One more big question hanging over the 2014 Detroit Tigers is whether Torii Hunter can continue to defy age and the associated age-related decline. I’m not talking about his bat so much, but rather his glove – as it is in the field where he has begun to show signs.
Offensively, the Hunter signing worked out tremendously for the Detroit Tigers – I think anyone would have been pleased going into it to know that Hunter would post an .800 OPS (with OBP and SLG almost exactly equal to his career averages) at the ages of 37-38. The “changes” to Hunter’s approach suggested to have led to his unusual 2012 numbers (higher LD% and GB% leading to higher BABIP, but more aggressiveness leading to lower BB%) continued in 2013 and played well in Hunter’s new park. Though his HR/FB rate did fall after moving from Los Angeles, one could still (and probably should still) argue that Hunter should be hitting more fly balls and fewer grounders. His “reduced” HR/FB rate of 11.2% in 2013 is better than most (waaaay better than Ian Kinsler) and gives Hunter a 1.046 OPS on fly balls compared to a .593 OPS on grounders – despite his better-than-average BABIP on the aformentioned grounders. We have no concerns that Hunter has lost power, lost batting eye, etc… and expect good things from him at the plate in 2014 whether he bats in a table-setting role or as a run-producer.
Ah, but defensively… There once was a time when Hunter was an elite center fielder, relying more on defensive instincts and acumen than on natural tools. For a man with a career “Spd” score of only 4.9 out of 10 to make spectacular plays in center takes unique abilities. After a bad 2010 in the field, Hunter was moved to right field and performed well there for the Angels in 2011 and 2012. However, as a Tiger in 2013 Hunter didn’t really make all the plays that he needed to make and contributed to a BABIP on balls to the outfield for Tigers pitching that was much higher than expected, given the quality of the OF defense on paper. Based on “Defensive Runs Saved”, Hunter’s D in right went from 15 runs above average in 2012 to 10 runs below average in 2013. Based on “Ultimate Zone Rating” he went from 14 runs above average to 5.1 runs below average.
Both metrics put a lot of weight on the simple fact that Hunter did or did not catch the balls that were hit to right field. Some of it may be dumb luck, maybe there were a lot of balls hit to right on a line. Some of it could be due to minor injuries, like the “tight dress shoes” incident in July. Some of it could be due to Hunter having “lost a step” with age, though his speed score is only a hair below his career averages and similar to that recorded when Hunter was defending well in right in LA in ’11 and ’12. The possibility which concerns me the most is that Hunters vision – from a distance (as needed to identify the trajectory of a baseball 300 feet away) – may not be what it had been. The Tigers, by virtue of the park that they call home, will continue to be dependent upon range and good jumps in the outfield in order to keep runs off the board. Hunter WILL be playing in right every single day which makes his performance there critical – those advanced metrics rate Hunter’s D a full 2 to 2.5 WINS worse in 2013 than it was in 2012. If he’s back to his normal, which is stellar D, the team will be that much better (and plans to win more 3-2 games will look all the more plausible). If not, reliance on an aging Hunter (as with Magglio Ordonez) will continue to hamper Tigers’ attempts to rise from the bottom of the league in overall defensive efficiency.