At 39-years-old, there is little question that the tools that had at one time made him an elite defender -- a blindingly quick first step and the closing speed -- has been left behind in some old Angels uniform pants.
Every stat that measures range has painted him a liability in right field. Ultimate Zone Rating dismisses him wholly as the worst among qualified right fielder. Revised Zone Rating dinged him for not making plays in the accepted right fielder zone that are typically made. Inside Edge’s video scouts agree, saying he has caught 98% of all plays deemed “Almost Certain” (99% conversion rate average) and made 88% of all plays, third worst among right fielders.
As the metric world has come to a consensus regarding the outfielder, some industry sources have mentioned his defensive abilities are not represented within that particular data. Hunter has entered the savvy veteran world of being able to take a proper route in order stave off would-be advancing baserunners. He has done things like thrown behind runners on the bases to get them out. In some ways, touting skills like this feels like sort of like congratulating an elder person who is doing 10 under the speed limit for at least staying in his lane. While there may be some value, it is still not as important as getting to the ball on time.
Consider this play off the bat of the Twins’ Danny Santana in Comerica last June. With the bases loaded and two outs, this harmless fly balls lands safely at Hunter’s feet:
Meanwhile, compare that play to the one made by the former Brave, now current Cardinal Jason Heyward:
Admittedly, without the ability to have MLB StatCast data on both these plays, this is an exercise in imperfection. There are other factors that might have led to the outcome like daytime versus nighttime, the score of the game or whether or not the glove oil fumes were causing dizziness. These two plays were selected based on the hit type, estimated hang time, direction and perceived distance from the right fielder to the play. What the two examples show is the visual difference in the person with the highest UZR (Heyward) and the person with the lowest (Hunter) on a very similar play.
For those who do not enjoy the fruits of the advanced defensive metrics tree, the raw totals found within ESPN/trumedia’s database reveals more damning evidence against Hunter. By filtering the batted ball data to reduce all hits to right field, carrying in the air (line drive and fly balls) more than 210 feet past the no-man’s land between the infield and outfield, while examining the individual hit types (soft, medium and hard) we find that the batting average on balls in play across MLB in 2014 breakdown as such:
While the Tigers right fielders performed better than the average against the softly hit flies and liners (.124, third-lowest in MLB) they struggled mightily to provide the same coverage on more well-struck balls. The Tigers right fielders led by Hunter allowed a .356 batting average on balls in play on swings that produced medium-well hits (second-worst, just ahead of the Yankees) but the real damage was done on the hard-hit variety. Opponents were able to post a .778 average on balls in play, 21% worse than the MLB average and by far the worst rate in the league.
To put that in perspective, the Atlanta Braves, who used to employ right fielder Jason Heyward, led baseball with a .529 batting average on hard-hit balls in play. By the UZR standards, Hayward’s coverage was amazing. Not only was he able to convert on a vast majority of balls in his zone, he was able to make plays on 122 balls out of a right fielder’s zone. For his part, in approximately 200 fewer innings, Hunter made 50 out of zone plays.
What creates this effect? Why are the Braves and Heyward so much better at fielding well-hit balls than the Tigers and Hunter?
The obvious first difference is age and skill. Hayward’s young legs allows for greater coverage. Fangraphs.com’s Fan Scouting Report has Hayward rated as an 87 when it comes to a first step. Hunter, on the other hand, was rated a 38 for his first step. Overall speed is rated a tortoise-like 44 for Hunter and a hare-like 82 for Hayward. Having the quick first step allows for the ability to track those hard-hit balls. The speed allows closing on flies that are out of the range of most human right fielders.
The less obvious factor might be the defensive alignment a team implements. It is not clear whether the Tigers are big proponents of moving people around in the field to maximize coverage despite having a defensive coordinator (Mike Martin) on staff. The focus has been on the infield shifts, much to manager Brad Ausmus’ chagrin. Likewise, the Braves seem to play straight up with some shading but the ability to generate twice as many outs in right field as the Tigers leaves the impression that they are positioning players very well.
In the end, it appears the Twins front office either is not concerned on the effect of the outfield defense on the pitching staff or are completely misunderstanding what constitutes good defense.
During the Twins Daily Handbook interview with Terry Ryan, Ryan dismissed the notion that the outfield from 2014, which was rated one of the worst by the advanced metrics, was as bad as it appeared. “We’ll be looking for outfield but I’m not as concerned about the outfield defense as maybe it sounds like you are,” Ryan told me, adding that he doesn’t necessarily trust the advanced stats.
One could argue that Hunter is not worse than Oswaldo Arcia in right field, as some of the advanced metrics would suggest. After all, Hunter is more experienced which leads to the proper execution of other elements of the game that are not captured by zones alone.
The advanced fielding stats can be misleading, there is no question. The data, however, doesn’t lie. It just is. And what the data says is that Hunter is not able to catch everything an average right fielder is able to. This notion could leave the pitching staff frustrated in 2015.