- With a new lease on his career, the relentlessly positive Hunter Pence is cherishing the new swing that afforded him a new opportunity. The veteran outfielder turned his non-roster invitation to spring training into a spot on the Rangers' opening day roster.
PHOENIX — Hunter Pence says he’s right where he’s supposed to be. At the moment, that’s the tiny visitor’s clubhouse at Goodyear Ballpark in Arizona as a member of the Rangers. At 35-years-old and coming off the worst season of his career, he’s a non-roster invite on a rebuilding club, guaranteed nothing but an opportunity to try to crack a crowded outfield mix. Yet perched on a stool in the locker room, Pence is all smiles. Ahead of his 13th major league season, everything is brand new.
“I feel like a rookie again,” he says, and with good reason. Over the offseason, Pence dedicated himself to working extensively on his swing with hitting guru Doug Latta, determined to wring at least one more year out of his body. The result: a new approach that took months to learn and saw the decorated veteran spend an eye-opening winter ball stint in the Dominican Republic, but also a .315/.383/.574 line in spring training and a spot as a reserve outfielder on the Rangers. After cratering in his finale with the Giants, Pence now hopes to create a fresh start in Texas.
“He was excited about this new challenge,” Latta says. “I think that buoyed him and continued to motivate him, and I think he said from the word ‘go’ when the Giants ended their season that he was insistent he wasn’t retiring.”
Walking away from baseball would’ve been understandable for Pence last October. His final season in San Francisco was a disaster: just 94 games total, and most of the second half spent as a reserve. When he did play, he didn’t produce, hitting a meager .226/.258/.332 with four home runs. Pence hit free agency with a thud, thinking that the book may have closed on his career. “I knew that was potentially the case,” he says.
Yet earlier that year, Pence, inspired by a teammate, had decided he wanted to make a change. In late April, the Giants called up outfielder Mac Williamson from Triple A; he proceeded to slam three homers in his first five games before a concussion sidelined him for the next month. But Pence was captivated by Williamson’s swing. “His barrel was in the [strike] zone a long time, and he was getting so much of his backside into it, and he was hitting the ball so hard,” he says. He peppered Williamson with questions, trying to figure out his secret.
The solution lay with Latta, a former high school coach turned private hitting instructor who helped turn Justin Turner from light-hitting utility infielder to All-Star slugger with the Dodgers. Williamson had worked with him before the 2018 season, transforming his swing so that he could generate more lift and power. Intrigued, Pence reached out to Latta in May while on a rehab assignment with Triple A Sacramento, and the two met at his facility in Northridge, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles, to work together for a few days.
The changes didn’t stick—“It’s tough to maintain that flying on your own,” Latta says—but Pence made a plan to come back that winter. As soon as the season came to a close, he went home to Houston for a few days, then on to L.A.
Unlike some of the game’s more obsessive tinkerers, like J.D. Martinez or Turner, Pence rarely messed with his swing. “I’ve always been a feel guy,” he says. “I’ve never really known my swing. I’ve been more like, how’s the ball coming off the bat? And that kind of guided me.” That makes sense, given how convoluted Pence’s mechanics look from the outside. His elbows-and-knees swing—all jittery and frenetic—makes him look like a marionette that someone ran an electric charge through. “I would definitely describe Hunter as decidedly unique,” Latta says. His swing worked just fine for years, but even at its best, it kicked up a lot of dirt: Pence’s career ground-ball rate is 51.9%, and he’s never had a season below 47. Per Statcast, his launch angle from 2015 through ’18 hovered between three and six degrees—a far cry from the likes of Turner, who sits in the 16–18-degree range and consequently produces a lot of fly balls, line drives and home runs.
Under Latta, Pence aimed to get closer to that. The duo made a plan, focusing primarily on changing Pence's bat path so he could get to the strike zone earlier and quicker and stay there longer. For the next two months, they spent an hour and a half a day, six or seven days a week, hitting together, going from dry swings to front tosses to live batting practice and working off machines that would fire sliders and high velocity fastballs. Everything was filmed so the two could regularly review the results. The work was grueling, but Pence enjoyed it. The results were immediate as well. “By the first week of November, we were in a great place,” Latta says. “There were tough days in there, but there were never tough days back to back.”
(It’s worth noting that, for all the changes Pence has made, he hasn’t adopted a wholly new set of mechanics. The Hunter Pence of 2019 still resembles Hunter Pence of years past. “It looks different and feels different,” he says of his swing. “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.”)
Without live competition, though, there would be no way to gauge just how effective the work was. So Pence decided to do something he’d never done before: Play winter ball. He signed with the Toros del Este, a Dominican Winter League team based in the seaside town of La Romana, on the country’s southeast coast. For the next month, he tried to hack it in the highly competitive league, one where visiting Americans aren’t simply given a roster spot in perpetuity. “There’s a lot on the table for them,” Latta says. “If you’re not producing, you’re going home. It’s the ultimate crash test.”
Pence passed. Though his .276/.290/.414 line was nothing exceptional, it was compiled across just 31 plate appearances. More importantly, Pence felt good with the new swing. Just as significant for him was how much he enjoyed playing in the Dominican, in an atmosphere full of energy. Fans would approach him in restaurants and at the grocery store to say hello. “It felt like the whole city knew exactly what happened every game,” he says. During games, they’d ask for selfies and autographs. The kids, meanwhile, simply wanted baseballs to use in their own games; “We gave away a lot of those,” Pence says.
Games were raucous on the field and in the stands, and Pence got into the spirit, even coming up with his own personal celebrations for hits—“Rope the calf, throw the T up, shoot the arrow.” The night Toros defeated Leones del Escogido in Santo Domingo to reach the finals, the team returned to La Romana to find people partying in the streets at 2 a.m. “It took us an hour and a half to move a block,” Pence says. “Like 50 motorcycles surrounded our van, honking their horns and chanting our names.”
Still, Pence had work to do. He returned to the United States, unfortunately missing the DWL finals, to re-join Latta. “I felt like the swing needed work,” he says. “I made some good strides, but I definitely needed to make some improvements.” For the next month, the two kept fine-tuning. At the same time, teams had begun to call with offers. Ultimately, it was Texas that landed Pence on a minor league deal. “My talks with [general manager] Jon Daniels and Woody [manager Chris Woodward], it felt like a perfect fit, and that made it an easy decision for me.”
Curiously to Pence, his old team in San Francisco never reached out, despite him inviting them to watch him play in the Dominican. “From day one, they were not interested,” he says. “It’s not a good feeling to be rejected, but I understood. They were moving in a different direction. There was some part of me, in the back of my mind, that was like, if I get this right, maybe they’ll come scout me and maybe I can keep playing with them. But they just weren’t interested.”
Regardless, the Rangers were a happy result. An Arlington native who played his high school and college ball there, Pence grew up watching the team, rooting for Steve Buechele, Nolan Ryan and Ivan Rodriguez. “I dreamed of playing [in Texas] one day, and it’s pretty crazy that I get to be part of the last year of [Globe Life Park],” he says.
He’s got that chance now after a terrific spring in which he stung the ball all over the Cactus League and beat out prospect Willie Calhoun for a roster spot. That came as no surprise to Latta. “There was not a doubt that he was going to play another year of major league baseball,” he says. Nor is Williamson surprised that his former teammate is still kicking. “If you know Hunter Pence, you know he’s going to stop at nothing to succeed,” he says. “His mental fortitude is above and beyond everyone else’s.”
The key now will be to make all the changes made in the offseason stick. Both Pence and Latta know that nothing is finished. “It’s ongoing,” Pence says. “You want to get it as aligned as possible and fine-tune it to where you have a process and do that same process so you become like a robot, you don’t even have to think.” Says Latta: “He understands that it still takes a hitter usually a couple of months before things snap into place. Twenty-eight years of swinging the bat one way don’t disappear overnight.” (The numbers, meanwhile, suggest that, new swing or no, Pence is still slamming balls straight down, with a ground-ball rate of 71.4% and a negative launch angle—though that’s through only eight plate appearances and seven batted balls.)
Regardless, Pence is confident that he’s not done yet. And even if retirement does come calling soon, he’s happy that he was able to stave it off a little bit longer.
“Everything is bonus from now on,” Pence says. “I’ve given it everything I have. That time’s got to come at some point, and I would be completely at peace, because I’ve had just a blast.”