Two years after winning the 1991 World Series, the Twins took an athletic high school outfielder from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Hunter struggled mightily in his pro debut by posting a .503 OPS in 100 at-bats. Hunter moved quickly through the team’s system and spent nearly all of the 1996 season at Double-A, where he got on base over 33% of the time.
Entering the 1997 season, Baseball America ranked Hunter as baseball’s 79th best prospect. He improved his OPS by over 150 points, including a tremendous Triple-A debut with a .891 OPS. Hunter appeared in seven games for the Twins between 1997-98, but the 1999 season was his first full season at the big-league level. As a 23-year old, he struggled offensively as he hit .255/.309/.380 with 28 extra-base hits in 135 games.
One of the biggest reasons for his struggles was related to how the Twins were coaching him. Coaches told him to keep the ball on the ground and use his speed. “I was really bred to be a leadoff guy,” Hunter told The Athletic. “I felt like I had more, but I didn’t want to be un-coachable. I just did what I was told to do, but I felt like I was in prison. I had much more in me, but they wouldn’t let it come out of me. It was my fault. It wasn’t until 2000 I realized who I was and became who I thought I could be.”
From there, Hunter established himself as one of baseball’s best center fielders on both sides of the ball. He posted a 108 OPS+ in eight seasons from 2000-2007. Hunter was the heart and soul of the Twins teams that helped save the franchise from contraction. However, his career wasn’t entirely defined by his time in Minnesota, as he spent multiple seasons in Los Angeles and Detroit.
His final resume puts him in the conversation for one of the best center fielders in baseball history. He won nine straight Gold Glove awards, the third-highest total of any center fielder in history. Hunter led the league in center field assists three times. He was named to five All-Star Games and won two Silver Slugger Awards. During his 19-year career, he hit 20 or more home runs in 11 seasons. From 2001-2013, he averaged 23 home runs and 12 steals per year while posting a 115 OPS+.
He helped teams to the playoffs in eight different seasons, including trips to the American League Championship Series with three different organizations. Even with multiple opportunities, his teams were never able to make it to the World Series. In those 11 Postseason series, he hit .274 with four home runs and 20 RBI in 48 games.
Even with his accolades, Hunter is going to have a tough time making a case for Cooperstown. His closest comparison on the ballot is Andruw Jones, who has been slowly gaining traction. Last year, Jones was in his fourth year on the ballot, and he received 33.9% of the vote. Hunter received 38 votes which accounted for 9.5% of the vote. Jones was one of the best defenders in baseball history, but Hunter’s offensive numbers may help him as voters get a more extended look at his candidacy.
Hunter has more hits than 11 of the 19 center fielders already enshrined in Cooperstown. His 353 home runs rank even better as he is ahead of 13 of the 19 players in center. Unfortunately, his .277 batting average would be the lowest average among enshrined center fielders, and his 110 OPS+ is lower than 17 of the 19 center fielders.
Hunter's career is tough to analyze because he was a great fielder early in his career and a much better hitter in the second half of his career. He will always hold a special place in the heart of Twins fans, but it doesn’t look like Cooperstown will be calling anytime soon.
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OTHER POSTS IN THE SERIES
— David Ortiz
— Joe Nathan