The last time Hunter Pence was on the AT&T Park grounds, he was riding a brand new scooter — courtesy the San Francisco Giants — around the warning track, high-fiving adoring fans down the foul lines and along the outfield wall. He stood on the mound and addressed the throng in ostensibly his last game in a Giants uniform.
On Saturday, Pence stood in a black hooded sweatshirt, emblazoned with the logo for Gone Rogue Chips — a high-protein snack he’s relied on between training sessions the last two months — under a pop-up canopy in Marichal Plaza. His eyes darted up as a sudden downpour hit AT&T Park and the Spartan Race being conducted in and around the stadium.
“This isn’t normal weather,” Pence said. “It’s definitely not a normal offseason.”
After a tumultuous year that ended with a loving sendoff from Giants fans, the ever-joyful Pence is an unrestricted free agent for the first time in a 12-year big league career he insists isn’t over. After re-making his swing and re-making his body, Pence heads out Wednesday to the Dominican Republic for his first ever stint in winter ball.
The purpose? To show big league clubs that, at age 35, he can still hit, and that he can still be a productive piece of a championship team. He already was that for San Francisco — twice — but after hitting a career-worst .226, the team elected to allow Pence to pursue free agency after six and a half seasons in the Bay.
Pence said that “a couple teams” have contacted his agency, but he wants to show what his new swing can do against real pitching. That’s why, after receiving an inspiration award from local charity organization Holiday for Heroes with his wife Alexis, the couple is headed — after a 15-hour travel day with layovers in New York and Detroit — down to La Romana in the Dominican Republic. Pence will play for the Toros del Este, who just happen to wear orange and black.
“I’ll always be a Giant in my heart, all that time,” Pence said. “I’m just in love with the organization, the franchise.”
Pence paused and looked at the stadium in front of him.
“Every time I’m on the grounds of the stadium, it’s a wonderful experience,” he said. “… It’s great. I always have great, wonderful, happy memories here, and I was just overjoyed with the reception and the way the fans did it.”
Two days after that emotional Sept. 30 goodbye, complete with placards bearing his silhouette and a postgame ceremony, Pence and his wife moved into his in-laws’ home in Winnetka, a Los Angeles neighborhood in the west-central San Fernando Valley. His mother in-law Carmen is up at 5:30 every day, making coffee and tea, and pouring orange juice.
“They’re unbelievable,” Pence said. “They love it. Her dad says, ‘You all just stay here. You don’t need to play baseball.’ He’s a Greek man, and he just wants the family as close as possible.”
Pence isn’t quite ready to give up his playing days. He begins every day between 6:30 and 7:00 and drives seven minutes down the road to work with Doug Latta — the swing coach who helped turn around Giants teammate Mac Williamson and spark a renaissance for Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner. They hit for an hour and a half every morning.
Pence first encountered Latta through Williamson. After going on the disabled list with a sprained thumb in April, Pence went 6-for-27 while rehabbing with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats. Then, he took a six-day pause to get help from Latta, who had helped re-tool Williamson’s swing. He went 25-for-76 the rest of the way before being recalled.
Pence, though, didn’t see much success as he went from a projected starter before the injury to a platoon guy and a late-inning pinch hitter when he returned to San Francisco. He hit .226 in 97 major league games. The swing alterations, he said, were just a Band Aid.
“I didn’t have any idea of the concept,” Pence said. “Even my body didn’t have the mobility.”
The new swing, he said, will look a lot different than what fans saw at the end of last season. There will be less movement, for one. Two, he’ll be more athletic within that swing.
Four days a week, he drives half an hour from his 90-minute hitting sessions with Latta to a workout facility in Thousand Oaks run by former big league outfielder Marlon Byrd. He trains in the David Weck double-pulse running method, becoming more flexible, stable and balanced.
“He’s training mobility that’s conducive to the rotation that is needed for this move,” Pence said. “My arm couldn’t even do that. I didn’t have the flexibility to really get inside the ball. My way of getting inside the ball is like a chicken wing, and it needs to do something totally different. After two months of doing it and asking, and getting a little better, getting a little better, now it’s kind of second nature.”
All that work has been to service a fundamental alteration in Pence’s swing: Its path. Pence’s entire life, he’s been taught to hit down on the ball to create backspin — most players his age were brought up with that philosophy as a guiding principle. Now, he’s swinging on more of an upward path, an idea espoused by none other than the late Ted Williams, who called it an “upswing.” Some in more modern circles have another word for it: Launch angle. The way Latta trains it, though, it’s more matching the swing’s upward path to the ball’s downward trajectory.
“Basically, a longer contact point, and it’s on-plane, and it allows you to drive through with your back side, use your legs, and use your powerful muscles,” Pence said.
He’s already had a bit of a test run, down in Southern California.
As another torrent comes down onto the tent, Pence was reminded that, last Thursday, when it was supposed to rain in Los Angeles, he was finally able to hit on a field and face live pitching at Pierce College.
“The head coach was great. They were having a scrimmage, and he said, ‘Our pitchers would love to face you,'” Pence said. “So, I got to face a lot of their young pitchers. I faced one of their guys, and then all of them wanted to face me. I faced four others in a row, right afterwards. Then, they said, ‘Hey, if you want to join the scrimmage, come back.'”
Pence, who had been hitting for two hours, went home for an hour to eat a sandwich, then returned to play six innings of the scrimmage. He started hitting at 9:45 in the morning, and didn’t get home until 5 p.m.
“It was fun,” he said. “I woke up the next day really sore … It’s been a lot of fun. There’s good days and there’s bad days. Some of the workouts with Marlon, there are parts of my body that I’ve never trained before. This whole coiling method, and you combine that with having to hit, it was a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun. It’s like a new toy.”Hunter PenceMLBSan Francisco Giants