When the Angels signed Torii Hunter to a five-year, $90 million contract after the 2007 season it seemed like an overpay. In fact, given the teams competing for Hunter’s services, it almost certainly was an overpay in terms of objective value. But when five other teams make offers, an overpay might be necessary to land the player you covet. The Rangers were reportedly offering a five-year deal with a sixth-year option that would have ended up paying Hunter somewhere around $84 million. The Angels, desperate to add offense, felt that Hunter was worth more to them and made their limited-time offer.
In 2002 and 2003, as Hunter played through his prime years, he looked like one of the league’s premier center fielders. He produced 4.5 WAR in 2002, ninth among MLB center fielders, though a number of them were approaching their declining years. In 2003 his hitting dipped, but his defense was better than ever, 16.5 FRAA, which ranked fourth in the majors. Despite the poor hitting season, -4.5 RAA, Hunter’s value exceeded the $4.75 million his contract paid him. It looked like he’d be on track to continue that through the four-year, $32 million contract he had signed with the Twins after the 2002 season.
Yet from there Hunter continued to fall. In 2004, he produced 7.5 RAA and 1.4 FRAA for 2.8 WAR, 17th in the majors. In 2005, he was injured and did not qualify, but his rate stats looked a lot like his 2004 season. In 2006 and 2007 his bat improved a bit, but his fielding declined, -8 FRAA in 2006 and -2.9 FRAA in 2007. He ranked 14th in WAR in 2007 (2.5) and and 10th (3.3) in 2007. He still carried a reputation as an elite player, though, and it was no surprise that he received offers from those five teams. That excluded the three-year, $45 million offer from the Twins which he promptly rejected. It was a surprise, however, that the Angels bid as high as they did.
Hunter’s contract called for $16 million in 2008, $17.5 million in 2008, and $18 million from 2010 through 2012. In no year to that point did Hunter’s WAR justify a salary that high. But the market was different back in 2002 when Hunter produced 4.5 WAR. With offensive value shifting across the league, perhaps the Angels would break even on this deal. That’s not a bad place to be on a free agent contract. Yet, in Hunter’s first season away from the Twins his production reverted to its 2004-2006 levels. He produced -10.3 FRAA and 13.0 RAA for 2.4 WAR, which had a dollars conversion of $10.8 million, $5.2 million below his contract. He also ranked 16th among major league center fielders in WAR.
Last year Hunter turned that around, and it looks like he’s aiming to do the same this year. While he still finished 2009 as a below average center fielder, his FRAA was -1.3, so he was pretty close to average. He also turned on the thrusters with the bat, producing 13.0 RAA on the strength of a career-high .379 wOBA. He walked more than he ever had previously in his career and got his ISO back over .200. That led to a 3.8 WAR season, which ranked sixth in the majors and second in the AL. Best of all for the Angels, his dollars conversion nearly matched his salary.
This year Hunter is at it again. Through 366 PA he’s in the midst of what could be a repeat of his 2009 season. His walk rate is up more than two points over his career-high last season, he’s hitting the ball on a line more often than ever, and his .220 ISO is his highest since 2002. There’s always the chance that his production declines in the second half, but given Hunter’s steady production during the past year and a half there’s a good chance he’ll continue hitting at a level close to this. With offense down slightly, Hunter’s value could actually equal his $18 million salary this season.
If you were skeptical of Hunter’s ability to repeat his 2009 season, you have plenty of company. His .330 BABIP certainly stood out as a career high and about 30 points higher than his career average. That pushed his AVG to a career-high .299, so it stands to reason that a lower BABIP would bring down Hunter’s overall numbers. This year his BABIP still exceeds his career mark, but it is at .310, considerably lower than last year. Even still, he’s hitting .293, is walking more, and has displayed more power. We often hear that power and patience are the last skills to decline. Torii Hunter seems to agree.