Hunter Pence was standing next to manager Chris Woodward in the dugout before his at-bat in the fourth inning Thursday night at Minute Maid Park.
Pence, who was 0 for 3 with a walk in Friday’s 3-0 loss to the Houston Astros, has revived his career with the Texas Rangers, turned to Woodward and said, “I’m going to murder a baseball right now.”
Pence is hitting .343 with 23 RBIs and forced Woodward into making him an everyday player with an eye-opening first two months. After warning Woodward in the dugout, Pence ripped a two-run home run to right field a few moments later. It’s his sixth of the year. He had a second homer stolen by Houston Astros’ right fielder Josh Reddick in the ninth inning that would have put the Rangers ahead. Reddick made the catch above the wall, wiping out three RBIs for Pence, who had just four homers and 24 RBIs in 97 games with the Giants a year ago.
“It’s hard to say he exceeds anybody’s expectations because he’s such an impressive human being,” Woodward said.
But the production Pence has provided has been a pleasant surprise for Woodward and the Rangers. His emergence as more than just a veteran bat off the bench has altered Woodward’s lineup — including forcing center fielder Delino DeShields to Triple-A Nashville and plugging Joey Gallo in at center.
Pence’s renaissance at the plate is simply explained but far from simply executed. He altered his swing during Winter Ball and further workouts before spring training, and the shorter, more compact bat path he’s employed continues to be a godsend. Pence, when explaining the change in his swing, straddled the delicate balance between the simple beauty of hitting and the head-scratching, confounding complexity of the hardest thing to do in sports.
“From a scientific perspective, the shorter you are to the ball, you create more time,” Pence said. “The longer you’re through the zone, you create more opportunity to hit the ball, and the more compact you are, the more power you create with less effort.”
“If you can learn how to do those things — be shorter to the ball and be connected to your power — those things should inherently give you a better chance to succeed and not have to be as accurate,” he added. “Sometimes baseball can be simple. You still have to see it and hit it, and be in position. It’s still definitely not easy.”
Pence equated his altered swing to playing the percentages on making good contact. “You’re playing higher percentages,” he said.
Pence said the work in the offseason, along with advice from Rangers coaches Luis Ortiz, Callix Crabbe and coordinator of run production Alex Burg, have helped revitalize his career.
“It all kind of came together where it works for me,” he said. “Do I know it’s going to continue at this pace? No, but I still feel like I’m trying to get better every day, and I feel really good.”
The willingness to be open to change was integral, Pence said. He did it out of a love for the game. He knew his career was nearing its end without an improvement at the plate.
“When you lose your job, you think, ‘Do I still want to play?’” he said. “Yes. So how can I be the best self to give myself the best opportunity to play? This was the strategy that I employed to go try to learn and see if I could make a difference and make an adjustment.
“I do think that’s an important lesson in all aspects of life,” he said. “If you close your mind to learning, you lose out on opportunities to improve in any walk of life. I definitely believe in an open mind, and always looking to get a little better enhances everyone’s life and in every profession or art.”