It’s been a quiet winter on the Hunter Pence front despite a remarkable bounceback effort that made him a finalist for 2019 Comeback Player of the Year honors in the American League. The veteran outfielder tells MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan (Twitter link), though, that he intends to play in 2020 and has been training and talking with multiple clubs about a deal. The Rangers, Pence acknowledged, are not one of those clubs.
Many wrote Pence off after a woeful finish to a seven-year run with the Giants. Originally a deadline acquisition by the San Francisco organization, Pence re-upped on a five-year, $90MM contract and hit quite well in the first three seasons of the deal. However, his offensive output deflated in his final two years with the Giants, as he batted just .249/.297/.368 over the course of 231 games.
Pence went to the Dominican Winter League in the 2018-19 offseason intent on revamping his swing mechanics, and any changes that he made appear to have yielded overwhelmingly positive results. He not only won a roster spot coming out of camp with his hometown Rangers (after settling on a minor league deal); he turned in his best offensive work since 2013. Pence looked reborn with a .297/.358/.552 slash, 18 homers, 17 doubles and a triple through 286 plate appearances. Groin and back strains limited his time on the field, but Pence demonstrated plenty of encouraging secondary trends in 2019.
His walk rate was at its best level since 2016, and Pence’s 21.8 percent strikeout rate marked an improvement over his 2018 level. Beyond that, his hard-hit rate soared (33.1 percent in ’18, 42.6 percent in ’19), as did his average exit velocity (88 mph vs. 91.4 mph) and barrel rate (5.1 percent vs. 9.1 percent).
As a 36-year-old corner outfielder/designated hitter who no longer appears to be a quality defender in the outfield corners, Pence is perhaps best limited to a part-time role — perhaps with an AL club that can afford to give him some at-bats in the DH spot. But considering his success in 2019, there’s little reason that to think that a club wouldn’t take a chance on a once-again productive veteran who is, by all accounts, revered in the clubhouse.