Detroit rejoiced when owner Mike Illitch and GM Dave Dombrowski signed Torii Hunter to a two-year, $26 million contract last offseason. Hunter was hailed as a leader and a true professional. A winner of nine consecutive Gold Glove awards earlier in his career, Hunter was expected to shore up the Tigers' weakness in right field. And at age 37, Hunter was coming off his best offensive year of his career, posting an impressive 5.1 fWAR. But with a batting average on balls in play 80 points higher than his career average, Hunter was expected to come back to Earth as he turned 38.
However, 39 games into this season, he hasn't.
ESPN's Mark Simon noticed this and tried to ascertain whether Hunter was simply getting lucky over an increasingly-significant sample size or if Torii was an old dog who had learned a new trick. A player with a career batting average on balls in play of .309, Hunter sported a BABIP of .436 from July 13, 2012, to May 3, 2013, a period of 100 games. Simon explained how he calculated luck versus skill.
The folks at Baseball Info Solutions do video tracking of every batted ball based on where it is hit and how hard it is hit and compute an "expected BABIP" based on historical data. They quantified Hunter's expected hit total to be about 16 hits fewer than what he actually had. But even taking away 16 hits, Hunter's BABIP in these 100 games would still be nearly .380, which is still really good. So while luck could explain some of Hunter's success, it seems there is something more going on.
Tigers play-by-play announcer Mario Impemba and analyst Rod Allen have often commented how Hunter seems to making a conscious effort to hit the ball between the first and second basemen. Simon did some research and figured out that on pitches down and away, from 2010 to the 2012 All-Star Break, Hunter hit 24 percent of the balls the opposite way. From the Break until now, he's hit 41 percent of pitches down and away the opposite way. This has resulted in an increase in batting average from .216 to .360 on those pitches. That is simply smart hitting. Instead of trying to pull the ball, Hunter is taking what pitchers are giving him and letting Cabrera and Fielder do their jobs.
Simon offered his theory on how this unlikely change came about:
Hunter has a reputation of being an intelligent player and a total professional by those inside the game. Is it reasonable to think that at some point midway through last season (not necessarily at the break), he took notice of both his age and role and realized that the best way to stay ahead of the game and be of value (in lineups that featured Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, and now Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder) was to adapt the mentality of the type of batter who sacrifices power for smarter hitting.
The stats certainly back Simon up. Hunter's second-best season by fWAR was 2002, a year that he had an isolated power of .235 and a batting average on balls in play of .319. In 2012, Hunter had an ISO of .139 and a BABIP of .389. In 2013, his ISO is down to .104 and his BABIP rests at .380, exactly what the folks at Baseball Info Solutions calculated his expected BABIP to be.
There were many years where Hunter was the best position player on those Minnesota Twins teams. These last two years, he hasn't had to be the best player on his Angels and Tigers teams. Interestingly enough, not being the best player on the team has made Hunter a better player.