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Reportedly signed Torii Hunter to a two-year deal worth $26 million. [11/14]
The higher the education level of a population rises, the narrower the spread of views that population holds. Leave a thousand primitive people to figure out on their own the source of life and you’d get 1,000 hypotheses; give them a few generations of socialization and oral history and you’ll get a few dozen religion- and mysticism-based explanations; send them all to universities and you get two, or maybe two and a half: one based on gut, one based on science, and a third that combines the two.
Sometimes it feels like baseball teams don’t have much to argue over any more. Jim Bowden’s remarkably accurate pre-offseason predictions last year drive the point home: The market appears, essentially, efficient, and the differences between teams come down to access, affluence, and execution. But then Torii Hunter hits free agency and shows just how far front-office opinions can still diverge.
The Angels offered Hunter one year and $5 million a couple weeks before the season ended. Now, the Tigers appear to have settled with Hunter for two years and $26 million. One team looked at Hunter and saw the equivalent of Carlos Lee; another team looked at him and saw Nick Swisher. Which is he?
Over the past year, past two years, past three, past four, he has clearly been closer to (if just shy of) Swisher. Indeed, compare Hunter's WARP totals to the other top outfielders on this year’s market:
With the exception of Hamilton’s 2010 season and B.J. Upton, that’s a pretty small spread. For that matter, you could include hotly desired trade candidate Justin Upton, whose four-year total (13.6 WARP), three-year total (9.0) and 2012 total (2.6) both come up short of Hunter, though Upton has the edge (7.1) over just the past two seasons.
So why would the Angels value him at one year and $5 million? (And, perhaps more significantly, why would they make that offer in the middle of a pennant race, knowing that Hunter would certainly see it as a bit of an insult? But that’s off the subject.) Well, one simple reason is that Hunter is old, while those other guys aren’t old.
Hunter is going to be 37, and, despite his strong recent history, we can’t say that age ain’t nothing but a number. His years have already forced him from a premium position, raising the bar of what is required from his bat. If the Tigers are expecting Hunter to replicate his age-36 performance in each of the next two years, then this is relevant: There have been roughly 15 outfielders who matched or exceeded Hunter’s 2012 offense in an age-37 season; about half that many have done so in an age-38 season. (About twice as many did it in an age-36 season. Patterns!)
On the other hand, it’s easy to oversimplify the aging curve and conclude that a 37-year-old is especially likely to collapse. Nate Silver wrote in 2009 that “the steepest part of the aging curve—when a hitter experiences the most manifest decline in his abilities-tends to come between ages 32 and 34.” That would make Hunter the relatively safe pick in a group that includes Swisher, Hamilton, and Victorino (each 32 next year) and Angel Pagan (31). So what exactly is the precedent for a player like Hunter?
Hunter has a 124 OPS+ over the past three seasons. I filtered for non-catchers and non-DHs since 1970 who had at least 1,500 plate appearances from age 34 to 36, and looked at the 20 batters whose OPS+ most resembled Hunter’s during that stretch (10 better than Hunter, 10 worse). Of the 20, all but two saw their offensive performance go down at ages 37 and 38, and one of the two exceptions was Carlos Delgado, who batted just 112 times during those two seasons (and never again). So really we’re talking about one player (Fred McGriff) who maintained or improved his offensive performance.
But it’s not as though the other 18 collapsed. Fifteen of the 20 were at least league-average hitters, and 15 of the 20 collected at least 900 plate appearances during those two seasons. The composite 37/38-year-old: 946 plate appearances, 111 OPS+. Which is still a better batter than B.J. Upton was in 2012.
More troubling than his age is the composition of Hunter’s performance, as it relies heavily on an unprecedentedly high BABIP. Hunter’s carer .307 BABIP was well reflected by his 2010 and 2011 figures, but in 2012 it spiked to .389. He did hit more line drives, fewer fly balls, fewer pop-ups, and more bunt singles than his norms, so it’s not totally without explanation. But it’s mostly without explanation, and if those singles disappear then the home runs that already disappeared look a lot more disappeared than they already do.
Sum it up, and Hunter looks like a relatively safe sign, a guy who has got enough of each skill left that he’s almost a lock to contribute a couple wins a year. He looks, in fact, like a player who should get the two years and $20 million that Jim Bowden priced him at this year. But reality so often departs from forecasts, and the actual offers Hunter received from his old team and his new are each rational in their own way. The Angels have a full outfield without Hunter, assuming they intend to play Peter Bourjos alongside Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo. They could have signed Hunter and traded Bourjos, Trumbo or Kendrys Morales this offseason, but why risk the inefficiencies of the trade market? Easier to let Hunter go to a team that needs him.
The Tigers need him. Their left fielders were sub-replacement in 2012. Their right fielders were not only sub-replacement; their combined -1.6 WARP was the sixth-worst cumulative performance by any team at any position. Hunter helps balance a lineup that sacrificed nearly 50 points of OPS against lefties in 2012, and he gives range to an outfield defense in support of an air-oriented pitching staff. (Our metrics don’t love him out there; some others do, and logically it follows that an average center fielder would be an above-average corner outfielder. He passes the eyeball test.)
Inactivity certainly wasn’t an option for Detroit, and if overpaying Hunter by a few million is the price to avoid the stress of waiting out the rest of the free agent scuffle, it’s not the worst few million to spend. So maybe it’s not that the Tigers and Angels disagreed about Torii Hunter’s future and abilities. As this deal reminds us, context can be everything.