Eight years ago, the last time that the Philadelphia Phillies made the playoffs, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. acquired 28-year-old outfielder Hunter Pence from the Houston Astros as he looked to replace Jayson Werth in right field and give the Phillies the best chance to win their second World Series title in four years. In 2019, the Phillies have their best chance since 2011 to reach the postseason and make a run in October, and Pence, although unlikely to be a fit for the Phillies, is playing himself into being a trade candidate again.
Now 36, Pence is in the midst of an improbable career revival. Just a year ago, the three-time All-Star slashed just .226/.258/.332 in 235 at-bats for the San Francisco Giants. Pence, who the Phillies traded to the Giants in July of 2012, won two World Series titles with the Giants and became a fan favorite in the Bay Area (he was actually featured on an episode of Fuller House). But even most Giants fans felt that after posting a -0.9 fWAR in 97 games a year ago, Pence’s days as a valuable major league contributor were probably over.
With over 1,700 career hits, Pence could have retired or simply tried to go back to the same well one last time ahead of the 2019 season. Instead, he humbled himself. Not only did Pence play for Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League, but in his mid-30s, he adjusted his signature swing and quirky running style.
Pence’s late-career adjustments piqued the interest of his hometown Texas Rangers, who signed him to a minor league deal with an invite to major league Spring Training in February. Right now, that move looks like a stroke of genius by general manager Jon Daniels.
In 54 Spring Training at-bats, Pence hit .315 with three home runs, enough for him to make Chris Woodward’s squad. That, in itself, would have been a cool story. But on top of extending his career by getting to play for the team that he grew up rooting for, Pence has surprisingly become one of the more productive outfielders in the American League with the season more than seven weeks old.
In 101 at-bats in 2019, Pence is slashing .307/.363/.644 with nine home runs and 30 RBIs. While many established veteran players have elected to scoff at the launch angle revolution in baseball, Pence embraced it and is being rewarded for it.
Entering 2019, Pence’s average career launch angle was 4.9. Even a year ago, when he flirted with some changes to his offensive approach, Pence’s average launch angle was 5.7, a career-high. In 2019, his average launch angle is 8.6. Statcast began tracking launch angle in 2015, as they also did with exit velocity – another place where Pence has seen a massive increase. Since 2015, Pence’s average exit velocity is 89.8 mph. In 2019, Pence’s average exit velocity is 93.8 mph. He’s also barreling up 11.1 percent of the pitches that he connects with, the most he’s done since 2015.
All of these trends suggest that Pence’s strong start won’t fizzle out. Whether he’ll continue to hit over .300 with a career-high in home runs per plate appearance isn’t clear. What is clear, though, is that the 22-23 Rangers, who are probably playing above their heads right now, are unlikely to be in playoff contention around the July 31 trade deadline. Pence, who couldn’t get a major league deal a few months ago, is going to become an intriguing trade candidate if he continues to hit at any clip similar to this. Fourth outfielder is a need for the Phillies, but they probably would prefer someone who is also able to play center field. And frankly, Pence may be overqualified to be a fourth outfielder on a contending team come July.
We now laugh at the 2012 Philadelphia magazine cover that billed Pence as “The Next Great Phillie.” In reality, this is only funny because Pence was traded to the Giants a few months later, with the Phillies window appearing to have slammed shut and Pence set for a payday. The grittiness that made many Phillies fans fall in love with him helped the Giants to win two World Series titles. It’s also helped him to reinvent himself in the twilight of his career, and will make him an interesting potential addition for playoff contenders later this summer.