Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thoughts on Torii Hunter

Before the twelve-player blockbuster between the Marlins and Blue Jays took place early this evening, the baseball internet story of the day was the Tigers pursuit of outfielder Torii Hunter.  Hunter visited Detroit today to meet with Tigers brass and some thought he might sign as soon as today.  He left the city without a contract offer and there is no guarantee the Tigers will sign him, but there is obvious mutual interest and the Tigers are still believed to be the favorites to land him.

It's no secret that the Tigers are in need of a corner outfielder for at least a year while youngsters Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia continue to develop.  They also want to upgrade their defense anywhere they can as well as add some speed.  Finally, they could also use a right-handed batter who can hit southpaws.  Hunter would provide all of that, but he does come with some uncertainty.

There is not much question about his defense.  According to Defensive Runs Saved (+15 runs) and Ultimate Zone Rating (+10), he would be a substantial improvement over any of the Tigers corner outfielders.  He also ranked third among right fielders on the Fielding Bible Awards and was rated by fans participating in Tom Tango's Fan Scouting Report as one of the best right fielders in the game.  By most accounts, he can still cover ground in the outfield at age 37 and has one of the best arms in the business.  Thus, he would fit in very nicely at either corner of Comerica Park's vast outfield. 

The Spider Man would also add some speed to one of the slowest line-ups in the game.  He does not steal a as many bases as he once did (just 9 in 10 attempts this year), but is a smart base runner.  According to the Baseball Prospectus base running runs statistic, he contributed five runs with his base running in 2012.

As an added bonus, he is widely regarded as a strong character guy; a great teammate and team leader.  Angels fans might question the value of that given they missed the playoffs the last three years, but it can't hurt.  Remember that reliever Octavio Dotel mentioned on a couple of occasions that the Tigers needed a more vocal leader.

Any questions about Hunter revolve around his age and batting skills.  At first glance, he appears to be aging gracefully posting career bests in both batting average (.313) and on-base percentage (.365) in 2012.  However, his walk rate dropped from 9.5% in 2009-2011 to an alarmingly low 6.5% in 2012.  He also struck out  at the highest rate in his career- 22.8% versus a career average of 18.2%.  Additionally his elevated BABIP (.389) indicates that his high batting average may have been partially a result of luck.  

The other problem last year was his drop in power.  His Isolated Power (.139) was his lowest since 2000 and he failed to hit 20 home runs for only the second time in 12 years (the other time was in his injury-shortened 2005 season).  The reason is because he had the highest ground ball (52%) and line drive (23%) rates of his career.

One theory is that Hunter was trying to hit more ground balls and line drives rather than fly balls to compensate for declining power.  Another is that he changed his approach batting in between rookie sensation Mike Trout and future hall of famer Albert Pujols.  Either way though, his unsustainably high BABIP makes it unlikely he'll keep his batting average and on-base-percentage at the same levels going forward. It will be especially difficult if he can't get his walk and strikeout rates back near his career averages.

If he was younger, the trends of 2012 would be less worrisome, but at age 37, you have to be  concerned about whether he is genuinely losing some batting skill.  My guess is he's more likely to hit for a .750-.775 OPS in 2013 than .800+.  His career beyond next year (and you can bet he'll require at least a two-year deal) becomes even more uncertain

With everything else he brings to the table a mid ,700s OPS would probably fit the Tigers immediate needs pretty well, especially when you remember that he's replacing the likes of Brennan Boesch and Quintin Berry who both OPSed under .700 with inferior defense in 2012. 

Hunter would almost certainly be an upgrade for one year anyway, but might not live up to the hype he's already getting from many fans and media.

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