The Baltimore Orioles closer situation has been an ongoing theme throughout the off-season. Dan Duquette traded closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics for infielder Jamile Weeks in the early stages of the off-season, and later nixed the signing of free agent closer Grant Balfour due to a questionable medical report. After multiple rumors surrounding free agent closers, the Orioles are seemingly going in-house to resolve their ninth inning dilemma. The obvious favorite to get the team’s save opportunities in 2014 is Tommy Hunter, and that might actually have been the best choice for the Orioles moving forward.
In 86 innings out of the bullpen in 2013, Hunter had a 2.81 ERA, 0.985 WHIP, and averaged 7.1 K/9. His upper 90’s fastball, durability, and aggressive pitching make him the obvious choice, but his splits versus LHBs have some fans rightfully concerned. Lefty hitters batted .294 against Hunter and hit all 11 of Hunter’s surrendered home runs in 2013. If the Orioles have a one-run lead heading into the ninth inning with two lefties due up in the middle of the opposition’s batting order, it would seem natural to start sweating if you’re an Orioles fan. It isn’t likely that Hunter will figure out how to pitch to LHBs in 2014, as this has been a consistent theme throughout his career. However, he may learn how to pitch around them. If he can reduce LHB’s opportunities to get their arms extended, even at the risk of walking them, the Orioles may be in a better chance to win than if he goes right after them.
In a 3-3 ninth inning tie against the New York Yankees on September 11, 2013, Hunter gave up a tie breaking home run to Robinson Cano to lead off the inning. It was an 0-1 fastball in the upper portion of the pate. If Hunter can avoid that type of situation, he may actually be an upgrade for the Orioles in save situations. The situation seemed odd to throw a fastball that Cano could get a good swing on. Cano is a fastball hitter, Camden Yards favors LHBs, and the count was 0-1. Part of the responsibility for this particular example falls on catcher Matt Wieters, as he calls the pitches, but Hunter could have shaken him off.
If Hunter can neutralize LHBs by limiting hittable pitches, even if that means putting runners on base, he has the potential to outperform Jim Johnson’s 2013 season. Johnson had a habit of falling behind hitters and having to make up for it by grooving fastballs, which became troublesome. Compared to Johnson, Hunter averaged less pitches per plate appearance (3.76 to Johnson’s 3.83), had a higher strikes thrown percentage (68.8% to 62.7%), averaged more first-pitch strikes (64% to 60.8%), and had a higher 0-2 count percentage (29.5% to 23.7%). Though those numbers aren’t overly polarizing, they remain telling. Hunter saw more pitcher’s counts than Johnson did, and that plays at the closer role.
Hunter’s numbers out of the bullpen the last two years are very appealing. Watching him touch 100MPH and overpower batters makes him fit the mold of the traditional power closer. Unfortunately, his numbers against LHBs is concerning, if not alarming. Lefties will hit Hunter in 2014, that is almost a guarantee. But if Hunter’s focus is on preventing lefties from seeing hittable pitches, he may very well be better than any free agent or trade acquired alternative.