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Last season, Hunter Pence looked like the definition of done. He slashed .226/.258/.332 in 97 games with the San Francisco Giants and posted a career-worst .590 OPS. On April 13 this season, he turned 36—not generally an age at which players crank back the clock.
Yet, crank it back he has.
After he signed a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers during the offseason and made the team out of spring training, Pence is enjoying a career renaissance.
Through 26 games, the outfielder is hitting .316 with seven home runs, 25 RBI and a 1.047 OPS. He’s also brought his irrepressible energy and quirky charm to a Texas team caught between a retool and a rebuild.
It’s an improbable turnaround. Or not, if you ask his old skipper.
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
“That man, he’s willed his way through a lot of things,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, per John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’m not surprised by anything he does.”
During his years with the Giants, Pence was known for rolling around on a scooter, delivering champagne-drenched clubhouse soliloquies (note: contains NSFW language) and providing at least one literally unbelievable postseason hit.
But beyond the outsized personality and herky-jerky playing style, Pence was dang good. Between 2007—when he debuted with the Houston Astros—and 2014, he made three All-Star teams, won two rings and signed a five-year, $90 million contract with San Francisco in September 2013.
By 2015, injuries and underperformance crept in. As the Giants’ even-year dynasty faded in the rearview, Pence’s performance faded, too.
In typical Pence fashion, things didn’t go according to the script.
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He instead caught on with the Rangers—a fitting destination considering he graduated from Arlington High School. He hit well enough in spring to earn a job. Then, he kept hitting.
Maybe this shouldn’t be such a huge surprise. Pence’s hard-contact rate, per FanGraphs, was 30.3 percent in 2018, just slightly below his career mark of 30.8 percent. It’s not like he forgot how to hit.
So far this year, that figure sits at 53.1 percent.
That’ll surely level out. But Pence’s .316 batting average on balls in play in 2019 is lower than his career BABIP of .318. Given how he’s been scalding the ball, he’s actually been a tad unlucky.
What’s the secret to his unexpected and dramatic about-face?
Pence played in the Dominican Winter League during the offseason and reworked his unorthodox swing.
“It looks different and feels different,” Pence said of his new approach, which he developed alongside hitting instructor Doug Latta, per Jon Tayler of Sports Illustrated. “The bat path is totally different, and the muscles I’m firing with are different. But because it’s me and my genetics, you’re going to see similar movements.”
Pence is also playing in a much more offense-conducive yard. Globe Life Park in Arlington is the 12th-most hitter-friendly stadium in baseball, according to ESPN’s Park Factors, while San Francisco’s Oracle Park ranks No. 27.
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Add it up—the new swing, the homecoming, the new home field—and you’ve got a whole new Pence. Or, maybe, you’ve got the old Pence back. It’s only May. But if he keeps it up, another All-Star nod could be on the table.
“If you know Hunter Pence, you know he’s going to stop at nothing to succeed,” Pence’s former Giants teammate Mac Williamson said, per Tayler. “His mental fortitude is above and beyond everyone else’s.”
Now, once again, he’s got the results to match.
So much for being done.