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What's Wrong with Tommy Hunter?

Tommy Hunter has struggled. Should we expect that to continue?

Patrick McDermott

To say that Tommy Hunter has struggled as of late would be an understatement. Hunter has blown saves in his last two appearances and allowed runs in his last four. Although he is leading the American League in saves, he currently owns an ERA of 6.60 after 15 innings. Even in the appearances where he did not blow the lead, he has walked a tightrope by allowing baserunners after baserunners before escaping with a save. He has not had a single 1-2-3 inning so far this season. This is the situation everyone was afraid of when Hunter was anointed the closer in the wake of Johnson's departure. Hunter has always had problems with preventing homeruns, and it has not changed this season. However, Hunter's recent struggle has been more than just homers. It has been a combination of diminishing deception and bad luck that have plagued Hunter so far this season.

First I shall address his bad luck. Hunter's strikeout rate is only slightly down from last season, falling from 20.2% to 19.7%. His walk rate, which appeared to have risen dramatically to 7.0% from 4.2% last season, remains essentially the same once his two intentional walks are removed. So why has there been a change in results? The answers are BABIP and HR/FB, two of the most unstable stats for pitchers.  Hunter currently has a BABIP of .417, 8th highest among pitchers with a minimum of 10 IP. His high BABIP is driven by a line drive rate of 32%, the 5th highest in the majors. Luckily, though the high line drive rate may explain his BABIP so far this season, it is not extremely predictive. We should expect both Hunter's line drive rate and BABIP to regress significantly going forward. The same goes for HR/FB. There is essentially no correlation between HR/FB from year to year. Hunter currently has a HR/FB of 20.0%, significantly higher than the league average of 10.0% and up from 10.9% last year. Although Hunter has a reputation for being homer prone, his career HR/FB pitching in relief is only 11.5%. Hunter will have better luck in BABIP and HR/FB for the rest of the season.

Despite his steady peripherals, there remain some areas of concern that may have resulted in the "bad luck" of Tommy Hunter. Looking at pitch data, two major changes from last year stand out. Swing percentage on pitches out of the zone decrease from 38.3% to 27.5%. Contact rate on swings on pitches out of the zone increase from 69.5% to 75.6%. It is difficult to understand the causes of these changes. His pitch selection has changed only slightly as he upped his curveball usage from 17% to 27% at the expense of his fastball. However, the changes in swing rate and contact rate have mostly resulted from the results of his fastballs. Batters are swinging less often and missing less often on his fastballs. These changes have not evidenced themselves in his strikeout rate or walk rate, but pitch sequencing is complicated, and it is possible his high BABIP and HR/FB are driven in part by his lack of deception. For instance, in 2013, 27% of his PA ends with batter ahead in the count while 40% of PA ends with pitcher ahead in the count. In 2014, 38% of his PA ends with batter ahead in the count while 38% of his PA ends with pitcher ahead in the count.

Tommy Hunter might have lost some of his deception, but it has not shown up in his peripherals. Just by peripherals, it may seem that Hunter's struggle has just been the result of pure bad luck. However, his pitch data suggests that there might be real reasons behind his struggle. Either way, Tommy Hunter is bound to improve on his results going forward. Whether he remains the best option at closer for the Orioles is another question.