At first glance, Hunter seems like the perfect candidate. A player in win-now mode, Hunter has gone on record as stating he’ll be making his decision on the opportunity to win a World Series. At 37 years old, he’s also not looking for a long-term contract.
Both of those obviously fit well with the Tigers, whose nucleus is in the prime of their careers and whose owner wants a World Series title above almost all else at this point in time.
Couple that with the Tigers heavy investment in minor league corner outfield talent, and being able to acquire a player that can help win in 2013 but won’t be a block in 2015 and beyond, and it seems like it’s a natural fit.
To pile on even more, Hunter has always been lauded as being a great person and teammate in the clubhouse, a fact that can’t be overlooked, especially when the Tigers have gone to great lengths to preserving a strong atmosphere conducive to winning baseball games.
However, there’s more to it than not requiring a long-term deal or being a teammate. This corner outfielder needs to produce. The Tigers were plagued by a lack of production in the corner outfield spots, as well as designated hitter in 2012. The Tigers were solid in left field thanks to half a season from Andy Dirks, but the team combined to post an OPS+ of 69 in right field and an OPS+ of 82 at DH. With the return of Victor Martinez at designated hitter, that position will likely resolve itself, but the need to upgrade with a player ready to produce now is paramount.
The better question should be… is Torii Hunter that guy?
His OPS+ of last season is strong at 132, and despite aging, his UZR/150 in right field was a 13, well above average. However, there are clear signs of decline.
From 2008 to 2011, the Angels largely knew what they were getting with Hunter. He hit around .280, played good defense, walked at about a 9% rate, and hit good gap and home run power, averaging just over 20 home runs and 30 doubles per season, resulting in a very respectable .18 ISO, not great for a power-hitting right fielder, but certainly nothing to be disappointed about.
But 2012 tells a different story.
His consistent walk rate fell from around 9% to 6.5%. If he keeps that, it’s the equivalent of losing 25 points in his on-base percentage.
His OBP in 2012 was great, you say, at .365? Well, you’re correct. Only it was due to him hitting .313, and more noteworthy, him posting a largely unsustainable .389 BABIP. His career average on the other hand was in line with the league average at around .307 while his xBABIP came in at .339. Even if we assume the xBABIP to be correct, and it’s possible given an improved line drive rate, his average on balls in play was likely inflated by about 50 points.
Along with that, his strikeout rate reached a career high at nearly 23% - up from a career average of 18%.
Finally, we come to his power, a must have skill for a corner outfielder, that while not completely necessary, can’t be entirely ignored. His ISO fell to a level well below corner outfield standards, at just .14, with only 16 home runs and 24 doubles over the course of a full season. His power was likely sapped a bit by Angel Stadium’s pitcher-friendly confines, but his road ISO was still only 0.15, and Comerica Park is no Yankee Stadium, either.
Put all of the data together, and we begin to see a story emerge. A player reaching his late 30’s, no longer hitting for the same power he’s used to, alters his swing to probably be more aggressive and harder, resulting in more line drives, but also more strikeouts, fewer walks, and overall less productivity.
How much less, you ask?
Assuming Hunter’s xBABIP and the remainder of his results hold constant, he would post a .272 average with a .330 on-base percentage and a .411 slugging percentage. That’s good for an OPS of about .741, or put another way for those that love comps, that’s basically Delmon Young with actual defense and about 20 more walks.
And while it’s obviously important to caveat that last season could be an outlier, erosion of skills in the late 30’s is usually pretty common, and is more likely to get worse than to revert back to the mid-30’s productivity.
Consider this a cautionary tale, should the Tigers continue to pursue, and end up landing Hunter. He’ll be a solid player for the team, he’ll probably slide into the second spot in the lineup well, he’ll provide solid defense, and he’ll be a good teammate.
But he’s probably not the offensive solution most Tigers fans are craving.