Tommy Hunter is Having a Quietly Stellar 2017
Baseball at the major league level relies on quality relievers and bullpens now more than any other era in the game’s history. We see it at the trade deadline year after year, teams are looking to add bullpen depth just as much as they are looking to add pieces to their starting rotation, maybe even more so in recent seasons. We hear the narrative on teams like this year’s Washington Nationals about how their major downfall in the postseason will be their lack of bullpen depth. Teams are willing to do whatever it takes to put their bullpen in a good position to, well…. not blow games or keep their club in them.
There are countless ways to build a relief corp and while so many teams scramble to find pitching help for the back half of games, others find it unexpected places. Tommy Hunter is one of my favorite, and least talked about, stories of the 2017 season.
No one can dispute that Hunter is a good, consistent major league pitcher who has always provided value, but he has been so much more than that in 2017. He is in the midst of a career season that ranks him among some of the game’s top bullpen arms during the current campaign.
The former 54th overall pick entered the professional ranks, as most pitchers do, as a starter. He spent the majority of his first five seasons in a starting rotation before he was moved to the pen full time in 2013 during his stint with the Baltimore Orioles. He was briefly placed into the closer role in 2014 where he converted just 11 of his 17 save attempts.
Hunter switched teams four times between 2015 and 2016 and was thought of as a veteran guy who could come in for some damage control in the middle innings; he was seen as an innings eater. Fast forward to 2017 and Hunter is giving his newest club, the Tampa Bay Rays, everything they were hoping for and then some.
Hunter has pitched in 42 innings so far this season while posting a 1.0 WAR, a career high since moving to a relief role. The most fascinating aspect of Hunter’s game is not the stats he is accumulating, but the situations he is accumulating them in.
Hunter has seen more high leverage situations in 2017 than any other season since he was tested as a closer all while performing much better. He has posted career lows in ERA at 1.76, WHIP at 1.0 and FIP at 2.67. His ERA+ is an eye-popping 238 and he is allowing less hits while getting more strikeouts per nine innings. The moral of the story here… Hunter is putting up career best numbers in essentially every pitching category while being more clutch.
Did the Rays just luck out? Did they sign a nine year veteran to a one year deal to eat up some innings while hoping to make a playoff run, but really find a prime bullpen piece? Perhaps the Rays did luck into a great season from Hunter, but it certainly appears there was a conscious effort to change something on his end.
Hunter is throwing his fastball approximately 20% less than any previous season as a reliever. Throwing it just 42.6% of the time, he has relied on his cutter more this season, throwing it on 30.8% of his pitches. His average velocity is up on both of those pitches and he is getting more swing and miss than ever as well. The improvement and consistency on his curveball is a nice way to top off his repetoire.
Hunter’s batted ball numbers have stayed relatively close to the same in terms of contact speed (soft, medium, hard) and batted ball type (ground ball, line drive, fly ball). With the FIP so low and the K/9 way up, it is clear that the adjustments Hunter made on the frequency with which he throws his fastball versus his breaking stuff is having a huge impact on opposing hitters. Rival lineups have shown no evidence of catching on to Hunter’s new tactics and the Rays can sit back and enjoy their veteran presence have a career statistical year in high leverage situations while being in the middle of a playoff race.
Featured Image Courtesy of Getty Images / David Banks