Baltimore Orioles: The New Tommy Hunter


If Hunter’s new profile is legitimate, the Orioles could use him in the ALCS. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Hunter has always allowed home runs. In his first full season in Baltimore, he posted an astounding 2.15 HR/9 — the highest in the team’s history. For his career, he owns a 1.42 mark in that regard, which ranks sixth among 322 qualified pitchers in that span. It’s just who he is: a pitch-to-contact righty who doesn’t keep that contact on the ground. Or is he?

A funny thing happened to Hunter this year. All of a sudden, he induced a lot of grounders. 50.8% of the balls in play against him didn’t go airborne; that rate easily tops his previous single-season high of 45.4%. Together with an 8.7% HR/FB%, that gave him a lower HR/9 (0.59) than ever before, which in turn gave him a lower FIP- (81) than ever before. Even without the notoriously-flukish home run-fly ball rate, he still hit a new high: His 85 xFIP- was the best of his career, and it came as the result of the uptick in ground balls.

The salient question here: Will this last? The sample size certainly checks out. Ground balls stabilize pretty quickly, at only 70 batters faced, and Hunter pitched to 241 men last year. But that still leaves room for doubt, so let’s look a little deeper.

Hunter’s sinker has always given him a solid amount of grounders, as do most sinkers. In 2014, he threw it more often (29.8%) than in any year prior, so that accounts for some of the increase. Most of it, however, comes from his 69.2% clip of grounders on the pitch, a level that dwarfs anything else he’s posted. That uptick needs further explanation; we’ll keep going.

First, though, we should cover handedness, which comprises another striking characteristic of Hunter’s 2014. Not only did he limit home runs, he did so against both righties and lefties — each hit two off him, in similar lengths of exposure (125 and 116 PAs, respectively). His ground ball rate also held even for both, at 51.2% for same-handed batters and 50.5% for opposite-handed batters. Compared to, say, last year, in which southpaws knocked out 11 balls while their counterparts stayed entirely in the park, this makes for a striking contrast.

The aforementioned rise in sinker usage happened to a much greater extent for lefties (33.4%) than for righties (26.8%). The former group didn’t hit as many grounders off it, though (58.5%, as opposed to 87.5% [!] for the latter). No, a shift in location drove the decline of their potency.

To the zone profiles! Historically, lefties have demolished Hunter (in terms of power, at least) on pitches in, and pitches up. In his early career, he avoided the first area, but often strayed to the second, and found trouble when he did. This year, he made a new effort to pitch down to them, and located many more pitches in the zone because of it. The sinker saw an even more pronounced change, as its location moved much further down-and-away than it had ever been. Above everything else, this appears to have occasioned the new Tommy Hunter, and it shouldn’t stop any time soon.

The Orioles will play the Royals for the first time on Friday. If that game — or a subsequent one — gets close, the Birds will call upon their vaunted bullpen to carry them to the Fall Classic. Hunter has no reason to not keep this up, and he can easily help the team in its quest for greatness.

All data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.