April 18, 2013
In A Pickle
Torii of Relativity
Here's Joey Votto, whose power travails you've probably heard about and whose weird stat line has been the subject of some head-scratching, through Monday's action: 63 plate appearances, 21 walks, one homer, one triple, one double. That's the highest walk rate in baseball (it's not close) and an isolated power of .146. This article isn't about Joey Votto. That makes this maybe a weird "lede" but bear with me.
Here's Torii Hunter, also through Monday: 55 plate appearances, zero walks, one homer, one triple, five doubles. That's the lowest walk rate in baseball (tied with some others, but Hunter has the most plate appearances without a walk, so there's a way in which his zero is lower than anyone else's zero) and an isolated power of .185. Hunter also leads the league in hits. This article is about Torii Hunter.1
Hunter has had longer walkless streaks in his career, but he's never necessarily had a noticeably longer streak, a streak that jumps off the stat page, because he's never had one like this to start the season before—his previous high was 2004, when he didn't walk in April (he only played seven games in the month) before taking a free pass in his second trip to the plate on May 1st against Aaron Sele. That was 33 plate appearances.
Of course, Hunter has always been a swinger, if not quite a flat-out hacker, as you can see from his 2007–2012 hitter profile, normalized to show his rates of swinging against those of other right-handed batters:
Hunter is aggressive in the zone, he's aggressive low, he's aggressive off the plate away (remember, the view here is from the catcher, so Hunter is standing on our left), he's aggressive down and in. He's aggressive. This isn't news if you've been a baseball fan in the last decade or so, but I've always been the type to welcome illustrations of knowledge I already have. Sometimes the knowledge I already have is wrong!
So that's your context. That's who Torii Hunter is. One thing all that swinging has meant is that prior to this season, Hunter had seen about 36 percent balls in his trips to the plate. So far this year: 28.5 percent. That doesn't look like a lot, but even at the tiny sample we're working with here, you'd have to convert 16 of the 193 pitches he's seen from strikes into balls to equalize those percentages. The nice thing about 16, as you've immediately realized, is that it's four walks worth of balls, and if Hunter had four walks in 55 plate appearances, that would be a walk rate of about 7.3 percent. Do you know what his career walk rate was before this season started?
It was 7.3 percent. Yeah, man! Did you just check behind you to see if someone was watching you without you knowing? I did. That's the kind of thing that I do when I find coincidences like "if Hunter was seeing the same number of balls this year as he normally sees he'd have the same number of walks that he normally has."
Although on second thought, that's not so much a coincidence as it is an illustration of the rules of baseball.
Hunter, meanwhile, regardless of what the rules say, is engaged in his crusade against walking and against balls while, weirdly, seeing the same number of pitches he always has: 3.51 per plate appearance this year, 3.60 in his career to this point. So that's a little weird and makes you wonder if he's hitting a bunch of two-strike fouls that he never used to hit.
When you start looking for other weirdness in Hunter's numbers, you see what you might call a blip in Hunter's plate approach in the middle of his Angels career: he saw 3.86 pitches per plate appearance from 2009 to 2011, which was the meat in a sandwich of 3.51 (1998-2008) and 3.57 (2012) marks around it. This 2013 season (3.51 again, remember) might be viewed as a continuation of 2012, or a pushing of 2012 to its extremes, or a return to his Minnesota days, or some combination of all these things.
I don't know that there's a way to decide on the best classification, but you can see this blip in a variety of stats2 broken down into those three eras:
You'll note, of course, that 2008 was not Hunter's last year in Minnesota but his first with the Angels, and that 2012 was his final season in Anaheim. So Hunter didn't change his approach upon arriving in southern California and he didn't wait until he left to change it again. Instead, he was a very different player for his three middle years in California, and he was very different in ways that do battle with our Angels stereotypes regarding small-ball and hackery.
And Hunter was a very good player using this approach! As readers of Baseball Prospectus, you are, if I may be so presumptuous as to tell you what you are, likely inclined toward (biased in favor of?) a player making the changes that Hunter did beginning in 2009—laying off the first pitch, laying off more pitches in general, raising his walk rate (from 6.7 percent to 9.4 percent), and, as a bonus, just as we always promise, getting better results when he did swing the bat as well (you can see the slugging increase slightly above, and note also that Hunter's BABIP went from .298 prior to 2009 to .310 from 2009 to 2011, a figure that doesn't account for parks and league context).
Baseball teams being loaded as they are with advance scouts and pitching coaches and analyst hamsters, you will not be surprised to hear that pitchers adjusted to what Hunter did in 2009. While we only have PITCHf/x data going back a few years, and while defining the strike zone can be a dubious proposition, here's an illustrative selection:4
The thing is that now we're frozen in time. Hunter's zone percentage hovered around that 49 percent figure thereafter and thereabouts has it hovered this season as well, clocking in at 49.2 so far. This despite the fact that, as we've been discussing, he's back to swinging like his old self and that he's been back to swinging like his old self for an entire season now.
You might expect, wouldn't you, the pitchers to catch up to the fact that Hunter is clubbing all that stuff they're throwing in the zone, that stuff they're putting there presumably to take advantage of Hunter's decision to start taking more pitches. At some point, at least, you'd expect this? Like maybe after Hunter had 584 plate appearances with this approach last season? Maybe?
But maybe not. We can dream up scenarios where pitchers wouldn't change their willingness to go into the zone against Hunter. Maybe the scouting report has gone around and the report is that Hunter's bat is slow. This hypothetical slowness hasn't shown in the numbers yet, but the season is young. Jason Beck wrote a piece last week discussing Hunter's opposite-field hitting. Beck quoted Tigers manager Jim Leyland saying this:
I think he's pretty professional at shooting the ball through the hole there when [Austin] Jackson's on. He's a smart player. He does a lot of things pretty smart, and he sees what's there. He tries to take what's there. I think that's how I'd put it.
Maybe Leyland is being nice and by "he tries to take what's there" he means "he can't catch up to that stinky cheese from the real hard throwers anymore so he's just laying the wood out there any way he can and hoping for the best, and so far, praise my deity of choice, it's worked wonders for him, but honestly guys if I can just remove the varnish for a second here I know we signed him to a decent-sized contract and all but now that we're seeing him up close I have to say the coaches and me, the guys here in this clubhouse, we're not really figuring on him doing this all year and we're really, and I don't want you to print this because my deity would they get mad at me, but we're really kind of dreaming on the ascension of Nick Castellanos more soon than late. You know. Between us." But of course you'll never catch Leyland saying that—putting the word out about your hitter's weaknesses as a 37-year-old whose body is betraying his ability to play the way he used to is a recipe for about eight kinds of trouble.
It should be emphasized, by the way, that all of this talk about pitchers throwing more in the zone or less and Hunter swinging more or less is relative to Hunter himself and his own career norms. By the standards of Votto or Derek Norris or someone, Hunter's been hacking and hacking nonstop since the day he arrived in the big leagues. An illustration: Check out Hunter's pitch frequency chart from 2012, again normalized to show where he saw pitches relative to other right-handed hitters.
Is he pitched in the zone? Not so much. The only place, aside from up and away, where Hunter sees pitches inside the strike zone more than other hitters is on the inner third (and looking at the spot directly to its left and noticing how it breaks the pattern of above-average pitches winding up inside off the plate, one can wonder whether 2012 just saw Hunter get more pitches that caught more plate than the hurlers hoped).
Anyway, the point here is just that Torii Hunter is doing some weird voodoo things with the bat in his hands, Hacking Like It's 1999, but seeing pitches like he's his old Anaheim self5 and having the entire package add up to, and this is the technical term, one hell of a player. Is it going to continue? Of course not. I don't even need my funny dancing word games, my "probably"'s and my "maybe"'s and my "signs point to"'s, in this case. Hunter hasn't walked even one single time but he's batting over .400 and slugging the Stove Top out of the ball and not whiffing and just generally behaving like a Hall of Nearly Great–level outfielder simply has no business behaving at the age of 37. And if he somehow does keep behaving this way, the pitchers will stop throwing him strikes. Something, as they say, has got to give.