Last year, the Tigers outfield was dreadful. Mostly thanks to the disastrous performance of Brennan Boesch, they flanked Austin Jackson with a rotating wheel of scrubs, and ended up using journeyman minor leaguer Quintin Berry as their regular left fielder in the postseason. Given how much they’ve already committed to winning in the short term, an upgrade in the outfield was absolutely necessary. Today, they made that upgrade by signing Torii Hunter to a two year, $26 million contract.
With Hunter, there are two competing viewpoints, both of which have their roots in factual basis.
1. Hunter has 12 consecutive seasons where he’s been worth at least +2.4 WAR, and in terms of overall value, he’s shown no signs of slowing down. His 130 wRC+ and +5.3 WAR in 2012 were both career highs. He hasn’t posted a wRC+ below 113 since 2005, and his three best individual offensive seasons have come in the last four years.
Even after moving out of center field, Hunter still remains an above average defensive outfielder. He can hit, he can field, he can run, and he’s regarded as a great teammate with all the intangibles a team wants in a leader. His track record shows that he’s a durable and consistent above average player, and even while he’s gotten older, he’s also gotten better.
2. Looking strictly at the results masks a litany of red flags, suggesting that the results Hunter got in 2012 aren’t likely to be repeated again in the future. After finding success as a relatively patient hitter, Hunter shifted into aggressive-hacker mode last year, swinging at 34% of the pitches he was thrown out of the strike zone and seeing his contact rate drop down to just 74.5%, well below his recent marks during his years of offensive improvement. This change in approach led to a significant drop in walk rate and uptick in strikeout rate.
Meanwhile, his power continued to deteriorate, continuing a recent downwards trend in power that lines up with expectations from an aging veteran. His offensive performance was inflated by a .389 BABIP that is 82 points above his career average, and +1.5 of his +5.3 WAR was tied up in UZR and Baserunning numbers that look like anomalies compared to his recent track record. Hunter’s overall success in 2012 was mostly based on factors that aren’t as predictive as the core offensive metrics that seem to suggest his skills are atrophying, and if these trends continue, he might not be a good hitter for much longer.
These thoughts are essentially at odds with each other, but both are basically true. Hunter has been a consistently productive player whose results have gotten better with age, but his success last year does look like something of a house of cards. So, the question isn’t whether Hunter will regress in 2013 and 2014, but how much, and whether he’ll be able to sustain enough value to be worth $13 million per year even if he doesn’t match what he did in Anaheim.
Let’s start with his BABIP, which is the the clearest outlier on his 2012 statline. Obviously, a .389 mark isn’t sustainable, and there’s no question that any decent projection for next season is going to have that number coming way down. However, it’s worth noting that the BABIP spike is explainable to some degree by factors under Hunter’s control. His 52% GB% was the highest of his career, and his 5% infield fly rate was the lowest of his career. Ground balls go for base hits more often than fly balls, and infield flies are essentially automatic outs. This change in batted ball distribution would force us to expect a BABIP surge, especially the drastic change in pop-ups.
From 2002 to 2011, Hunter hit 189 infield flies for an average of 16 popups per 600 plate appearances. Last year, he had in 584 trips to the plate, he only had five infield flies, or about 1/3 as many as his career suggested. That’s 11 extra outs that he essentially took off the board by not hitting weak flies to the infield.
Additionally, Hunter had never bunted more than five times in a season, and his career high for bunt base hits in a season was three, back in 2007. Last year, he laid down 11 bunts, and he reached safely in seven of them – more base hits via the bunt than he had in the previous four years combined. While a batter isn’t completely in control of how many bunts they can lay down for base hits, there’s also a significant skill component there, and Hunter should get credit for taking advantage of what the defense gave him.
For further examination, here’s Hunter’s 2012 ball in play distribution put up next to what that would have been had he maintained his 2011 batted ball ratios.
Hunter basically turned 31 fly balls into 25 groundballs and six line drives. Of those 31 fly balls, 13 would have been infield flies had his 2011 distribution carried over, and of the 25 extra ground balls, five were bunt base hits. It’s no wonder his BABIP went through the roof. This isn’t a case where it was all just balls falling in between hapless defenders. Hunter hit differently, and part of the change in results was simply due to a change in batted ball profiles.
That change has a cost, of course, as more ground balls means fewer extra base hits, and this change is directly tied to his career low (as an everyday player, anyway) .139 ISO. His declining power is about quantity of opportunity, not how far the ball flies when he does put it in the air. His 16% HR/FB rate from 2012 is basically dead on his career average, and actually up slightly from 2011. Hunter hit fewer home runs because he hit fewer fly balls, but those fewer fly balls meant he got more singles. The data suggests this was more of a trade-off than a net loss.
Of course, even with more bunts and fewer popups, a .389 BABIP is still artificially inflated. Ben Revere is extremely fast, hit the ball on the ground 67% of the time, and only hit one infield fly all season, and his BABIP was .325. If you sort the leaderboards by groundball rate, you’ll see a bunch of guys with above average BABIPs, but besides Hunter, the top end is still in the .350 range, and normal is more .320 to .330.
Even if Hunter can repeat his batted ball distribution from 2012, he’s not going to get those same results. He’s not going to post a 130 wRC+ again. The Tigers shouldn’t have any illusions that they’re getting a guy capable of repeating his +5 win season. But, there’s enough left that a 100-110 wRC+ a reasonable expectation, and with his speed, defense, and durability, he should still project as an average or slightly above average player. In 2014, maybe he slides to being a bit below average, and all told, he produces +4 WAR over the next two years. At $26 million, that’s not any kind of bargain, but it’s also not a drastic overpay. It’s maybe a couple million higher than what you’d hope for, but it’s an overpay that has a chance to put wins on the board at a time when the Tigers badly need wins.
Overall, the FanGraphs crowd expected Hunter to sign for 2/20, which sounded about right. This is just a tick or two above that, though, and for a team in the sweet spot, it’s hard to quibble over a few million here or there for the right player. And, despite Hunter’s declining contact rate and power, he still looks like a good bet to be a useful player for the next two years, and for the Tigers, he’s the right player for what they needed. This won’t be the bargain of the winter, but it’s a decent enough move for Detroit to help fill a gaping hole on the roster.