SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Hunter Pence did all the offseason things that a player typically does when entering his final season before free agency.
He hired one personal trainer to design a program for him. He hired another to drill-sergeant him through it. And, because he’s Hunter Pence, he played ping-pong.
Lots and lots and lots of ping-pong.
“Sounds crazy, right?” said Pence, his eyes intense as always. “It works your fast-twitch muscles. You react. I just got a bunch of different friends and we didn’t play games. It was just rallies, as hard and as long as we could.”
Pence’s brother, Howie, mentioned something to him a few months ago: The more ping-pong he played in the winter, the better his seasons turned out to be. While not the most scientific observation in the world, it struck a chord with Pence.
And so the paddles came out, and no need to rally for service.
“It might be a coincidence,” he said, “but it was worth a try.”
Pence didn’t just spend all winter slamming and side-spinning shots. He overhauled the rest of his training regimen, too – and it involved a Superman-like exercise that was as much about clearing mental hurdles as physical ones.
His trainer stacked a bunch of metal footstools until they were nearly 5 feet tall. Then he told Pence to get a running start and jump to the top.
“The first time, I fell flat on my back – I mean as hard as you can fall,” Pence said. “I thought there was no way I could do that. I’d only risk getting hurt.”
Then he watched as his trainer, a 275-pound bodybuilder, leapt to the top in his first attempt. Something in that moment clicked for Pence: He just needed to see it could be done. From then on, his mind wouldn’t limit what his body could do.
Pence tried it again, and this time he wasn’t tentative. By the end, Pence was doing three sets of 15 jumps each. He was leaping tall buildings in a single bound. He felt like a man of steel, too.
“That changed everything,” he said. “Hitting is the exact same thing. It’s about strength and skill, but my belief is it’s the mind that’s most important. That’s the mindset I’m going to have all season – I won’t tell myself I can’t do something.”
That includes hitting at AT&T Park, a mental barrier some hitters never clear. Pence might have reasons to doubt, too, after hitting .219 in 59 games as a Giant following the July 31 trade that brought him from Philadelphia. His historic triple-hit double aside, Pence wasn’t a huge force in the postseason, either. With sliders away his bane, he struck out 17 times and walked just twice in 65 plate appearances in the playoffs.
Yet Pence also drove in 45 runs in his 59 regular-season games as a Giant, he cracked 100 RBIs for the first time in his career, and he provided adequate lineup protection for NL MVP Buster Posey.
It was a mixed bag – and the Giants weren’t going to give Pence a multiyear contract based on his oratory skills alone. GM Brian Sabean already had given out long-term commitments to Matt Cain, Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan.
I asked Sabean: Why only the appetite to go one year with Pence?
“You’ve got to be careful with balancing what you want to do year-to-year with what you need to do long term,” Sabean said. “And arguably, honestly, there’s an interest to see more from him. I think we’d all like to see a little more consistency.”
So the Giants avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract; the 29-year-old right fielder will make $13.8 million this season, and could position himself to make much more as one of the premier free agents next winter.
So even with a great season, Pence could price himself beyond the Giants’ comfort level. This very well might be his last season with the club.
For now, there’s no doubting the vital role he’ll play. Even after an offseason that included very little hitting and an emphasis on lighter, more sports-specific training (and more table tennis than a Midwestern frat house), Pence’s shoulders appear a bit broader and his swing more ferocious than ever.
In a recent batting practice session, he launched one over the berm, out of Scottsdale Stadium and nearly to the intake door of the city jail just beyond.
Watching a hitting group with Pence, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, it’s hard to imagine the Giants will rank dead last in the majors in home runs, which is something they managed to overcome while winning their second World Series title in three years.
Sabean has no concerns that Pence would be able to transition from playing in launching pads in Houston and Philly.
“He’s got light tower power and our park in general is geared to a right-handed power hitter,” Sabean said. “Besides, he doesn’t have to hit home runs to be successful. Just have quality at-bats, shore up his on-base percentage, get hits with runners in scoring position.
“He’s got a lot in his favor. He’s always been known as a good all-around player and those are hard to find. Especially in the National League, it’s such a dangerous combination to find a player who can do things in the lineup and contribute on the defensive side, too.
“And he’s very committed. It doesn’t take much to motivate him.”
Pence hasn’t groused one word about the one-year contract, even though he made it clear last summer that he dearly wanted to sign for the long haul. He has been his usual, frenetic self this spring, chomping on plates of kale as part of his paleo diet, gulping from a cherished, giant coffee mug that a Giants fan sent to him, hiking up his black socks to his knees and leaving jet wash with batting-practice swings so hard it looks like he’s trying to ring the strength bell at the county fair.
How can you call it a walk year? Pence never does anything below an all-out sprint.
“I don’t think I go into this season to show anything,” said Pence, with a bit of fire in his voice that hearkened back to his motivational speeches last October. “I go into it hoping to give my all for the team. That’s who I am. That’s how I play.
“You’re not guaranteed another day of life. None of us are. People talk about goals. My goal is in every moment, to be my best for the team. Just give my focus and my mind and my heart to whatever obstacle is in front of me.”
“Does that make sense?” he said.
Nothing crazy about it.