Thursday, November 15, 2012

Defense Will Be Hunter’s Biggest Contribution to the Tigers

Torii Hunter signed a 2 year/$26 million contract with the Tigers to be their everyday RF.  Hunter hit .313/.365/.451/.817 in 2012 and fans are glad to finally see someone fill the void of the #2 slot in the batting order as well as in RF.  The Tigers actually did quite well out of the 2nd spot in the lineup last year with a .710 OPS, good for 6th in the AL with mainly Andy Dirks and Quintin Berry getting the majority of the playing time.  But the Tigers' RF production only gave a .641 OPS which was dead last in the AL.  Hunter is poised to be upgrade at both spots. However, there are some concerns with Hunter that show he may be declining as a hitter.

Hunter had an unsustainable .389 BABIP last year, the biggest red flag.  The highest mark that he gave before that over a significant sample size was .336 in 2009 and his career mark is at .307.  It’s reasonable to predict that his BABIP will fall and so will his true batting average, to probably around the .260-.270 range.  Then there’s the walk rate, which was at 6.5% in 2012.  The three years before that was 9.6%, 9.4% and 9.3%.  A 3% drop-off is huge.  If Hunter cannot get his walk rate back up while his batting average falls, then his OBP doesn’t look so good anymore (and not #2-hole material).  Hunter also struck out at a rate higher than he ever did last year, 22.8%.  Finally, there’s the power issue.  Most players lose some power when they get older, so this one doesn’t come as a shock.  His .139 ISO was the lowest since his first couple of years with the Twins and he failed to hit 20 HR for only the 2nd time in the last 12 years (the only other time was an injury shortened 2005 season).
There are some factors that show that Hunter has changed his approach.  His LD% was the highest of his career in 2012 at 22.6%, but only a little increase from his 21% rate in 2011.  His GB% went above 50% for the first time at 52% and his FB% went lower than 30% for the first time at 25.4%.  It looks like he traded some of his fly balls for ground balls.  Ground balls result in a higher average than fly balls and a high line drive rate also increases a batting average, so it looks like he was trying to trade in some power for more contact.  However, his contact rate actually fell from 77.2% in 2011 to 74.9% in 2012.  Put it all together and this doesn’t account for the 92-point increase of BABIP from the previous year. So it’s reasonable to say that Hunter benefited from a little (or maybe a lot) of luck and his offensive production is likely to take a dive in 2013 but should still be an improvement over Brennan Boesch (who hit .240/.286/.372/.659 in 2012) .  Bill James is projecting a line of .271/.336/.428/.764 with 19 HR, an 8.1% BB rate and 21.4% K rate for Hunter in 2013, although his predictions tend to be on the optimistic side.  Bill James projections are the only ones out at the moment.

Fortunately for the Tigers, offense isn’t the only thing Hunter will provide as defensive stats show that he’s still an elite fielder.  DRS shows that he saved 15 runs and UZR shows 10.4 runs saved compared to -17 DRS (last in the AL) and -17 UZR (13th in the AL) from Tigers’ RF in 2012.  Brennan Boesch contributed the majority of those numbers with a -8 DRS and -12 UZR.  With Hunter that’s an increase of around 27 to 32 runs saved.  That a huge swing in performance and will prove to have the biggest impact on the Tigers from having Hunter on the team.

Torii Hunter provided 5.3 fWAR last year.  With a decline in offensive production, it's more reasonable to predict about 2.5-3.0 WAR in 2013.  Tigers' RF combined for a -2.0 fWAR in 2012 with Brennan Boesch, -1.3, providing the most negative value at that position.  That will be an increase of about 4 wins which will be well worth the contract, even if Hunter is forced to bat lower in the lineup.  

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