s a team that had both Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder on it. Keep him away from the black and orange.

In conclusion (finally), it’s a pretty solid, if shallow, group of outfielders. Pagan and Pence should both be above-average, and if Blanco can continue to contribute outstanding defense and slightly-below-average offense, this unit will be sitting pretty. However, just one injury or other prolonged absence, and the lack of depth in the outfield could be exposed very quickly.

Tomorrow we’ll have a look at the pitchers.

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