It is probably too early to start thinking about end-of-the-year awards in baseball.
Still, it’s hard not to project Hunter Pence as a prime candidate for American League Comeback Player of the Year. The Texas Rangers outfielder has been one of the sport’s biggest surprises this season.
Pence is hitting .318 with seven home runs in 26 games. That comes a year after the 36-year-old’s career appeared to be at the end of the line.
In 2018, Pence hit just .226 with four home runs in 97 games for the San Francisco Giants. His $18.5-million salary was a major drag on the payroll.
Now, Pence is a $1-million bargain for the Rangers, who signed the hometown guy to a minor-league free agent a week before spring training began. Pence grew up in Arlington and once parked cars as a teenager at Globe Life Park, the home of the Rangers.
First-year manager Chris Woodward was one person who thought Pence still might have something left. The pair’s teams squared off each other often in recent seasons in the National League West when Woodward was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ third base coach and Pence was playing for the Giants.
Thus, Woodward was glad when Rangers general manager Jon Daniels invited Pence to spring training, though with no promises beyond having a chance to make the team in a reserve role.
Woodward was impressed that Pence wanted to keep playing so badly that he had a stint playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic during the offseason, a rarity for a veteran American player. The rookie manager also liked what he heard from Pence when they had a conversation before the signing.
“What he was telling me from his swinging standpoint and just his commitment to what he was doing in the offseason, and just who he is, I’d bet on that guy every day of the week,” Woodward said. “After getting to know him, he’s invaluable, even if he’s not hitting to be honest with you. The fact that he is, I mean, it’s pretty remarkable to see what he’s done so far.
Like I said, after getting to know him, I’m not surprised just because he’s so committed, and he is so resilient. He doesn’t give in on any pitch ever. His swing looks really good right now. He’s in the zone a long time. He’s got life in his body. He looks like a young kid out there competing his (behind) off. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to be a part of every day. He brings so much life to the team when he’s in the lineup, when he’s not. I love putting him in the lineup.”
Pence has been around the game long enough not to get too excited about good results in a small sample size.
“I mean, it’s so early,” Pence said. “I’m just every day, working on it and trying to get better. Not trying to get too high or too low. If I have a bad game, learn from it. I have a good game, learn from that too. Just come out to try to help win.’
Pence has been finding his way into Rangers’ starting lineup more and more in recent days. However, he is the past the point of his career when he obsesses about playing time. Pence is just happy to still be in the major leagues.
“I’m just here to help win and play the best I can,” Pence said. “Keep preparing to contribute on whatever is necessary. I put a lot of work in this offseason on changing my swing. Sometimes it feels good to have some results, but at the end of the day, it’s just out of pure joy of baseball and trying to help the team win. That’s the main thing.”
The joy has been rubbing off his teammates, including 25-year-old outfielder Joey Gallo, who raved about Pence after his pinch-hit grand slam last week helped the Rangers rally for a victory over the Pirates in Pittsburgh.
“He’s always ready to come in the game,” Gallo said. “I think that says a lot for a guy with that much experience, that much respect in the game, and he’s taking every single out serious, every single game serious. I think it’s very good for us young guys to see that.”