Jon Miller, elite baseball announcer, told me a story Tuesday afternoon -- in his familiar cadence -- as we sat in the visiting manager's office at Citi Field, a story that illustrates outfielder Hunter Pence's approach to hitting.
"One of the guys, I think it was Brett Pill -- he had a home run Sunday as a pinch hitter -- somebody asked him if Hunter Pence ever gave him any hitting tips. And he says, 'Well, you know, it's interesting. I talk to him, and I talk to Buster [Posey]. And Buster will give me some real technical tips, on this pitcher or that pitcher, that are very helpful. Hunter gives me tips, too, but his tip is always, 'Hit the bleep out of it!'"
Miller laughed, loudly, and so did I, having just discussed this approach with Pence.
"You know, just go up there and try to hit the bleep out of it," Miller continued, chuckling. "In other words, just go up there and hit it as hard as you can. Which is pretty much what it looks like he's doing."
There are plenty of metrics to use for Pence, reigning National League Player of the Week and the hottest hitter in baseball for about a month now. In his past 24 games, Pence is hitting .391/.462/.792, with 10 home runs and 29 runs batted in. Much of that damage came in a six-game stretch from Sept. 10-15, when he hit two home runs in a game, knocked in six runs, knocked in seven runs, and each of those performances came in separate contests.
The recent hot streak has Pence poised to finish this season with a career high in home runs (he's already tied his best mark with 25), in addition to OPS+ (143) and wins above replacement (4.3, per Baseball-reference.com).
So, right: Hunter Pence has been hitting the bleep out of the ball. But don't mistake his eschewing hitting mechanics for a thoughtless approach to hitting. His approach is less Walt Hriniak and more Miyamoto Musashi, the 17th century Japanese swordsman, writer and artist.
"I definitely read a lot, I study the mind," Pence told me as we discussed his approach to the game at his locker Tuesday afternoon. "One of the most important things is, 'Amidst violent chaos' -- this is from Miyamoto Musashi -- 'you have to be calm and poised within.'" (That Musashi parenthetical I'd never encountered before, in a baseball clubhouse or anywhere else.)
"And he was speaking of war, and this is not war," Pence continued. "But it is kind of a violent chaos. There's huge competition at the highest level -- a bunch of fans, cameras -- and being calm and relaxed within, not letting that affect you, even if it's the playoffs, whatever the case may be. So I think there's a strength to relaxing and being fluid."
So while Pence acknowledged that he's always aware of what that night's pitcher throws, his primary objective in the hours before the game is to not focus on the game.
"Relaxing, so you can have as intense a focus as possible on the game," Pence said of his pregame ritual. "You grind or think too much sometimes if you get in there, looking at all the percentages and numbers. I tried that, and it gets, almost, in my way. So for me, I have to force myself to relax more. Of course, you see the pitches they throw, but I almost thought, for me, the percentages got in the way, because I'd be like, Aah, there was supposed to be this percentage of that pitch, and looking for pitches as opposed to trusting the athleticism."
It makes for a fascinating dynamic. Pence, an obvious max-effort player, whose sometimes-awkward motions only accentuate how noticeable his exertion is, thrives by finding calmness within those flailing limbs.
"He is a leader in that clubhouse," Miller said. "And it's because of the example he sets. He runs out everything. And I mean, it's September -- they're out of it. Still, he sprints to first on every ground ball to short, races all over the outfield, still stealing bases. And he's doing better now, when you'd think all that would've caught up to him, physically, than he did at any other time of the season. I mean, physically, he is a marvel."
That's not any accident, according to Pence, who completely revamped his offseason training regimen last winter.
"I also feel like I'm a little bit faster this year, and a lot of that credit goes to the offseason training, and trainers that I used," Pence said. "They put a lot of hard work into that. To be 30, and to be faster than I've ever been, is really phenomenal.
"I had to buy into a system I didn't believe in before," Pence continued, referring to his work with trainers Nicole Gabriel and John Fish. "I always thought lifting heavy weights was the way to get -- you know, my goal every offseason is to be the best player I can, to work as hard as I can. I worked extremely hard, but in the wrong direction."
The results have included a significant improvement in his defensive performance, no matter which metric you favor, and both a career high in stolen bases with 21, and more important, a huge jump in success rate, from 63 percent before this year to 91 percent this season.
The player Pence is now, between his hitting, defense and baserunning, is likely to make him significantly richer in the near future, when he hits free agency as one of the most sought-after outfielders on the open market. That is, if the Giants don't keep him first.
"Pence has been other places already," Miller said. "And his final numbers are going to be really big. So I'm sure his agent is saying, let's find out -- maybe the Yankees want him. Maybe the Red Sox want him. You know, he's right-handed power. A harder commodity to get. And he's a good outfielder. And he seems to have endless energy ... So will he be around? I don't know. It sounds like they want him to be. It sounds to me like they're going to try like hell to."
In the meantime, facing the final games of a season that will largely dictate the size of his biggest contract, Pence is more centered than he's ever been.
"It's an ongoing process," Pence said. "It's not like I've mastered relaxing. It's a constant, daily thing. And I know I have a lot more to learn ... but I think every day, I'm trying to learn more and get better. So who knows what the future holds. We have today. And my goal is to go as hard as I can today, and also to enjoy the competition."