The San Francisco Giants and outfielder Hunter Pence came to agreement today on a five-year contract extension worth $90 million. This will put him in a Giants uniform through age 35. Pence was an interesting case as a prospect, which we will explore in today's Prospect Retrospective.
Hunter Pence played college baseball at the University of Texas-Arlington. He hit .395/.441/.616 as a junior in 2004, which was enough to earn him a slot in the second round of the draft, selected by the Houston Astros. Although he won the batting title in the Southern Conference that year, he was not universally considered a top prospect, due to an unorthodox swing and mediocre defensive tools. His choice by Houston was considered an overdraft by some, but he adjusted easily to pro ball, hitting .296/.369/.518 in his pro debut in the New York-Penn League. I gave him a Grade B in the 2005 book, noting his across the board offensive skills.
Pence answered doubters with a great year at the A-ball level in '05, hitting .338/.413/.652 in 80 games for Low-A Lexington in the Sally League, followed by a .305/.374/.490 line in 41 games for Salem in the High-A Carolina League. I gave him a Grade B+ in the '06 book, noting that he might need adjustment time in Double-A but that I liked his bat a lot. I ranked him as the Number 35 hitting prospect in baseball.
His '06 season was a success in Double-A, with a .282/.356/.529 mark in 136 games for Corpus Christi in the Texas League.. I bumped him up to Grade A- in the book entering 2007, ranking him as the Number 11 hitting prospect in baseball. I was impressed by what I saw of him in person. The swing looked weird but it worked, and his defense looked better than I was led to expect by the scouting reports.
Pence opened '07 in Triple-A but quickly earned a promotion to the majors. He had a great rookie year, hitting .322/.360/.539, OPS+129, WAR 3.6, then settled into a pattern of consistently solid production and excellent durability.
Through 1054 big league games, Pence has hit .285/.339/.475, OPS+120, with a career WAR of 24.4. His 5.3 WAR this year is the best of his career. You can certainly argue the wisdom of investing this much money in a player having his career season at age 30.
In historical terms, Sim Score brings up the following comps: Aubrey Huff, Ellis Burks, Jermaine Dye, Kevin McReynolds, Leon Durham, Rondell White, Frank Thomas from the 50s/60s, Jose Guillen, Torii Hunter, and Jim Ray Hart. Most of those guys faded pretty quickly in their early 30s, although Burks remained strong until age 38 and Hunter is still good at 38.
Overall, Pence was an impressive prospect who lived up to his potential despite some concerns about an unusual approach.