Friday, May 25, 2007

A Lack of Patience Pays Off

In my perusal of numerous Twins blogs and message boards this season, the most popular topic for discussion by far has been Torii Hunter and his future with the team. Hunter, who is in the last year of his current contract, will become a free agent following the 2007 season and coincidentally, he is on pace for the best season of his career. In 44 games, Hunter has batted .315/.352/.607 and he's on pace for 38 home runs and 140 RBI. Should the Twins deal Hunter if the Twins are not in contention around the trading deadline? Should they trade him even if they are in contention? His stellar numbers so far this season are certainly making matters a bit more interesting.

Many people have been stunned by the incredibly hot start Hunter has gotten off to this season, but what it is is actually a much longer torrid streak that stretches back to last season. Many will recall that he was a tremendous force in September of '06, when he hit nine homers and amassed in 27 RBI in 29 games. Since the 2006 All-Star break, Hunter has hit .304 with 28 HR and 89 RBI in just 106 games. For comparison, during that same span, the reigning MVP Justin Morneau has hit .319 with 25 HR and 88 RBI in 122 games.

The striking thing about Hunter's prolonged hot streak is that during those 106 games, he has collected a total of just 15 walks. This season, Hunter has drawn just eight free passes in 179 plate appearances, and that's after he walked twice in Sunday's game against the Brewers and was issued an intentional walk by the Rangers on Wednesday afternoon. Just how odd is it for a player to be putting up numbers like Hunter while showing almost no patience at the plate whatsoever? Among the 18 players in the major leagues with 10 or more home runs, Hunter is the only one with fewer than 10 walks. Among the league's top 40 RBI producers, only Hunter and San Francisco's Bengie Molina have drawn fewer than 10 free passes. It is extremely rare for a player to rack up homers and RBI at an elite rate without showing any patience at the plate, but Hunter has been doing it for almost five months now.

For years, Twins fans have bemoaned Hunter's first-pitch hacks and have wished that he could start to show more patience at the plate. But maybe those thoughts were misguided. The Twins' center fielder is as much a hacker at the plate as he ever was, but he seems to have gotten really, really good at it. Hunter is currently on pace to draw fewer than 40 walks this year. The last time he did that (with the exception of his injury-shortened 2005 campaign) was 2002. And 2002 happened to be the year Hunter posted career highs in batting average and slugging percentage. It also happened to be a contract year.

I'm not even really going to attempt to answer the question of whether or not the Twins should trade Hunter this July. That will be an issue worth tackling a bit further down the road. Right now, I think it's interesting to just sit back and marvel at Hunter's rare ability to combine great power and run producing ability with an utter lack of patience at the plate. The season Hunter is having brings back memories of successful hackers such as Andre Dawson and Jim Rice from the '80s, which is not bad company at all considering that both are borderline Hall of Famers.

So the next time Hunter comes to the plate following back-to-back walks and goes chopping at that first pitch, don't get frustrated. Patience isn't always a virtue.

9 comments:

ubelmann said...

The weird thing to me is that most players that can do this are bad-ball hitters, like Vlad, who can "expand the strike zone" and swing at whatever they want because they have such good bat control. (Vlad's OBP doesn't show it, because he gets a lot of IBB, but he doesn't work many unintentional walks.)

Hunter doesn't really seem to have that sort of otherwordly bat control. He's getting it done somehow, though.

beth said...

What has surprised me the most is that Cuddyer has walked four times in the last two games. With Justin Morneau followed by Torii Hunter after Cuddyer, I'm surprised they don't pitch more to Cuddyer--on the other hand, he's a bit of a threat himself.

Dan said...

Question: WIth the Bullpen thinned out as it is, would it not make sense to shift Ortiz to the pen to work in long relief alongside Geurrier and put either Slowey or Garza in a starting slot?

It seems like a win-win situation, where the Twins don't give up on Ortiz, and he may actually help some in middle innings, and we see what Slowey or Garza can do for some starts.

Also, I wonder if we have a chance to land Eric Byrnes in center next year? I think he would fit in well with the team.

twayn said...

Some people forget that Kirby was a bit of a hacker at the plate, too, but he got such good results that his approach was seldom criticized. A couple of weeks ago during an ESPN game, they compared Torii's swing from the middle of last season to his current swing. The difference? Previously he was lifting his left leg much higher during his stride. Now he barely lifts it off the ground. He made that adjustment after watching Joe Mauer in the batting cage. Whether it's one of the reasons he's become more consistent as a hitter is open to debate. But something is sure working for him.

Nick M. said...

Twayn, those are good points, especially bring up Puckett. Kirby had a career isolated discipline of 0.32, which signifies a big hacker. Puckett walked 57 times in 1990, which was a down season for him (hitting "only" .298), and then drew 56 walks in his last season of 1995.

Other than those seasons, Puckett usually never drew many walks. In his best hitting season, 1988, he hit .356, but drew only 23 walks for a OBP of .375.

As for your question Dan, I would say that I agree with Joe Christensen. Ortiz should be moved to long relief if he falters in his next start (or even now) to make room for either Garza or Slowey in the rotation.

Byrnes would be a good fit, but I'm not sure that he is a free agent next year. According to Cot' Baseball Contracts (a great website), Byrnes is on a one year contract and only has 5.075 years of service. If he is available, he'd be worthy of a try, but I imagine even Byrnes, with another 25-25 season, would be out of the Twins price range regardless.

Nick N. said...

Byrnes will be a free agent next year if the Diamondbacks don't extend him. He's a guy I've had my eye on for a while.

And Dan, I'm with you 100 percent on moving Ortiz to the pen. But, I don't think the Twins will call up Slowey until at least June for service time reasons, and Garza has been pretty inconsistent in Triple-A.

BD57 said...

I think twayn identified the difference - Torii has adjusted his swing in a way which (a) quiets his head; and (b) lets him take less time from "start" to impact, so he can wait a fraction of a second more before starting his swing.

The high kick strikes me as Torii's homage to Kirby; the new stride, to Mauer.

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