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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Has Torii Hunter put together a Hall of Fame career?

***This is a sponsored post***

Torii Hunter has somewhat quietly put together one of the better careers among active MLB players. Hunter’s career achievements include four All-Star Games, nine Gold Gloves, and a Silver Slugger award. Hunter signed a two-year, $26 million deal with the Detroit Tigers in the offseason and has gotten off to a strong start with the team. He is batting .316/.363/.427 with two home runs and 31 runs scored in 48 games, while playing a solid right field.

A former first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins, Hunter saw his first action in the majors in 1997 when he was 21. He saw more consistent action over the next few years, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he truly broke out. He has been one of the most consistent performers in the bigs since then.

Now that he is nearing the end of his excellent career, it’s fair to ask whether or not Hunter is a Hall of Famer. SUBWAY® is celebrating “The Boys in the Hall” and has asked us to evaluate whether or not Hunter can make it to Cooperstown. We’ll answer the question by breaking down what Hunter has going for and against him.

Torii Hunter Boys in the Hall
Hunter was born and raised in Pine Bluff, Ark., and attended Pine Bluff High School. He was drafted No. 20 overall in 1993 by the Twins and began playing pro ball that year at age 17. He had some average seasons in the minor leagues from 1995-1997, but a strong campaign in double and triple-A convinced the Twins he was ready for some time in the majors in 1998. Hunter struggled in ’98 and in 1999 — his first full season in MLB — and was even sent back to the minors after struggling the first two months of the 2000 season. But after torching Triple-A pitching for two months, Hunter got back on track and was recalled in July. Everything seemed to click after that, because he has been one of the best offensive center fielders in baseball since then.

For his career, Hunter is a .278 hitter with an .801 OPS. The numbers don’t jump out at you, but they are excellent when you consider that Hunter played center field — a premium defensive position — throughout his career (he switched to right field last season). He has 299 home runs, 421 doubles, 1,166 RBIs, and has scored 1,099 runs. He only has 187 career stolen bases, which is a little low for someone who played center, but Hunter has been a middle-of-the-order power hitter throughout his career.

As an Angels fan, I got to see Hunter play for five seasons from 2008-2012. One thing that jumps out about him is his ability to hit fastballs, and his ability to hit good pitching. Some players boost their stats by feasting on average or below-average pitching, and then struggle against the top pitchers. These are often the players who have trouble during the playoffs. That wasn’t Hunter.

Hunter has been an exceptional hitter during the postseason throughout his career. At a time when players’ numbers generally drop because they are facing tougher pitching, Hunter’s numbers improved. He has hit .305/.370/.489 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 34 career playoff games. He posted an OPS over .800 in six of his eight career playoff series, including an OPS over .900 four times.

Even though Hunter has been lauded for his defensive ability and, in particular, his penchant for robbing home runs, Fangraphs has actually rated him as a slightly below average defensive center fielder since 2006. Hunter generally rated as a good center fielder from 1999-2005, and was credited for having spectacular defensive seasons in 2001 and 2003.

It was actually at the MLB All-Star Game in 2002 when Hunter had one of his iconic moments. During the first inning of the game, he robbed a Barry Bonds home run by leaping over the fence for the catch. It was Hunter doing what he does best to rob the best hitter in the game. Bonds even picked up Hunter as they met on the field:

Playing center field beyond the age of 30 is a difficult proposition because players tend to lose speed as they age. Hunter generally rated slightly below average in center after turning 30, but the move to right field last season rewarded him; he rated extremely well defensively.

In comparison to other center fielders, Hunter’s true value has come from being a power hitter — few other center fielders can hit over 20 home runs in a season as Hunter has done 10 times.

So, how does Hunter’s career compare to active players and Hall of Famers?

Boys in the Hall
Baseball-Reference has Hunter 12th among active position players in career WAR (wins above replacement) with 49.1. Fangraphs has a different system and has him rated with a 40.7 career WAR, which places him 18th on their list of active position players. Players who have posted similar career WARs thus far include Miguel Tejada, Mark Texeira, and Jimmy Rollins. Most of those players strike me as excellent players during their careers, but slightly below Hall of Fame status.

In comparison to center fielders in the Hall of Fame, Hunter does not have the numbers that match up. He doesn’t have the power of a Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, nor the average of a Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Tris Speaker, or Kirby Puckett.

Hunter is missing two things that are generally necessary for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame: honors and career milestones. He is 949 hits away from 3,000, 201 home runs away from 500, and he has not won an MVP or World Series. A player who has both honors and milestones is in almost automatically. A player who has one or the other generally gets in. But Hunter is lacking in both regards and does not have much time to change that.

If Hunter absolutely torched the ball over the next three seasons and helped the Tigers win a World Series or two with memorable postseason performances, he might be considered for Cooperstown. But that all seems highly unlikely now that he is 37.

At this point, it looks like Torii Hunter will go down as a player who had an excellent career and was one of the best center fielders in his era, but not a Hall of Famer.

Go here to see all the other Boys in the Hall celebrated by SUBWAY®.

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