Humble Pence seeks one thing: perfection
Soft-spoken star more comfortable out of spotlight
HOUSTON -- The nuance of the hit-and-run. The art of knowing on which count to steal a base. The science of defensive positioning in the outfield. Astros right fielder Hunter Pence would rather talk about any of those things, and many others, than himself.
He's not really unique in that way, though. He's not the first baseball player to shy away from giving himself a pat on the back in favor of praising teammates. But Pence remains a different kind of soul, an interloper in a clubhouse culture that prefers PG-13 movies over thought-provoking literature.
Pence is humble with his words, but not his actions. He plays right field at Minute Maid Park with the kind of reckless abandon that has made him a fan favorite. He embraces those fans and welcomes their chants, signs -- "Hunter, will you marry me?" -- and autograph requests.
It's part of the job, just like running into a wall to chase a foul ball that landed 20 rows up. Just like throwing out a runner at home plate or hitting a three-run homer. That's what he's paid to do, so why all the fuss?
"Really, to me, baseball is a team sport," Pence says. "There's never one guy or one person that does it all. It takes everyone coming together. You're going to have good games and bad games, and part of being consistent in the game of baseball is staying on an even keel."
Pence, 26, is entering his fourth season with the Astros, who drafted him in the second round in 2004 out of the University of Texas at Arlington. He had an unusual throwing motion and a hitch in his swing, but the Astros knew somewhere in there was a ballplayer. They were right.
In his first three seasons with the Astros, he hit .289 with 67 homers and 224 RBIs and last year made his first National League All-Star team. He's the only right fielder in franchise history to have consecutive 25-homer seasons, and he led all Major League outfielders with 16 assists in 2009.
But those are the kinds of topics Pence is uncomfortable talking about.
"I have moments of not being that great," he said.
His second season was such an example. After busting on the scene with a .322/.360/.539 (average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) line as a rookie in 2007, those numbers fell to .269/.318/.466 in 2008.
So he works. He's a fixture in the batting cage before, and sometimes even after, games. He works to find the one thing that will help him avoid failure. And it paid off last season, when a more mature eye and approach at the plate lifted his OBP back up to .346, resulting in a .282/.346/.472 line.
"In baseball, you're always learning," Pence said. "No one has ever hit 1.000, hit a home run every time and struck every guy out. There are times you feel you're really close and you can have good days, but you're still never perfect.
"That's why I enjoy hitting. I want to perfect every drill I do so I can hit every ball perfect. But it's a round ball and a round bat, and it makes for a tough time."
The quest for perfection doesn't end in the cage. Even during those long hours spent in clubhouses, where players shuffle around in undershirts searching for something to bide their time, Pence is looking for competition. He ditched role-playing video games last year in favor of chess and immersed himself in the game, even reading books on strategy.
This offseason he's been challenging friends to ping pong, which isn't bad for hand-eye coordination.
"I'll compete at anything, anywhere," he said. "I wouldn't say I'm a sore loser, but I'm more of a perfectionist and I have a tough time not being perfect, so I practice to become perfect so I can beat everybody. That's my nature."
And Pence strives for perfection in his personal life, too. He's relocated full-time to Houston from his native Arlington, where he grew up a huge fan of both the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Longhorns -- perhaps the most popular demographic in Texas outside of conservatives. He has a tight-knit group of friends he hangs out with and enjoys going to his favorite restaurants.
He wants to embrace the community and give back. Pence has been supporting Happy Hills Farm, which is a program based out of Granbury, Texas, that aids children who need a safe place to live. He held his first baseball clinic in December and would like to start a charitable foundation.
"That's something I talked about doing and tried to do this offseason, but I didn't put enough work into," he said. "I'm going to try to get some stuff going."
His never-ending desire to better himself doesn't stop there.
Pence watched Super Bowl XLIV intently and paid attention to the way New Orleans Saints quarterback -- and fellow Dallas area native -- Drew Brees handled himself and his success. He recently read the book "The Art of War," an ancient Chinese work of military strategy and tactics that has inspired leaders and been applied to business and managerial strategies.
"I'm very grateful to have the platform we have and it comes with a lot of responsibility," he said. "I don't want to take it for granted, and I want to make sure I'm able to make a difference. I'm very hard on myself and always trying to find ways to do more and be a better person."
Now that he's an established player, has an All-Star appearance under his belt and is finally making big money (he'll make $3.5 million in 2010, more than a $3 million raise from '09), Pence will have more demands on his time and more pressure to perform. He could be the face of the Astros for the next 10 years, taking the baton from Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, who took it from Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.
He's already won over the fans with his hard-nosed style of play, his production at the plate and his willingness to acknowledge them. Even if it's a simple wave and smile after batting practice, Pence can find comfort in the fans. Everything else, he says, is a work in progress.
"The fans are always good to me," he said. "I don't mind signing anything when I'm not at the field and trying to get ready for a game. You have to make time to sign as many as you can. If anyone sees me out and about, it's OK to ask. It doesn't bother me. I'm pretty approachable, I like to think."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.