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The case against Torii Hunter helping the Tigers

Nov 14, 2012, 11:21 PM EDT

Torii Hunter Reuters

It’s not hard to see why the Tigers were regular-season disappointments in 2012; the bottom half of the lineup, which was so productive the year before, stumbled badly:

OPS by lineup spot, from 2011 to 2012
No. 5:  .797 to .671
No. 6: .842 to .654
No. 7: .720 to .700
No. 8: .768 to .695
No. 9: .637 to .603

Victor Martinez was supposed to hit fifth, but he missed the entire season. Delmon Young, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch and a lousy assortment of second basemen all contributed to the funk.

In adding Torii Hunter on a two-year, $26 million contract on Wednesday, the Tigers took a step towards lengthening their lineup, even if the plan is to hit Hunter second initially. Martinez is expected to DH regularly and hit fifth. Andy Dirks, who will be moving from right to left, figures to hit sixth against righties.

That Hunter is an upgrade for the Tigers seems pretty obvious. For all of the praise heaped on youngster Avisail Garcia, there’s little reason to think he’s ready to be a full-time player in the majors.

I’m just not at all convinced that Hunter was the right upgrade for the Tigers. He’s worth the $13 million per year and more if he has two more seasons at his 2012 level, but the chances of that happening are very slim.

Before suddenly hitting a career-best .313 last year, Hunter had never in his entire career deviated more than 25 points away from a .275 average; his high was .299 and his low was .250. He came in at .281 in 2010 and .262 in 2011.

Going along with the fluky average was a career-low isolated slugging percentage. Hunter hit just 16 homers after finishing with at least 20 in every full season of his career. He hit 23 in both 2010 and ’11. He didn’t make up for it with extra doubles, either; he hit just 24.

Hunter also had one of the lowest walk rates of his career, with just 38 bases on balls in his 140 games.

One might say he was cutting down on his swing in an attempt to stroke more singles. But if that were the case, how would one explain his career-high strikeout rate? Hunter fanned in 23 percent of his plate appearances last season, up from 16 in 2010 and 19 in 2011.

Everything except Hunter’s batting average on balls in play suggests he was on the decline, and no hitting statistic is more prone to random variation that BABIP. If Hunter had hit his usual .300-.310 on balls in play instead of a ridiculously high .389, he would have had his worst season since 1999.

Maybe the whole thing was a fluke. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hunter hit a few more homers and strike out a bit less next season. But his average is coming down, probably way down. If he hits his usual .270, then he’s not going to be all that great of a No. 2 hitter. And if he falls to .250-.260, hardly an unlikely possibility at age 37, he’s really more of a No. 6 or No. 7 hitter.

It’s not a signing worth condemning, not when it’s only two years. Hunter still plays very good defense in right field. He gets all kinds of points for leadership. He’s just not likely to be quite the upgrade the Tigers think they’re getting.

  1. normcash - Nov 14, 2012 at 11:42 PM

    I suspect Dave Dombrowski knows pretty well what the Tigers are getting. He no doubt knows the numbers better than anyone and doesn’t expect Hunter to hit for the kind of average he had
    in 2012. A fairly normal year for him at the plate, plus is still outstanding outfield play, will add up
    to a solid upgrade for the Tigers.

  2. joerymi - Nov 14, 2012 at 11:43 PM

    Hitting in front of Cabrera, Fielder, and Martinez has zero to do with power hitting. OBP is the key statistic. His OBP the past 3 seasons is .351. Even if Bill James’ projection of .336 in 2013 is correct, it will be better than Infante and Berry.

    Martinez is alluring to hit 2nd, but his RISP efficiency will probably put him at 5. Dirks is another option, but Leyland has already said he doesn’t believe him to be an everyday player. Right or wrong, he makes the lineup.

    The deal is probably slightly too expensive, but only slightly. This deal won’t kill the Sanchez deal. Sanchez may sign elsewhere, but I doubt this is the deal that causes that to happen.

  3. Gardenhire's Cat - Nov 14, 2012 at 11:59 PM

    While you certainly present a strong argument for Mr. Hunter not replicating a 5.4 WAR (avg rWAR/fWAR), your headline is quite misleading–any base ball player helps the Tigers if his name is not Delmon Young.

  4. Bruce Knutson - Nov 15, 2012 at 12:13 AM

    Hunter will be well worth this contract. 13 mil is basically market value

  5. weaselpuppy - Nov 15, 2012 at 12:52 AM

    2012 Tigers RF -17 Defensive runs saved…2012 Torii Hunter? +15

    Let’s say he declines as he ages and only averages +10.

    2012 Tigers RF .236 12 HR 68 RBI, 271 OBP. Torii Hunter 313 16 and 92 365 OBP…

    Let’s say he declines to 275 16 80 RB w/ 335 OBP, his career averages except far less power…but in a little better hitters park facing a whole lot of bad pitching in the AL central…

    Looking like at LEAST a 2 WAR/yr upgrade WITH regression…

    Thanks for trying to create a narrative, but like Boesch, you swung and missed….

    • historiophiliac - Nov 15, 2012 at 7:28 AM

      enjoyed the Boesch joke

  6. jonrox - Nov 15, 2012 at 3:27 AM

    I think it’s reasonable to expect at least 3 WAR from him, and $13m/year for 3 WAR is right about the going rate on the free agent market. Considering how many needs he fills (everyday corner outfield, right handed bat, top of the order potential) you really gotta like it. Toss in his locker room intangibles, the increased value of wins when you’re a playoff level team, and the flexibility that the Tigers now have with their outfield prospects (no need to rush Avisail Garcia or Nick Castellanos) and this seems like a big win for the Tigers.

  7. legacybroken - Nov 15, 2012 at 7:04 AM

    Also don’t be surprised if the Tigers have another big signing in them. Whether its Sanchez or another bat.

  8. darthicarus - Nov 15, 2012 at 10:07 AM

    I would like to thank Torii for signing with Detroit as I can now wear my Brian Hunter jersey again without being mocked.

  9. witeman10 - Nov 15, 2012 at 10:18 AM

    one thing to keep in mind tho is that the tigers surprisingly struggled against left handed pitching last year as a team (especially in the playoffs). Even with some of the power righties they had. Hunter has very good numbers against leftys, and even if he falls back a bit he should still be very solid in that regard.

    i agree that hunter probably won’t be as good as he was in 2012. and that actually v-marts return could be the bigger deal for the tigers offense. hunter will prolly bring similar production at the plate as delmon young, only he also brings defense and decent speed. so it’s clearly an upgrade for the tigers. at a reasonable price. even if its not a monstrous upgrade.

    it’s not a blockbuster, over the top signing, but any time u can upgrade a position it should help. even if he only brings them around 2 more wins, for a team that made it to the world series that could make all the difference.

  10. sportsnut101 - Nov 15, 2012 at 10:20 AM

    Was it a contract yr for him to get this pay.

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