After the contract with Grant Balfour to be Jim Johnson‘s replacement as the Orioles closer fell apart, Tommy Hunter stands out as the most obvious candidate to take over the job. The team is apparently no longer pursuing a free agent replacement, which means that Hunter should be given the first opportunity. So then the question becomes, can he hold onto the job all year?
For a closer to be successful, there are two main ingredients that must be present. First, he has to be good, of course. Second, he has to be able to get opposite-handed hitters out. This is precisely why the majority of closers are right-handed. Many southpaws have trouble getting out right-handed batters, who make up a higher percentage of the player population. That’s why the term LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY) was invented in the first place, to describe exactly this type of pitcher. ROOGYs do exist, but they are a rarer breed.
Tommy Hunter started his career as a starting pitcher. Actually, that’s not entirely true, as he threw 17.2 innings during his professional debut in 2007, and that all came in relief. But since then, he was a starter. Unfortunately for the Rangers, he typically posted weak strikeout rates and displayed a fly ball tendency. That kind of combination is scary and he essentially failed as a starter.
But as often happens with failed starters, they become successful relievers. Bullpenners only require two pitches, which is one less than a starter will generally possess, they don’t have to worry about stamina issues, and almost always enjoy a spike in fastball velocity since they aren’t concerned with maintaining that velocity over multiple innings.
Hunter exemplified the failed starter to effective reliever concept perfectly. After the Orioles installed him as a full-time reliever to open the season for the first time in his career, his fastball velocity skyrocketed from 92 mph to 96 mph, which led to a surge in SwStk%, and suddenly his SIERA, which had hovered in the mid-4.00 range in previous seasons, dropped to 3.28.
He has always possessed sterling control, so pushing his strikeout rate up to league average territory was a boon to his ability to keep runs off the board. Of course, one might think that with a blazing fastball and 10.1% SwStk%, perhaps an even better strikeout rate should have been posted. The explanation is that his looking strike rate plummeted to a career low. Some of that is likely because pitches that batters had previously taken for a called strike were now being swung and missed at. But given the fact that he was well below the league average in the metric, there’s a good chance he rebounds some.
With the increased velocity supporting the jump in SwStk% and suggesting it is maintainable, the combination of sustaining that rate, while enjoying a boost in his looking strike rate gives him some strikeout rate upside. So it seems clear that his overall skills package is good enough to close out games and although his walk rate may not remain so minuscule, any regression could be offset by another strikeout rate jump.
Now we get to the second ingredient — can Hunter get lefties out? Typically, we wouldn’t want to only use one year’s worth of platoon splits, especially for a reliever with only 40-45 innings against batters from each side of the plate. But since this was Hunter’s first season as a full-time reliever and so much has changed, I have no choice.
We first find that Hunter allowed a .369 wOBA against lefties this year. That’s not good. Righties, on the other hand, were nearly rendered helpless, having been limited to just a .162 mark. Naturally, after digging deeper, we find that his underlying skills didn’t show as stark a difference. He actually walked lefties at a lower rate than righties, but his strikeout rate fell. He was also a fly ball pitcher versus lefties, while he posted a more league average batted ball mix with a ground ball tilt against right-handers.
Overall, he posted a 4.09 xFIP against lefties and 3.19 mark against righties. While a 4.09 xFIP is no great shakes, it’s acceptable enough to get by if paired with a strong mark against righties. What killed his performance against lefties was an inflated 18.6% HR/FB ratio. Amazingly, he didn’t allow a single homer to a righty all year! So the luck dragons decided to even things out by making lefties a living hell for him to face.
Assuming his luck neutralizes, and truth be told, his bad luck versus lefties was more than offset by his good luck against righties, he should be good enough to hold the closer job all season. But although I think his strikeout rate has some room for further growth, it will still likely lag behind the majority of other closers. For that reason, I think he’ll really be more of a mid-tier or top of the bottom tier option.
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