How Should We Remember Torii Hunter's Career?
Torii Hunter is a complex player to analyze. On the one hand, he lasted 17 years in the Majors, hit 353 home runs, and won 9 Gold Glove awards. On the other, Hunter had abrasive view points off the field that alienated many a fan, including some of those who grew up idolizing him.
All of this further muddies what is already a difficult career to dissect. He went from being an elite defensive outfielder to becoming a consistent offensive threat. Now that he has announced he will be retiring from the game of baseball, how do we assess the career of Torii Hunter the player?
Two years ago, someone asked me if Hunter was a Hall of Famer. I kind of laughed the question off, thinking that Hunter wouldn't even come close to reaching this plateau. And while I still believe that after looking all of his accomplishments, the question isn't nearly as absurd as I thought.
Those are discussions that can intensify five years down the road. For right now, let's just take some time to look back at all that accomplished in his complex career.
If you grew up watching SportsCenter in the early 2000's, you're aware that this Hunter guy was capable of making some decent catches. That was what separated Hunter early in his career.
Unfortunately for him, we don't have Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) data for his entire career, as it dates back to only 2002, the year after Hunter's big breakout season. He still managed to post two seasons in which his outfield UZR/150 was north of 10, including as recently as 2012 with the Los Angeles Angels.
If we look at Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Hunter actually had four seasons with 12 or more DRS from 2003 onward. He finished second in outfield DRS in both 2003 and 2004, fifth in 2009, and seventh in 2012. It's hard to tell how DRS would have viewed him prior to 2003, but regardless, he put forth some stellar defensive years.
Obviously, Gold Gloves are far from being the best way to measure who excels in the field. Prior to recent years, good data didn't exist to judge fielders -- specifically those in the outfield -- so voters skewed toward voting with their eyes. This is an area where Hunter excelled, so he got to reap the benefits. I don't want to overstate the value of Gold Gloves, which are far from being ideal, but the respect he had among voters was immense.
Overall, Hunter is one of only 21 players who has ever won nine Gold Glove awards. This includes only six other outfielders, with a few names you may recognize: Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Andruw Jones, Al Kalina, and Ichiro Suzuki. Not bad company for old man Hunter.
People were very much aware of what Hunter did in the field, as you can see with the accolades. However, although his defense may have been slightly overrated by the voters, the same cannot be said about his offense, which may have managed to slide a bit under the radar.
How the Bat Carried Hunter
Most people view Hunter as someone whose value was derived completely from his defense. While that was true for the early parts of his career, it most definitely was not as he aged.
Overall, Hunter finishes his career with a .277/.331/.461 slash with 195 stolen bases, an 18.0 strikeout rate, and a 31.9 hard-hit rate (with that data spanning from 2002 on). For a guy who played into his 40's, those are incredible rate numbers.
The most amazing thing about Hunter as a hitter, though, was his consistency. From 2001 to 2011, there were 10 seasons in which Hunter recorded at least 500 plate appearances. He had at least 20 home runs in all 10 campaigns. He had a slugging percentage of .450 or higher 10 consecutive years and 12 of 13. His wOBA topped .350 on 7 separate occasions. He went on a stolen-base binge from 2002 to 2009 in which he had at least 18 steals in 6 seasons.
Sure, a lot of Hunter's career numbers were a result of his longevity, but from 2001 to 2012, the dude was really a quality stick year in and year out.
Here arises the problem in evaluating Hunter, though. Yes, he had this insane consistency, but he also never really had a single dominant year. His best slugging percentage was .524 in 2002. That is the 50th best slugging percentage for a center fielder since 1999, Hunter's rookie season.
His best wOBA was .375 in 2009, his second to last year with significant time in center field. That is the 59th best mark over that span. Once you start to compare his offense to corner outfielders, it slips even a bit more.
That is largely reflective of Hunter's entire career: a very good player for a very long time but never truly great. He only topped 5.0 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) once, which was in 2012 with the Angels. He topped 4.0 fWAR in 2001 and 2002. He had more than 3.0 fWAR in 4 additional seasons. Consistently commendable but never transcendent.
How Should We Remember Hunter?
As a stats geek, I have a tendency to get too fixated on rate stats that make my mouth drop. It's what makes Barry Bonds so fun -- he had both the career- and season-long stats. With Hunter, though, this can be a flawed viewpoint.
By fixating myself on rate stats, I can lose an appreciation of longevity. That -- to me, at least -- seems misguided. Hunter was able to keep himself in good enough shape to belt 22 home runs in his age-39 season in the big leagues. That has happened only 10 times in the history of Major League Baseball. If I dismiss Hunter because he was never the best in the league at his position, then I may fail to appreciate how truly impressive that and other facts about Hunter are.
At the end of the day, when I look back on Hunter as a player, I'll remember the spectacular defense. I'll also think fondly of the 31 home runs he hit in the Minnesota Twins' magical 2006 season. But most of all, I'll think of his consistency. To be a contributing and valuable member at the highest level of his profession for as long as he was is hard to fathom. Yet, he did it. Again and again and again.