Tommy Hunter, or Generics versus the Brand Name

The Baltimore Orioles have had an amazing season. They weren’t supposed to be any good, but they kept winning. They were supposed to regress to the mean, but they never did. They spent the entire summer giving Pythagoras the bird, and then, forced to play for their lives on the road against a Rangers team that simply looked to have every advantage, they won handily. Behind Joe Saunders. Against a line-up full of right-handers. The 2012 Orioles are why there’s a Twitter account called “You Can’t Predict Baseball”.

But, now, in a five game series against the Yankees, everyone’s going to bet against the Orioles again. Everything points to New York being the better team. They won more games. They scored 92 more runs and allowed 37 less. They have the best offense in baseball. They’re the Yankees. They have players who we expect to be good.

The Orioles, meanwhile, have a roster full of guys with track records of mediocre performance. This isn’t a team full of fresh-faced kids straight up from the minors — well, besides Manny Machado, anyway — who are introducing themselves to the Major Leagues. It’s a roster heavy on guys who were discarded by other organizations, with histories that suggest that they just aren’t that good.

Perhaps no player typifies the 2012 Orioles more than Tommy Hunter. And it’s guys like Tommy Hunter who are why we need to reevaluate what we know about the 2012 Orioles.

Yes, Tommy Hunter. The 26-year-old right-hander who posted a 5.45 ERA this year, and was worth -0.4 wins according to FIP-based WAR. The guy with 470 innings as a big league pitcher, an ERA- of 109, and a FIP- of 115. Hunter was a throw-in in the Chris DavisKoji Uehara swap, and has spent a couple of years as a no-stuff, pitch-to-contact #5 starter.

And then, a month ago, the Orioles moved him to the bullpen, and started using him in shorter stints. And this is what happened.

Tommy Hunter has spent his career averaging 91-92 with his fastball, but in September, his fastball averaged 96, and he actually hit 100 once. And his velocity increase seems to just be gaining steam. Here are his average fastball velocities by appearance in September:

9/5: 96.6
9/9: 95.3
9/13: 95.3
9/16: 94.9
9/17: 98.0
9/18: 96.2
9/22: 97.6
9/24: 96.6
9/26: 95.8
9/29: 95.8

In the final two weeks of the season, Hunter’s fastball averaged 96.5 mph, the ninth highest average velocity of any reliever in baseball. His fastball was essentially the equal (in speed) of Jason Motte, and was just a tick behind Craig Kimbrel. And, as a result, Hunter has transformed from a cutter-heavy contact pitcher to a four-seam fastball guy who misses bats.

His September performance: 51 batters faced, 12 hits, 2 walks, 12 strikeouts, 0.71 ERA, 1.67 FIP, 2.83 xFIP

Opposing batters hit just .245/.280/.298 against Hunter, mostly because he struck out 23.5% of the batters he faced, double his career line as a starter. Put simply, Tommy Hunter the reliever doesn’t look anything like Tommy Hunter the starter. He might share the same name and body type, but we really need to put away any preconceived ideas we had about what kind of pitcher he is capable of being. As a reliever, he’s something very different.

The same applies to Hunter’s teammates. We’re used to the Orioles being a bad baseball team. We’re used to Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds, Nate McLouth and Jason Hammel being mediocre players on bad teams. We’re used to the Yankees steamrolling Baltimore. However, We shouldn’t evaluate this series based on what we’re used to.

This Orioles team does two things very well – they hit home runs and they don’t allow runs late in games. With 214 home runs on the season, the O’s hit more home runs than any team in baseball besides the Yankees. Their bullpen’s ERA- of 72 was the best in the American League, and third best in baseball. And both strengths are getting even stronger.

And, with only four starters needed for the series, their already deep bullpen has just got even deeper. By carrying 12 pitchers, Buck Showalter has given himself eight relievers to mix and match with, including converted starters Hunter and Brian Matusz, as well as whichever of Chris Tillman or Joe Saunders doesn’t end up starting game four. Eight arms, three of whom can easily be stretched out for multiple innings, gives Showalter the ability to lean heavily on his relief corps, which is the group most responsible for the Orioles success this year.

Last year, both Texas and St. Louis were carried to the World Series by strong, deep bullpens and the ability to hit the ball over the wall from time to time. This Orioles team has those same traits. And those traits shouldn’t be underestimated.

Of course, there is no magic formula for October that guarantees success. The Yankees are a better team than the Orioles, and should probably be the favorites in this series. But they should probably be favorites along the lines of 54/46 or 53/47, rather than 60/40 or 65/35, like their respective reputations might lead you to believe. They don’t have a big advantage in this series. This match-up is basically a coin flip, because it’s beyond time to recognize that the Orioles are a good baseball team.

It’s weird that Tommy Hunter now throws 95-100 and is blowing fastballs by hitters. It’s weird that the Orioles are capable of playing competitive baseball in October. But baseball is weird, and that’s why we love it.

Don’t just look at the names on the back of the jerseys and assume New York is going to roll. The Orioles can win this series, and they can win this series because they have a bunch of guys who are better now than they used to be.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Brian S.
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Brian S.
3 years 9 months ago

I’m glad the “Orioles are just lucky” meme is starting to die. They erased their sizable run differential in about two months. As a Yankees fan I’m looking forward to seeing these two teams match up because they had already played some really entertaining games against each other in September.

Richie
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Richie
3 years 9 months ago

The Yankees don’t have names on the backs of their jerseys :). Let’s go O’s!

kiss my GO NATS
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kiss my GO NATS
3 years 9 months ago

one of hundreds of reasons to hate the Yankees!

Matt Hunter
Member
Member
3 years 9 months ago

“Don’t just look at the names on the back of the jerseys and assume New York is going to roll.”

Well considering the Yankees don’t have names on the back of their jerseys, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Steve-P
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Steve-P
3 years 9 months ago

Just goes to show how predictive all of this is. At the end of the day Fangraphs is about as accurate as Heyman or any ESPN analyst.

Matt Hunter
Member
Member
3 years 9 months ago

Did anyone predict anything? He said that the Orioles can win this series, which was true when he said it and is still true now. In fact, I’d say Fangraphs tries to predict things a lot less than most mainstream analysts, because here at Fangraphs we recognize that baseball is entirely unpredictable, as Cameron says in the first paragraph.

Gerry
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Gerry
3 years 9 months ago

Nice to see some solid analysis of the Orioles. Of all the ink spilled on the Orioles this year there has been little attempt to actually look at the team and the guys who are contributing to it. Instead, lazy writers are obsessed with finding a certain narrative to explain it, and either predict it will stop or continue.

Nate
Guest
Nate
3 years 9 months ago

I think Tommy was a RP throughout college. This is his ‘natural’ position.

Dave in GB
Guest
Dave in GB
3 years 9 months ago

Well, looking at Hunter’s splits back at mid-season, I picked up on it then that Hunter would be best as a reliever. The first time thru the lineup, he’s almost lights out. After the 3rd or 4th inning, he gets lit up. And career-wise, Hunter has always been like that. I think the only reason Showalter used Hunter as a starter when he did is because he had no other choices. But when he was sent down and Tillman was recalled, Tillman kinda forced Hunter to return to the bullpen, and he was better off for it.

I still wouldn’t give him the ball with runners on base and/or in a tight game because he still gives up way to many hits even as a reliever, but he is better out of the bullpen.

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