Friday, August 16, 2013

Examining Torii Hunter's High Batting Averages

Hunter's hitting for the highest averages of his career 
Torii Hunter has been a great baseball player for many years. He's made five All-Star teams, won nine Gold Gloves and smashed more than 300 home runs. His track record includes countless highlight-reel catches, MVP votes, postseason success, and nearly 50 bWAR accumulated across 17 big league seasons. That probably won't be enough to land him a spot in the Hall of Fame, but there's no questioning his plaque in the fictional Hall of Very Good.

But for all of Hunter's accomplishments, he had never batted .300 in a season until 2012, his final season with the Los Angeles Angels. He'd come awfully close in 2009, when he hit .299, but most years his batting average settled near .270 or .280. It was surprising, then, that his average spiked from .262 in 2011 to .313 the next year, the same summer he turned 37. Incredibly, Hunter managed to pump up his BA 51 points--an increase that is almost unheard of for players his age--despite posting the worst strikeout rate of his career.

The explanation behind his batting average boost was a fluky .389 BABiP, the second-highest mark in baseball last year (one point below Dexter Fowler's .390 mark). Hunter's not getting any faster at this stage in his career, so he must have gotten luckier, right?

Well, to some degree, yes. Fortune always plays a part in BABiP and batting average, but there's more to it then that. Hunter did get lucky, but he also altered his batting approach. To compensate for his diminishing power stroke, Hunter leveled out his swing, an adjustment that resulted in a career-best line drive rate and ground ball rate, as well as a career-low fly ball rate. Accordingly, his BABiP went through the roof. Fly balls that don't leave the park tend to wind up in outfielders' mitts. Line drives and ground balls, on the other hand, find holes and take funny hops. They are tougher to convert into outs.

This year Hunter's BABiP and batted ball data have regressed closer to his career norms, though he's still enjoying good luck on balls in play with his .347 mark. One would expect his batting average to suffer a similarly drastic drop off, but instead it's dipped just five points down to .308.

So how is he pulling that off? Hunter's been able to maintain his high average by getting the bat on the ball more frequently and becoming hyper-aggressive at the plate. His strikeout rate is down, his contact rate, is up, and he's swinging at everything. No wonder his walk rate is down to 4.1 percent, easily the lowest of his career. Here's another stat to illustrate just how trigger-happy Henter's become: in a 52 game stretch between June 9th and August 12th, he walked four times.

That kind of approach would spell disaster for most players, but it's working for Hunter. After batting .274 in his first 15 seasons, he's a .310 hitter in his most recent thousand at-bats (which should represent the decline phase of his career). And he's not slowing down. Over the past two months he's batted .329 and slugged .552, providing plenty of offense for the Detroit Tigers, who got hot and lead their division by 6.5 games entering play today. Barring a late season collapse, the defending American League champs will return to the postseason, putting Hunter in position to bolster his already-impressive resume with one more credential: a World Series ring.

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