Hunter Pence Returns to Lone Star State

Hunter Pence was born in Fort Worth, Texas, played high school ball for Arlington (manning shortstop his senior year), and then played college ball for Texarkana College in Texarkana and UT Arlington back home. Two years later, he hit .283/.357/.533 with 28 home runs and 95 RBIs for the Double-A Hooks in Corpus Christi in 2006, then .326/.387/.558 in a brief stop in Triple-A Round Rock to start off the 2007 campaign before finally making his debut for the Astros on April 28th. Friday, his decades-long quest to play at least one game for every amateur and professional team in the great state of Texas reached a new and likely final phase, as he signed a minor-league contract with the Texas Rangers worth $2 million if he makes the club.

There was a time not too long ago when Pence couldn’t be had for a sum as small as $2 million, not even for a few months of play, but those days are well behind us now. Pence’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, isolated power, BABIP, walk rate, and wOBA have each dropped in each of the last three seasons. Last year, he was worth -0.9 WAR for the Giants in his sixth full season for the team. That team, mired in fourth place and under new management, had no place in its outfield for Pence (the old guard did give him a custom scooter), and when it became obvious that the end of this five-year deal was the end of the road in San Francisco, it wasn’t clear whether the 35-year-old would play at all in 2019.

He will, at least in springtime in Arizona, and that’s a small blessing to us all. Pence has always seemed like one of those guys who might have invented baseball accidentally had he been born into a world in which it did not exist. Ever-so-slightly bow-legged, tall, and lanky, he doesn’t look like someone who should be among the very best at what he chose to do, but he was for a time and maybe still can be in Texas. At the plate, he often coils backwards, hands hidden behind his torso, then unspools violently like a length of chain pulled suddenly taut. Eyes wide and utterly fixated on wherever the ball has gone, he is prone to regain his balance and, arms and legs flying, careen into first and beyond, if he can make it. Pence at his best is a joy to watch play the game.

And he has been, at points in his career, a player to rally around. Pence’s first seasons with the Astros, as the team eased out of the Biggio-Bagwell-Berkman-Beltrán era that peaked with a 2005 NL Championship, and began their slow descent into the sordid Yakety Sax years, did not do much to burnish Pence’s national star even though he quietly put up four-and-a-half extremely solid years in Houston. When he was traded to Philadelphia, mid-way through 2011, Pence had accumulated 14.4 WAR at just 28 years of age. That’s not a Hall of Famer, but it’s a player well worth having. An NLDS run with the Phillies in 2011, on the tail-end of their dynasty, put Pence on the map, until he finally caught on with a team at the right time with the Giants in 2012. That run produced three titles (two for Pence) and also this hilarious video which I hope he recreates with the Rangers this year:

“Hunter helped lead the charge to our World Series in 2012,” former Giants’ GM Bobby Evans told me this week, “and his bat and leadership drove us to another World Series in 2014. He plays each game like it’s his last, and will forever be a fan favorite in San Francisco.” Well, he hasn’t played his last game yet: Pence says he’s changed his swing significantly this year, so maybe there’s a few more miles left in the tank. Texas doesn’t really need outfielders, what with Joey Gallo, Delino DeShields, Jr., and Nomar Mazara all already in the fold (and Willie Calhoun available in reserve besides), but they could use a strong bench bat or two and there’s no clubhouse in baseball that couldn’t use Hunter Pence.

I’m never optimistic about players’ ability to re-tool their games after 35 — this is increasingly a young man’s sport, and there’s precious little margin to get it right — but in Pence’s case I hope I am wrong, and that Pence makes the roster and contributes for Texas this year. Hunter Pence is not like many we’ve seen before in this game, and we need more like him. He’s home in Texas now, ready for one more try.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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