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Torii Hunter’s Bat Goes Cold

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Torii Hunter’s defensive struggles are well known at this point in the season. If you trust DRS, UZR, RZR, or basic BABIP, he’s been one of, if not, the worst outfielders in the game. I’ll have a piece today over at TigsTown about that particular issue, but it’s also running alongside a rather troubling stretch at the plate. Hunter doesn’t bring defensive value anymore, but his bat has vanished over the last three weeks. Observe:

Split PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
March 31 to May 6 107 0.333 0.355 0.529 0.384 143
May 7 to May 26 68 0.172 0.221 0.297 0.233 39

You’re not going to lose your mind over 70 PA and I obviously picked the period of time from his peak to his nadir, but it’s troubling because he can’t get away with this for any length of time. Even when you include Hunter’s hot start, FanGraphs has him at -0.2 WAR and Baseball-Reference has him at -0.7 WAR. Baseball Prospectus calls it -0.1 WARP. It’s bad.

This is a bad season. The power is there, but he has a .303 OBP in more than 170 PA and is bringing no value in the field. The Tigers need him to turn it around because they don’t have an obvious replacement and you can’t hide him at DH on this team. A guy with Hunter’s star power isn’t going to ride the pines on this team, it’s just not how they do business. It’s going to be Hunter, sink or swim.

One of the biggest concerns is that Hunter, who swings at pitches outside of the zone more than the vast majority of players in the league has stopped making contact with them. This year he swings about 37% of the time at pitches outside of the zone with league average being 29%. That’s who Torii is, but when you break it down by contact outside the zone, it’s getting ugly. Up through May 6th, he was making contact 64.9% of the time when he left the zone. Since he’s making contact 52.5% of the time when he leaves the zone. League average is 63.9%. He swings a lot, but he used to make contact a good amount when he chased. That isn’t happening right now.

The margin for error for a guy like Hunter who is swing happy and doesn’t walk is small. If you slump at all, you slump hard. And while his BABIP is down, obviously, this isn’t hard luck slumping. Hard contact is harder to come by and he’s reverting back to his pre-2012 pull happy style.

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They’re going to have to ride this out, but Torii needs to make an adjustment. The pitching staff has provided him (and Jackson and Davis) some cover over the last few weeks by being amazing and then being terrible, but you can’t hit at the top of the order or in the middle of it if you’re performing like this.

Torii Hunter Plays The Field

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A couple of weeks ago I took a look at Torii Hunter’s late career offensive resurgence and explained that a change in his approach has paid off for the Tigers’ RF. Hunter has had a very nice career overall and was once consider one of the game’s elite defensive players. If you’re curious about Hunter’s current and former swing, check out the link above, but thanks to a reader question over the weekend, this post is going to discuss Hunter’s defense.

The genesis of the discussion was the reader wondering how Hunter’s defensive numbers look this season compared to last season because the reader noticed he’s seemed to make some bad plays out in RF. My eyes tell me the same thing. Hunter has made a number of poor plays this season at bad times.

Let’s take a look at Torii Hunter’s defense this season and throughout his career. Let’s start up front and say that I’m going to present the numbers, drawing heavily from Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and leaving the reputation to the side. Hunter won a lot of gold gloves and was all over the Web Gems in the late 90s and early 00s. You may remember him making amazing plays in center, but this presentation is about data. I don’t feel comfortable giving you a real scouting report from his early days because that was before the days of MLB Network and MLB.TV when I couldn’t watch all the baseball I wanted to. I’ve seen him for 100 games this year so I’ll give you the scouting report from this season and the raw data from other seasons.

Let’s take a look at the overall numbers. Remember a few things. Up through 2009 he played almost exclusively CF and after he started blending into RF and has played just one game in center since the start of 2011. What is important here is that defensive metrics judge players compared to average at their position meaning that a +10 in CF is a better defensive player than a +10 in RF. Additionally, defense peaks early. Hunter should get worse as he ages, everyone does.

Total Zone is an approximation based on play by play data that covers players up through 2001. In 2002 UZR becomes available and DRS comes in 2003. So these numbers will get more accurate as we move forward and Hunter’s best seasons happen to overlap with the infancy of advanced defense. Don’t take these numbers as gospel. They aren’t perfect, especially early. I’m just presenting the information. A final aside is that defensive metrics are generally a good description of what happened in a given season, but they take very big samples (close to 3 years) to provide a lot of predictive value about a player’s true skill level. Every 10 runs by these defensive scores equals about 1 win.

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This Fld number is Total Zone until 2002 and then UZR. This is what FanGraphs uses for the defensive component of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). What you see on the surface here is that Hunter is essentially an average defensive player over his career with a couple of fantastic seasons and a couple of poor ones. The overall picture says Hunter isn’t a great defensive player overall and is pretty much in line with his career numbers this season.

Now let’s take a look at UZR and DRS in his career in CF only.

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What is pretty interesting about these numbers is that DRS has almost always liked Hunter better than UZR. DRS is scored by hand and UZR is done with an algorithm. This consistency likely indicates that Hunter is doing something very pleasing to the human eyes. Let’s look at RF:

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I think this is pretty interesting. He didn’t play a ton of RF in 2010, so I’m not too worried about it. In 2011 and 2012 DRS likes Hunter better in RF than UZR does, but in 2013 it flips. And that actually corresponds perfectly to what I’m seeing with my own eyes. Hunter’s range actually looks pretty good to me this season. What Hunter is doing poorly this year, in my opinion, is coughing up easy plays. I can think of at least five instances off the top of my head where Hunter got himself to medium difficulty fly ball and he just botched the catch after doing the hard work. He’s also made some atrocious throws in terms of accuracy and has misjudged the wall a few times. Hunter is making bad mistakes this year, and the data seems to suggest that this might be new.

You can see that he’s been pretty consistent in making errors in his career but is already at his quota for the season:

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So the defensive metrics disagree about Hunter. Defensive Runs Saved thinks he’s pretty good (averaging about +5 DRS per season since 2003). Ultimate Zone Rating thinks he’s right about average overall with some heavy year to year variation. If you trust UZR, he’s having an average season at the end of an average career. Defensive Runs Saved says he’s having a bad season at the end of a pretty good career. In total, over the last 11 seasons the difference between Hunter’s UZR and DRS works out to about 4.5 WAR. That’s an interesting difference and it’s one that makes sense.

Let’s take a look at another statistic that I like. What is his defensive efficiency? What percentage of the balls hit to his defensive zone does he catch and how many out of zone plays does he make?

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In his CF days he made more plays that average early in his career and started falling behind a little bit as time went on. That makes sense. In his early days he had great range and as he aged the young kids coming up started passing him. Here are the numbers in RF.

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This continues the theme we’ve been seeing. Hunter was right around average in his first two seasons and has basically collapsed this season. Hunter is making fewer plays on balls in his zone this season, likely because of the misplays I’ve been talking about. It’s not limited range, it’s Hunter making mistakes. That’s how I blend this information and my own observation. Hunter seems just as athletic, but he’s not executing.

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What these two charts show us is that Hunter has been in the ballpark of league average in making plays outside of his defensive zone. Recognize that these numbers were brand new in 2003 and are constantly being refined, he’s sometimes been better and sometimes worse than average.

So what does this all mean? For me, it says that Hunter has obviously declined as he’s aged but that he hasn’t lost a ton of his range relative to what you would expect given typical aging curves. Generally speaking, human scorers like Hunter’s defense more than the machines, until this season when the humans have turned on him. That turn, which lines up with what the plays/balls in zone data tells us and my own visual inspection, tells us that Hunter is getting hit this season for making mistakes fielding the ball, not getting to it.

On several occasions Hunter has gotten to  medium difficulty ball and dropped it or misjudged the wall or given up on a ball in front of him a little too early. These kind of plays aren’t called for errors, but they are absolutely mistakes made by Hunter that should count against him.

So the story here is that Hunter was probably not quite as good a defender as you thought he was coming up, but that he was pretty good and remains pretty good given his age. This year he’s struggled, not with declining range, but just some stupid mistakes. You can judge that how you will, but it appears to be a sign that his defense could improve rather than continue to decline for the rest of the season. Hunter’s bat has been a nice addition for the Tigers this year and his defense, despite its current issues, is still dramatically better than what Brennan Boesch offered the last few seasons.

Torii Hunter Has Kept It Up

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Aside from re-upping with Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers big offseason move was signing Torii Hunter to a two year deal to man RF at Comerica Park. He was coming off of a career year in which he posted a rather high Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) which led most to believe he wouldn’t perform as well in 2013 as he did in 2012.

That’s a pretty simple belief and one that had a lot of merit. Players don’t often make dramatic changes to their offensive approach in their late 30s and have career renaissances. But after almost 100 games in 2013, it’s starting to look like Hunter’s change is real and sustainable and that he might just be the player he was last year.

Let’s start with a couple quick points. His defensive and baserunner numbers are way down this season. He’s playing around league average in the field and on the bases despite very good numbers in 2012. I can fully confirm the defensive issues as Hunter has made his share of bonehead plays in RF. In general, he’s not the great defender he once was, but he’s been perfectly serviceable out there and is a big step up from Brennan Boesch.

This post is about his offense because that’s the interesting thing. Let’s start with the basic career trends before we get into the last two seasons. If we just look at his basic offensive rate, he’s aged pretty well (what’s wRC+?)

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But the key with Hunter was that he used to hit for more power with a lower on base. As he’s aged, those numbers have trended in opposite directions:

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It’s not the easiest thing to see, but notice how his OBP has been picking up late in his career while his slugging is consistently much lower than it was from 2002-2009. This might make some sense if Torii was becoming a more selective hitter who drew more walks, but that’s not happening:

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Um…what? Hunter is getting his offensive value from his new found OBP, but he’s walking substantially less that he used to. This is quite interesting. Obviously, you’ve figured out by now that the only way to do this is to substantially improve your batting average:

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So this is a pretty clear story. Hunter is picking up his offensive value as he’s gotten older by getting on base via hits more often and hitting for less power than his younger self. In 2012 he posted a career high batting average and in 2013 is just ahead of that pace as I write this. Hunter is having another great offensive season relative to his career norm and age, and he’s doing it with fewer walks and long balls and more base hits.

He’s where the sustainability comes into play. As you can read about at the BABIP link above, you know that significant deviations from career BABIP norms are usually the kind of thing that won’t sustain themselves and players will revert back to normal. Here’s Hunter’s BABIP:

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So that’s way different from anything he’s ever done. Early in his career he pushed .330 a couple times but he’s above .360 the last two seasons. What’s going on here? Well the reports are he has changed his approach as he’s aged in acknowledgement that he is no longer the power bat who hits for extra bases, but now it’s his job to get on for Pujols last year and Cabrera this year.

At the end of last season the word on Hunter was that he had a great year but a lot of it was luck driven by a high-unsustainable BABIP. Well he’s doing it again. We’re now at the point where Hunter has done this for almost 1,000 plate appearances, so it’s time to start believing. The Angels gave him Pujols in 2012 and then he moved to the Tigers in 2013 and got Cabrera, which instructed Hunter that his role would now be different and he would change his approach accordingly.

I’m now at the point where I think this is a real sustainable change. We’ve heard him talk about changing as he’s aged, but anyone can have a lucky year. We’re now to the point where it looks like this is for real. Take a look at his 2012 and 2013 numbers next to each other. Remember LA is a tougher park, but otherwise, this is crazy:

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Hunter is doing pretty much the exact same thing he did last season. More hits, fewer walks, less power than his career numbers and a much higher BABIP. This is the new Torii Hunter and it’s real. It’s not luck. He’s different and it’s working. He may not be the defender or runner he once was, but he’s still league average in a corner and is something close to 20% better than league average at the plate. He’s gone from a power guy with a low on base like Adam Jones to a high OBP, lower power guy that’s just as valuable. That’s pretty good adaptation.

He’s posting the highest swing percentage and highest contact rates of his career. Here’s where it gets good. You can see it in other data. Check out his batted ball data, which only exists back to 2002:

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He’s cutting down on fly balls in exchange for more line drives and ground balls. He knows he doesn’t have the power he used to, so now he’s becoming a singles hitter who occasionally swings for the fences. It’s this type of change that leads me to believe the BABIP change is real and sustainable. Hunter is swinging more and making more contact while hitting the ball in the air less. That’s exactly what I’d tell someone to do if they were aging and trying to stay valuable without a great eye at the plate. Hunter has had some good walking years, but it’s never been his strong suit. Instead of adding discipline in his golden years, he’s adding singles. And it’s working.

Torii Hunter is on track for a 2.5-3.0 WAR season despite very pedestrian defensive and baserunning numbers. He’s doing a very nice job at the plate and there’s no reason to think it’s a fluke. The Tigers gambled on Hunter’s new approach being real and it’s working for them as much as it’s working for him.

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