April 6, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter (48) hits an RBI double in the fifth inning against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The big “yeah, but” when it came to the Torii Hunter signing this offseason was his inflated 2012 BABIP. He posted a 130 wRC+ – the best number of his career – en route to a five WAR season for the Los Angeles Angels a year ago, but the general thought was that a portion (an perhaps a significant portion) of that hitting value was due to an impossible-to-repeat .389 BABIP.
A quick back-of-the-napkin calculation shows that had his BABIP been a more career appropriate .308, his OPS would have fallen from .817 to .693. You’d still get the plus defense and base running ability, so Hunter would still be projected to be a 2+ WAR player, but the BABIP question was (and is) a serious one.
But in the early stages of the season, Hunter hasn’t allowed question to plague him. He’s already pounded out 14 hits – the team lead – including six multi-hit days in seven games. His BABIP is .500. That number is sure to regress, but we don’t know where. There was talk of a changed approach as he moved toward the top of the order last year in LA – sacrificing power for base hits – which would make a difference, but it probably still means his true BABIP talent lies somewhere closer to his .308 career average than his .389 2012 line.
BABIP for hitters is a curious thing. There is most definitely a noticeable skill difference between players (as opposed to pitchers where most of the difference we observe is noise, not talent), but the limits of that skill aren’t really known all that well. We say that extremely high BABIPs are unsustainable, but what we really mean is that, over the last two decades, only one qualified player has been able to maintain a BABIP of even .360 (that’s Austin Jackson, and it’s still relatively early in his career). If we set a 4,000 plate appearance minimum, we find that only Derek Jeter has been able to maintain a BABIP above .350.
Torii Hunter has been very good so far this season for the Tigers – better than we could have hoped for – but a .500 BABIP simply can’t and won’t last. He’s defying the odds for the moment, and that’s fun to watch, but hits won’t continue to drop for him at this rate.
The situation looks kind of bad if we adjust his current line (.500 BABIP, .939 OPS) down to a more reasonable BABIP. Even if he were to repeat last year’s .389 BABIP line, his OPS line right now would be something like .730. If his BABIP was his career .308, his OPS would be .580. Things aren’t really that bad, though. Hunter hasn’t taken a walk yet, and he’s traditional been an average-ish walk taker, so his OBP component will look better down the road, and he also hasn’t hit for a ton of power yet – his ISO is only about 0.90 – and that will eventually come as well. I expect him to finish the year in the .750 OPS range.
Hunter has benefited from some good luck* to start the season, but the good thing about good luck is that it’s already in the bank. He’s not any more likely to find bad luck in the near future even though he’s not likely to continue on the current trend.
*Luck, of course, being an easier way to say random variation.