It is no secret that the Tigers have made the outfield corners an offseason priority. Tiger right-fielders (largely Brennan Boesch) gave production well below replacement level over the 2012 season. Brennan Boesch may rebound, but is not a great bet to provide league average production (with bat and glove included). Avisail Garcia may be ready to play in the majors right now, but I don’t think he’s ready to contribute in a larger role than he was given this September. Quintin Berry faded down the stretch – despite the fact that he was largely platooned. Andy Dirks is due for a regression (though his 2012 was great) – and besides, he can’t possibly play both corners.
Right field is a need – and Torii Hunter is often assumed to be the best fit and the leading candidate for the job. He isn’t likely to come cheap, as he won’t be without suitors. Despite declining to offer him a qualifying offer, the Angels are supposedly quite serious about bringing him back. The Yankees – with their love of aging vets on one year deals – are probably going to make him an offer to fill that Nick Swisher sized hole in their outfield. I’d be surprised if Hunter doesn’t wind up with $10 million per season and I’d also be surprised if his next contract was for only one year (unless he just jumped at the thought of playing in pinstripes).
He was a 5-win player last year (5.3 to, and $2 million per marginal win seems downright cheap on the free agent market. He also has a reputation as a good guy to have around – so what’s not to like? Why am I not clamoring to see Torii Hunter signed post-haste like all the rest?
Part of it is simply that the guy is 37 years old, to be honest. That means that he is less likely to stay healthy than the average bear and it also means that he’s at risk of losing foot speed and bat speed with every tick of the clock. That isn’t the big reason, though. True “ageless wonders” can remain effective at least up to 40 provided they stay healthy. Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton (to name a few) had pretty decent age-38 and age-39 seasons. Age would make him risky, but it certainly wouldn’t make him certain to fail. The idea of a 2-year $20 million deal seems a little excessive for a guy his age, though. Of course, measured in WAR – his 2012 was the best season Hunter had ever had, so age aside his market value ought to be at a peak.
My big concerns are related to that age-37 career year, but not just the fact that he was so good last year. Guys who had great years are always risky not just because of the price tag but because regression to the mean is so likely. Take Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila – after 2011 was there anybody out there who thought that they wouldn’t regress a bit in 2012? This season we all saw how much they regressed and were appalled. BABIP is the stat that jumps out at people looking to forecast “regression”, though it is by no means the only stat that is highly variable. Hunter’s BABIP was .389 in 2012 – and at the plate was really the only reason that his 2012 campaign wound up looking good. Remember that he isn’t – or hadn’t been prior to 2012 – a hitter like Austin Jackson who we might suppose has a higher than normal “true” BABIP. Hunter’s career number is .307 and was only .297 in 2011. Isolated power and BABIP often move in the same direction (since a ball that doesn’t get caught might be a double or a triple) – but for Hunter they did not… In 2012 he had his lowest ISO since 2000 at .139. He also put up a strikeout rate well above his career average and a walk rate well below.
In truth we should have expected an uptick in his BABIP based on how he was hitting the ball – his line drive rate was up and his ground ball rate way up as well (at the expense of fly balls) – his HR/FB rate roughly matched his career averages, there were just fewer balls hit in the air to begin with – and hence fewer home runs and less isolated power. We just shouldn’t have expected it to rise that far. If his BABIP had merely matched his career average, the rest of his peripheral numbers would have led to an offensive output much like Delmon Young – so how much his BABIP should be expected to drop is of extreme importance. [I'd mention that Andy Dirks is in a similar boat going into 2013] Two other stats that have a tendency to fluctuate wildly from year to year are defense (regardless of the metric) and that home run to fly ball ratio. As I already mentioned, Hunter was right on target in terms of HR/FB so there shouldn’t be any expectation of positive regression. He was also very good on defense – so no expectation of positive regression there. There really isn’t anything you could say is likely to offset that impending drop in BABIP – he is going to hit more at’em balls and his numbers are going to tank.
Assuming he stays healthy, Torii Hunter is a very good bet for a 2-3 WAR season – which is loads better than the Tigers got from Boesch et al this year and probably better than they’ll get from 2013 Andy Dirks. It’s still a far cry from 5.3 WAR. I’d maintain that he wouldn’t be the best use of $10 million per season and that even those expected 2.5 wins would come with serious risks due to injury risks that increase with age.