2011 Orioles Retrospective: Tommy Hunter

Tommy Hunter started out the year as a member of the Texas Rangers – well, their Triple-A affiliate anyway. When he was called up to the majors at the beginning of July, he was used exclusively as a reliever despite his past experience starting. The Orioles acquired him right before the trade deadline (with Chris Davis) in return for Koji Uehara. I didn’t like the move – initially here, and then more here – in part because even though Hunter should provide the team with some value, there isn’t much upside there (despite people being excited about him throwing 95 mph out of the pen and the team/announcers even referring to him as a building block).

After one relief appearance in Baltimore, the O’s moved Hunter to the rotation. He ended up starting 11 games for the team, posting a 5.00 ERA, 4.71 FIP, and 4.38 xFIP in the process. His fastball velocity dipped some – from 92-93 to 90-92 – but was still better than the 89-91 of past seasons (we’ll see if he can keep it up over a full season though). Even with the improved velocity, Hunter only managed to strike out 4.6 batters per nine as a starter (5.5 K/9 as a reliever), which actually isn’t all that far below his career rate (5 K/9). None of his pitches miss many bats, so even when ahead in the count and going to the breaking stuff, he’s not too likely to get the whiff.

Hunter’s exceptional “control” – 1.3 BB/9 – got him through, but it’s unlikely he can continue walking so few batters (career 2.3 BB/9). Part of the reason for the low walk totals was that batters went up to the plate hacking and rarely missed; only one starter in the majors (min. 50 IP) – Scott Baker – had batters swing at his pitches more often (over 51%), and Hunter’s contact rate against was the 8th highest (over 88%). Hitters ended the at bats too early to draw many free passes. Could Hunter at least limit the hits on balls in play as he had throughout his career (.273 BABIP)? Nope… .313 BABIP; expecting the low BABIP to persist after only 250 IP isn’t a great thing to bank on (it can happen – Hunter could become Jeremy Guthrie #2 – but it’s not likely).

Overall, things went about as expected. Few K’s, few walks, some home runs (1.5 HR/9, though a 11.5% HR/FB rate seems a touch high) – Hunter pitched like a serviceable back of the rotation guy. About 0.6 of his 0.8 total fWAR on the season was accumulated as a starter; over a full season that would put him at around 1.5 fWAR. That’s not all that bad – and it’s certainly solid return for a relief pitcher, given that Hunter isn’t even in his arbitration years yet (I believe) – but it’s not anything to get excited about (I’d gladly trade Hunter and Chris Davis for two good pitching prospects).