Watch him in the on deck circle. More than a baseball swing, his routine looks like a discus thrower amping up to spin and let loose. He starts high and drops his left shoulder like an awkward golfer, firing his lumber through an imaginary hitting zone with blind fury until suddenly the action just stops before it should. Repeat. Repeat. He's steadfast in the repetition of what amounts to a baseball horror show. If he was on the dance floor at a wedding people who know how to dance would just stop and stare, because it's like watching a car wreck. Yet, somehow, some way, it works. Meet Philadelphia Phillies' rightfielder, Hunter Pence.
In his uniform, his long and deceivingly lanky frame looks all upper body, his knee-high crimson socks contributing to a Gumby-like appearance. Make no mistake, Hunter Pence is no Gumby. Pence is a specimen at 6'4", 220 pounds. The guy is flat out chiseled. The "hair on fire" fervor he attacks the game with makes it easy to believe he spends his days going from batting cage to gym to eatery to gym to batting cage to bed. If you've ever heard him speak, or have ever seen his commercials for local products, or highlights of his posing on the catwalk at Shane Victorino's charity event, he screams social miscreant. There's a shyness behind a goofy front.
He's a Texas boy. "Let's go to work," is his mantra. "Let's eat," is his celebratory phrase. The picture of social awkwardness he paints in his appearance personifies his game on the field. If my three-year old son starts patterning his game after Pence, I'll ask him kindly to stick to how he plays it -- all out. If I see him copying Pence's swing, or plate discipline, I may hide every bat and ball in the house for a month in the hopes the phase fades and he falls in love with a swing like Bryce Harper's, as long as he stays a Phillies fan.
As disconcerting as it is watching Pence swing, his choice of pitches to hack at is even more exasperating. On Monday night, Pence struck out swinging at a pitch that crossed the forehead of his 6'4" frame. Frustrating, yes, but Pence is an athletic freak, and his hands are lightning fast. His attitude is attack always. In Tuesday night's 3-2 comeback win over the Dodgers, Pence singled in the go ahead run, dropping that awkward stroke furiously, the bat head somehow getting to a pitch about two inches off the dirt around home plate at Dodger Stadium.
There are all too many times he misses that pitch, and Philly fans want to jump through their televisions when it happens. When you swing that awkwardly, and swing at trash, ugly is the only result. I'm not sure there is another hitter in the majors who could swing at the garbage that Pence goes after with the results Pence gets. Writing an article about him is like watching him hit. You want to crush him, but you have to give in to the fact that numbers stipulate that somehow the disaster you're watching will have a happy ending.
Pence is a career .291 hitter. Somehow, that doesn't make sense, but numbers don't lie. The Phillies entered this season under a directive from general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. to change the way they approach hitting at the plate. They were told to work pitchers, take pitches. They were told to get deeper in counts. They were told to use their tools to play small ball. In mid-July, I see a lineup with its pieces finally put back together, and I see a lineup doing the exact same things it always has. It's hard to change hitters when they get into their late 20s and early 30s. They've been doing the same things that got them success for so long, it has become innate.
You just can't help but wonder, though, that if Pence would put just a little effort into not hitting in the offseason, better discipline could result. Have someone vary pitching machine pitches in groups of 10. Out of every 10 pitches have the machine throw three strikes. Do this over and over and over again until Pence starts consistently swinging at just those three pitches in the zone. Repetition breeds better habits. The entire league knows Pence will chase ball one. What if he suddenly didn't? I'm not trying to change that cataclysmic hack of his, I'm asking him to keep it in the holster a little more.
In 3,497 plate appearances in Pence's five-plus year career, he's seen exactly 59 3-0 counts. That is dumbfounding. When you look at his batting splits, he's a .362 hitter when putting the first pitch in play. Those numbers do not take into account the number of swings and misses on first pitches, which would cut that number down immensely. When Pence currently takes a hack in 2012, 32.1% of the offerings he unloads on are out of the strike zone.
At 74%, Pence ranks 136th amongst major league hitters in percentage of contact. Meaning, he gets some part of the bat on the ball, foul or fair, only 74% of the time he cranks up that sideshow of a swing.
Watching Hunter Pence hit is a little frightening. Imagine if he learned to be a bit more discriminating in what he attacks. He'd still look frightening, but pitchers would be terrified.
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer and a Philadelphia sports enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber14.
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