In a conversation with my father the other night we both wondered if Torii Hunter should be re-signed by the Angels.
It became pretty evident with the outfield logjam that the Angels started off the 2012 season with that this would likely be Hunter's last season with the Halos, despite his comical (and endearing) insistence on a pay-cut and willingness to play anywhere just so he can stay with the Angels.
Since then, Hunter has surprised many by being one of the most consistent hitters for the Angels. Currently, he's hitting .305 and an OBP of .355. Hunter has never finished a season batting over .300 and if his on-base percentage stayed where it's at right now, it would be the second highest it's ever been in his career.
Despite being 37, Hunter has shown no signs of slowing down in the second-half where he's batted .344 and put up a respectable .844 OPS. His defense has been respectable as well with Baseball-Reference putting his defensive WAR at 0.9 with five double-plays turned from right-field.
It's been great seeing Hunter defy the odds that are against him due to his age and do so well offensively. However, if we place Hunter's season in a vacuum and ignore the pennant race, it's almost unfortunate as well. It would have been so much easier if Hunter had continued to decline rapidly, much like Bobby Abreu, and thus making the pending severance from the Angels an easy one. Now with Hunter's excellent season, his departure is not a sure thing. Torii may even have played himself into a one-year extension this winter.
At first glance, it may seem like Hunter has defied how baseball players typically age (peaking between 27 and 29 and declining after that). However, a closer look at Hunter's stats and reasons for his success reveal a slightly different story.
One stated reason for Hunter's success is that he has spent a majority of the season hitting in the number 2 spot between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. The logic being that Hunter will see more fastballs and pitches in the zone batting in front of a superstar hitter like Pujols and a speedster like Trout.
Hunter has certainly done well there. Before Hunter was hitting in the number 2 spot this year he was hitting .238. Since then Hunter has hit .345 with an OPS of .860. Hunter attributes his success to be able to adjust his approach. In a Los Angeles Times article, Hunter said the following:
"I still might hit 15-20 homers, but I like to hit and run, bunt, get guys over. I've changed my approach. I'm not swinging too hard. I'm swinging at strikes. I have a different mind-set. It's fun not swinging hard. It's actually helped a lot."Indeed, Hunter's home-run numbers have fallen off a bit and his isolated power is well below his career average. While we could contribute these weakened numbers to Hunter's changed approach, other stats reveal that Hunter's offensive success does not necessarily directly correlate to this.
A part of his inflated batting average this year can probably be attributed to his high BABIP, which sits at a hefty .378. That's good for sixth in all of baseball! It's likely that this year will be the highest BABIP Hunter has had ever in his career. Pair that with Hunter's K rate which well above his career average and a decline is almost assured next year, especially considering his age.
Put that up against Baseball Prosectus' true average measure which puts Hunter at a good but not great .282, and Hunter's 2012 campaign becomes slightly more pedestrian.
But let's go back to Hunter's supposed changed approach. Is he really seeing more fastballs and pitches in the zone? Surprisingly, not really.
According to Fangraphs, Hunter has seen 46.5% of pitches within the strike zone. That is actually a few notches less than his career average of 50.2%. Hunter has seen more fastballs but by a seemingly small marginal increase of 2.5% from last year.
And really, it doesn't even necessarily matter because Hunter has actually been making less contact on pitches inside the strike zone than any previous recorded year in his career.
So while many contributed Hunter's success to seeing more strikes and fastballs sandwiched between Trout and Pujols, this hasn't necessarily been the case.
Hunter's success this season has been fun to watch, but put under the magnifying glass of statistics, and there are signs on the edges that Hunter's 2012 campaign should be regarded with slight caution, especially when it comes to contract negotiations this off-season.
An inflated BABIP, increasing trend in his K rate, a continued decrease in his isolated power and the downward trend in making contact on balls in the strike zone show that Hunter is indeed declining as is expected with a player in their late 30s. It's just been slower and more gradual as possibly expected.
Hunter is still a solid hitter and overall a solid player with 3.8 WAR in 2012. One wonders how much longer his offensive success will continue though and whether it would be worth the risk of throwing the dice for another year with the Halos. If the price was low, I'd take the chance based on his solid defense and ability to drive the ball (despite declining power numbers). Jerry DiPoto might have other ideas, though.