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Why is Tommy Hunter making us all nervous?

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One of the Phillies’ offseason acquisitions, he’s been somewhat ineffective. Should we be concerned?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies splurged this winter, spending a lot of money on free agents at a time when many thought they were still rebuilding. One of those major acquisitions was Tommy Hunter, the reliever who was coming off of a huge season with Tampa Bay in 2017 where, in 58 13 innings, he struck out 28.1% of batters he faced, only walked 6.1% of batters he saw and kept the ball in the ballpark. Even though he had had only one season of this kind of success (the strikeout rate was his highest by far in his career), the Phillies felt comfortable enough to give him two guaranteed years of money. How did he have this kind of success?

His repertoire was mostly three pitches: sinker, cutter and curveball.

As you can see from here, since he became a full-time reliever in 2013, his has steadily eliminated using a four-seam fastball in favor of the kind of fastball that moves. His breaking pitch was a curveball that he utilized mostly against right-handers, using the pitch almost 15% less against left-handed hitters. He had been marching toward being a good reliever since moving to the spot in 2013, culminating in last year’s success, when Hunter was one of the more effective relievers in the game. It was a solid acquisition for the Phillies.

This season has been a bit different. Prior to last night’s bounceback outing, Hunter had pitched, in last nine games, seven innings, giving up 13 hits, five runs while striking out seven. Hitters are hitting .382/.417/.559 during this time, tattooing him for a .976 OPS. All of the peripherals were suggesting that this wasn’t hitters getting lucky, either. Rather, he just hasn’t been very good lately. With Hector Neris struggling so much as well, it was hoped that Hunter would be a good lockdown reliever to occasionally close out games. Instead, he’s contributing to the fans’ heartburn. Is there a reason for it all?

Studying his stuff, there isn’t a big difference in what he’s throwing or in how it is moving. His pitch velocity on all his pitches has remained virtually the same since 2013. With some ever so slight variations, it looks like his pitches this year are moving on basically the same plane as they have from 2013 to 2017. So it’s not really a question of his stuff being worse, it’s a question of where that stuff is located within the zone.

I looked at some Statcast numbers (thank you, Baseball Savant) to see what they had to say about it and I found some alarming trends for Hunter. Here is what I saw:

T. Hunter Statcast

Year Zone % Zone Swing % Whiff % Weak % Barrel %
Year Zone % Zone Swing % Whiff % Weak % Barrel %
2015 55.8 67.5 21.8 3.2 5.3
2016 54.0 63.2 21.7 5.7 1.9
2017 46.4 65.5 26.1 9.5 3.4
2018 50.0 76.7 17.7 0.0 5.7

The numbers that jumped out at me are the once that are bolded. He’s throwing a squinch more pitches in the zone than he did last year (ok!), but those pitches in the zone are being swung at more often (bad!). When batters are swinging, they are missing at a much lower rate than the past few years. When they are making contact, it’s not the same kind of weak contact he generated in the past, getting not one batted ball, according to Statcast, that is classified as “weak”. Instead, batters are barreling up the ball more often this year, which isn’t good for anyone. We can back up these numbers by utilizing some visual evidence. Take a look at the heat maps for Hunter from 2017 and 2018.

TruMedia
TruMedia

You can see that in 2018, there is a noticeable amount of pitches that are located in more hittable places the hitting zone than there were last year. In 2017, you see that the red is showing up more often below the belt and down against righties, whereas this year, there is more in the middle and up. Seeing pitches in those places helps jive with the numbers that hitters are producing against Hunter. You could try and chalk up the heatmaps to platoon splits, but actually, in 2017, Hunter was much more effective against lefties (.501 OPS) than righties (.649 OPS). This year, the difference is only 20 points. So, if we really wanted to answer this question about should we be nervous about Hunter, well, yes and no.

On the one hand, yes, there are some disturbing trends we see that will lead to more ineffective outings from Hunter. On the other hand, it is only nine innings. It’s the very definition of “small sample size”. In fact, if you go back and look at his game log from 2017, there is a stretch of eight games in August where he was just as ineffective as he has been lately (8 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7.88 ERA). After that stretch, Hunter reeled off 10 innings where he put up a 2.53 ERA. It’s the life of a reliever. A few bad outings and the numbers begin to look really ugly. The nice part was that Hunter figured something out and was able to regain the confidence of the team.

If you’re at the point with Hunter where you almost don’t want to enter the game in a high-leverage situation, you’re not alone. But from what we’ve seen, it’s a matter of better location. If Hunter can put the ball into better spots, history has shown he can be effective. Last night looked to be a good step in that direction of better command of the zone. Let’s just hope it continues and Hunter is worth the money the team shelled out to him.