Hunter Pence is currently enjoying a late career renaissance. Of course, baseball is a sport where such a thing is a total possibility. Unlike the NFL where players are beaten up by 30, or the NBA where good players never truly fall off, the MLB is a league where Bartolo Colon can be an All-Star in his 40’s. It can certainly happen, that’s for sure, but there are certainly no guarantees. More often than not, the wheels just fall out from under players and they either linger as a shell of themselves or retire quickly. Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard provide a glimpse of either outcome.
So given how hard it is to produce at a high level as aging kicks in, Pence’s comeback 2019 campaign is one of the year’s biggest shocks.
After belting his 9th home-run of the season last night, Hunter Pence is slashing .307/.363/.644 with an OPS of 1.006. His contribution is one of a few seemingly minor veteran signings that have turned the Rangers in to a formidable lineup. Asdrubal Cabrera has provided power, Logan Forsythe has an OBP of .420 and Mike Minor looks like the pitcher he could have been in Atlanta. These veterans are the main reason that the Rangers sit in second place as May winds down.
For Hunter Pence, The Path To Success Contained Many Obstacles
While Asdrubal and Forsythe have been solid, Pence’s contribution is the most complete. Cabrera may have nine home runs but is a total liability at defense and has an OBP of just .269. Forsythe has been far more productive, as evidenced by his 0.9 WAR to Cabrera’s -0.1.
But what makes both Pence and Forsythe’s 2019’s so surprising is the fact that each made the Opening Day roster after signing minor league deals. In the case of Forsythe, he was a somewhat surprising MILB signing and suffered from a market that contained players similar to but more productive than him (Josh Harrison comes to mind). Forsythe signed a minor league deal, but it seemed fairly certain that he would crack the roster.
That was not true in the case of Hunter Pence. The former Phillie and two-time World Series champion fell off significantly in 2018 and found himself in a limited role. He finished 2018 with just 248 at-bats in which he hit slashed just .226/.258/.332 and found himself doing a-lot of pinch hitting. At 35 (36 by Opening Day), Pence’s time with the Giants was certainly up and perhaps, for any team.
The league has been getting younger and the rise of the “position-less game” puts players like Pence in jeopardy. Ten years ago, veterans could extend their careers longer with ease but that is increasingly becoming less of a thing. Teams have so much talent under the age of 25 that even rebuilding teams don’t sign as many veterans to eat innings and drag teams to the finish line. It’s a more competitive, more athletic league and several former All-Stars have been run out of the league quick.
Pence Won A Competetive Spring Training Battle For His Job
The Rangers had several outfield/DH options headed into the 2019 season. Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo and Shin-Soo Choo were all essentially locks for playing time. Willie Calhoun, Carlos Tocci and Delino DeShields Jr. were also all on the 40-man. With the Rangers largely thought of as a below-average team, it seemed as though the Rangers would opt to go with Calhoun to start the season. Calhoun – 24 -was acquired in the Yu Darvish trade and had great AAA stats in 2018, albeit lackluster MLB numbers in a limited showing.
Tocci was a less likely choice but still had a chance due to his 40-man spot. He was worth a -1.3 WAR in his first season since being plucked from the Phillies in the rule 5 draft and ultimately opened the season in AAA. Asdrubal Cabrera also looked like a potential DH candidate and Deshields is one of the league’s best when it comes to stolen bases. With limited defensive ability and declining offensive numbers, it looked as though Pence would fall short in his comeback attempt.
The veteran did more than enough to prove that he still has game, however. Pence led the Rangers in Spring Training at-bats (51), hits (16) and shockingly, stolen-bases with 6. The Rangers also saw the 36 year-old as a leadership candidate who could assist in the development of younger players. Pence of course developed a reputation for great pre and post-game speeches during the Giants’ legendary run in the first half of the 2010’s
With Texas, Hunter Pence has largely been used as a DH but has also spent some time in left-field.
But overall, it goes without saying that the addition of Pence has been crucial to the early, relative success the Rangers have enjoyed thus far. If he can keep this level of production up for another month and head into July with 12-13 homeruns and a .280 average, he may find himself selected for his fourth career All-Star appearance.
That makes me happy because I had this dude’s shirsey when he was with the Phillies. Looking back on it, I can honestly say that it was a top five shirsey purchase.