Pence almost too good to be true
Giants outfielder has an unrivaled passion for the game
Hunter Pence went in to see Giants manager Bruce Bochy the other day, which qualifies as fairly significant news around that baseball team. Pence is about as low maintenance as a player can be. His deal is simple. He plays hard. He plays everyday. Simple, right?
The Giants have played 268 games since Pence arrived almost two years ago, and Pence has played in all of them. That's all he asks of his manager. More on that later.
No player in baseball -- and I realize this a fairly risky statement -- works harder or cares more. He has been that way since the Astros summoned him to the big leagues seven years ago. That was a largely veteran team, and those veterans were amused by his nearly fanatical approach. Brad Ausmus and Craig Biggio still remember him diving for warmup throws between innings.
They figured he would calm down because, hey, baseball is a marathon. Maybe that's the beauty of Pence. He turned 31 a few weeks ago and has played 1,103 big league games. He's a two-time All-Star who has been traded twice and won a championship as a member of the 2012 Giants. He also got a nice $90-million contract last September.
Yet Pence cares every bit as much now as he did in those first days with the Astros. He's relentless in his work ethic, meticulous with nutrition, preparation, etc. To put it another way, he's absolutely what we'd like every professional athlete to be. And, yeah, if you see bags of kale chips in the Giants clubhouse, they're probably Hunter's.
His passion is one of the things driving these first-place Giants, this spectacularly enjoyable team off to a 29-18 start with a three-game lead in the National League West. Funny thing is, the Giants began the season thinking the early chunk of their season was so difficult that they just needed to survive it.
Instead, they've run up the National League's best record and are poised to make a run at their third championship in five years. They've gotten nice offensive contributions from Buster Posey, Angel Pagan, Michael Morse and others. Their bullpen has been tremendous. Their rotation is better than a lot of people predicted it would be. And their manager, as liked and respected a man as there is in the game, will one day have a plaque hanging in the Hall of Fame.
And there's Pence, who is again doing pretty much everything well. He's hitting .286 with an .801 OPS. He has 11 doubles, three triples, four home runs, six stolen bases, 20 walks. Everything, right? His 1.4 WAR is second among Giants regulars to Pagan.
Now about that energy and drive. What's it worth to this first-place team? It may be hard for those of us on the outside to measure it, but the Giants feed off it, appreciate it, admire it.
Bochy first noticed Pence when he was the National League manager at the 2011 All-Star Game. Because Pence is tall and gangly, Bochy assumed this was a skinny kid.
Yet in the NL clubhouse, he noticed two things. First, he saw Pence without a shirt and saw that he was absolutely ripped, that he looked strong as an ox.
Bochy was impressed by something else about Pence. That was his personality. That is, his excitement, personality, joy and interaction with teammates.
He was competitive, too. If it was an All-Star Game, Pence wanted to win it. That's why they're keeping score, right?
When the Giants went looking for a hitter later that summer, Bochy let his boss, general manager Brian Sabean, know that Pence might be a good addition. It would be another year before Sabean was able to acquire Pence, who was a member of the Phillies by then.
And in 268 games since, Pence has been everything Bochy hoped he'd be. His pre-game speeches during the 2012 postseason may have helped light a fire under the Giants, and he could have passed for the happiest guy on earth as the World Series trophy was hoisted that fall.
Anyway, back to the conversation Pence had with his skipper the other day. Pence asked why he wasn't in the lineup. He clearly wasn't happy about this. Turns out, the whole thing had been a miscommunication, but it was one of those conversations that reminded Bochy why he loves this guy.
"You're playing, Hunter," Bochy told him. "You're always going to be playing."
Bochy remembers Pence showing up at his door only one other time. That was late last season.
Pence was a few weeks away from free agency, and as it became clear he'd be a hot commodity on the market, he had other ideas.
He told Bochy that he did not want to be a free agent. He told him he was right where he wanted to be, that he liked his teammates and his manager, that he liked everything about playing for the Giants, especially those huge crowds and the incredible atmosphere at AT&T Park.
Pence signed a five-year, $90-million extension a couple of weeks later. Sure, he almost certainly could have gotten more if he'd tested the waters of free agency. On the other hand, he was mature enough to know that the Giants offered him everything he ever dreamed of having in baseball, and he wanted to stay.
Every once in awhile, a guy comes along who gets it, a guy who is almost too good to be true. That's how the Giants feel about Hunter Pence.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.