Torii Hunter is a changed man. Remember when he was a power-hitting centerfielder in the middle of the lineup? Torii Hunter is the same man. See that smile? And that stolen home run? Hunter might actually owe his ability to change his approach late in his career to his personality, so I asked him about both things before the Tigers played the White Sox early this week.
First, the change. Maybe you noticed? Take a look at some key stats over the last four years in two-year buckets.
That’s a big leap in ground balls. The two highest ground ball rates and the two lowest fly ball rates of his career have come over the last two years. “It’s something I did on purpose,” Hunter admits, “I changed my swing plane and just told myself I’d start going for base hits.” And before I could start to speculate on why, he gave the reason: “I started hitting second a year ago, and I told myself I’d start shooting the ball up the middle and going the other way, to try and move the guy over. I’m sacrificing myself to set up the table.”
This new approach is not without its downfalls. His batting average and on-base percentage benefit from looking the other way, but his power numbers have been hurt. And Hunter feels he’s missing out on some hits when he’s trying to put the ball in play to move guys over, but that’s the role of the two-hitter: “That’s my job. I’m more of a selfless player than a selfish player,” he said with a smile.
“My mentality has changed… but every once in a while, I still have it — Let me get some of this!” — Torii Hunter
Hunter has left the middle of the lineup behind, and he’s also moved to the corner outfield. You can see his eyes light up when he starts talking about center field, so on some level he must miss it: “Oh man, center field, man, there’s nothing like center field. You get to run! You run the whole field. Even infielders, you can call them off, you can just run the whole field — you can run twenty yards and still catch the ball.”
Right field? “You only have four steps before you hit the wall.” Like the infielders of the outfield, they don’t have much time before the ball is by them.
Though the position has changed, Hunter still prepares like he used to. He studies the hitters and “plays the 80%” in order to put himself in the right place. Ever get bored out there? No, Hunter says, he’s always thinking: “Every pitch, you have to think about what’s going to happen. Anticipate. He has two strikes. What would I do with two strikes if I’m right-handed and he’s right-handed. What’s the pitcher going to do. As a right-handed hitter, you’re going to let the ball travel further into the zone and go the other way. … He’s not going to swing as hard, so I can come in a bit.”
And that’s how a 37 year-old manages to stay productive, it seems: adapting to the situation, and holding on to strengths. There’s one more strength that might help Hunter in this matter. His outgoing demeanor.
Or maybe it’s more his game face, because there are two Torii Hunters. There’s the joking, smiling outfielder that engages fans in the bleachers. And then there’s the locked in hitter. “You gotta have fun when you can. But when the pitcher’s on the mound, everyone locks in,” he says, adding “you have game face when it’s time to have game face. I’ve been doing this long enough that I can turn it off and on. When I’m at the plate, I know when I step into the box, I can’t hear anyone, only can see the pitcher, then once I foul a pitch off or take a pitch, I step out, I look around, I crack a joke with the umpire, with the catcher, and when I step in and hit the plate, I can’t hear anyone any more, I’m focused again.”
So he can turn that trademarked smile — which seems heartfelt — off and on at will in order to focus on the matter at hand. Is it a stretch to say that this is a skill that has helped him adapt to changing conditions in his career? There’s a time to smile, there’s a time to focus, there’s a time for home runs, and there’s a time for a dink or a dunk to the right side. This is the picture of a veteran making it work.