It’s rare that a player goes from non-roster invitee to All-Star, but Hunter Pence is a rare player. Until his last two years in San Francisco, Pence thrived with an unorthodox hitting, running, and throwing style. Nothing he did resembled any other player in baseball. That’s part of what made him so endearing, but weird mechanics or no, the aging curve comes for us all. At 36, it wouldn’t have been shocking if he decided to call it a career, but Pence wasn’t satisfied.
He spent the offseason working with Doug Latta, the hitting coach who helped transform Justin Turner. Latta helped Pence develop a new swing, and Pence put it to work in the Dominican Winter League. His performance there was good enough to net him a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers. A flier taken by what was supposed to be a noncompetitive team is now looking like the steal of the season.
Pence is hitting .294/.353/.608 at the All-Star break. He’s already hit 15 home runs, his most since 2014. According to Statcast, his hard-hit rate has jumped seven percentage points to 45.9, and his average exit velocity is in the 94th percentile. His performance hasn’t been fluky, in other words.
Pence is currently on the injured list with a groin strain, and it doesn’t appear that he’ll be back immediately after the All-Star break. He should be back by the trade deadline on July 31st as the playoff race ramps up.
He’s helped the Rangers to a 48-42 record at the All-Star break. That hasn’t been enough to threaten the Astros, but it has put the Rangers within striking distance of a Wild Card berth at least before one looks at the projections. The outlook for Texas looks much less rosy at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus where the Rangers have a 2.1 and 2.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, respectively.
Pence is one of their more attractive trade chips should the Rangers decide to sell, but maybe the Rangers don’t entirely believe these prognostications. That wouldn’t be entirely delusional. It’s hard to convince a projection system that Pence is one of the best designated hitters in the league, that Shin-Soo Choo is playing like it’s 2015 again, and that Lance Lynn is an ace. A 2 percent chance of making the playoffs does seem low for this team.
Still, even in the best-case scenario, the best Texas can hope for is a Wild Card berth, and is it really worth hanging onto tradable players for a one-game crapshoot?
There are contending teams starved for offense that should be interested in Pence. Cleveland immediately comes to mind as a team that needs more pop especially in the outfield where Pence can still be serviceable. Things don’t look as dire as they did now that Oscar Mercado and Jordan Luplow are up and producing, but Cleveland outfielders still rank 26th in the majors in wRC+. Their designated hitters have been even worse at just a 74 wRC+ which puts them dead last. It’s not certain that Cleveland will be buyers at the deadline, though, as they are apparently listening to offers for Trevor Bauer.
The Phillies are currently in the second wild card spot, but they’ve been a tad fortunate to be this good. Their base runs record is just 40-50, and they’ve played like the third-best team in the NL East. They’ve also lost two outfielders for the remainder of the season. Andrew McCutchen is out for the rest of the season due to an ACL tear, and Odúbel Herrera has been suspended for domestic violence and is ineligible for the remainder of the season, including the postseason. There’s also a chance that Jake Arrieta could undergo season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur from his throwing arm. Jay Bruce, Scott Kingery, and Bryce Harper have helped them weather these losses well, but a reunion with Hunter Pence might help Philadelphia keep their heads above water.
A few other teams could be interested in Pence. The Rays are reportedly looking to add a right-handed bat to help shore up their bench. The A’s haven’t gotten much from Chad Pinder and Stephen Piscotty has taken a step back. The Cardinals will need as many reinforcements as possible in the tightly contested NL Central.
It’s no guarantee that Pence will be on the move, but he has certainly hit well enough to sway a playoff race. Pence’s 2019 is a great story, and it’s a shame that he missed the All-Star game, but that could be rectified if he were part of a playoff run.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.