Hunter Pence's Fall from $90M Superstar to Fighting for an MLB Job

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: Hunter Pence #8 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates after scoring a run on a sacrifice fly by teammate Joe Panik #12 in the bottom of the fifth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at AT&T Park on September 29, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

It's nearly impossible to root against Hunter Pence.

He's one of the quirkiest, most inscrutable players in modern MLB memory. He rides a scooter. He delivers champagne-soaked clubhouse sermons (note: contains profanity) that lead, directly or indirectly, to World Series titles. He hits baseballs multiple times with a broken bat in championship-defining moments. He appears on the reboot of Full House.

His irrepressibly positive, high-energy persona and herky-jerk mechanics helped define the San Francisco Giants' improbable, magical even-year dynasty. Before that, he left his mark on the Houston Astros, the club that drafted him in the second round in 2004.

Along the way, Pence made three All-Star teams, won a pair of rings and landed a five-year, $90 million contract from San Francisco in September 2013.

Today, he's scraping for a big league gig.

On Feb. 7, the Texas Rangers signed Pence to a minor league deal with a spring training invitation. That's an MLB player's equivalent of the last rung on the ladder. Grab it with both hands, or drop out of the picture. 

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

"He's got a long track record of being an elite teammate; a decorated, productive player on the field," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said of Pence, per Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. "From a standpoint of pedigree, makeup and way he goes about the game, it's consistent with the messaging of what we want this team to be about." 

Fair enough. But what about his recent results?

Pence picked up down-ballot MVP votes as recently as 2014, but injuries and inconsistency subsequently crept in.

He slashed an anemic .226/.258/.332 in 97 games with the Giants in 2018, "good" for a career-low .590 OPS, and his iconic tenure in the City by the Bay came to an ignoble end, though he finished it with a characteristically classy farewell penned in The Players' Tribune.

(We'll pause while you grab your hanky.)

Back to the stats, Pence's hard-contact rate, per FanGraphs, sat at 30.3 percent in 2018 next to a career mark of 30.5 percent.

Possibly...squint your eyes...wish upon a star...was he the victim of bad luck?

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Likely not. Players of Pence's age don't generally enjoy career renaissances. But maybe? Pence is the type of dude who makes you want to believe. 

He attended Arlington High School in Texas, so there's the angle of a hometown boy on his last chance. There's also the "Hey, he changed his approach" angle.

Pence did exactly that in the Dominican winter league, revamping everything from his swing to his running style.

"I really want to go and immerse myself in winter ball, and really feel it out and see if I can make the adjustments," Pence said, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic

The results were good but not great, with a .276 average and .704 OPS in 31 plate appearances. Not enough to prove he was back to his All-Star self, but enough for the Rangers to take a low-risk flier.

Can he catch on in a crowded Rangers outfield that features Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Delino DeShields, Willie Calhoun and Carlos Tocci, among others?

It'll take more than likability. Scooters and speeches and sitcom cameos won't cut it. He'll have to play like the Pence of old, or something approaching it, the guy who once reeled in $90 million and bathed in bubbly and confetti with the Giants.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

It's a long shot, no question. The counterpoint, as Pence wrote in his Players' Tribune piece: "I definitely wish some of the greatest times in our lives could go on forever and somehow, I believe they do."

He might not deserve a spot on Texas' 25-man roster. He might not snag one. His professional baseball career could end with a whimper rather than a bang, as so many do.

But it's nearly impossible to root against Hunter Pence. 


All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.