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Surprise! Tommy Hunter has been pretty good lately

Based on social media, you’d never know it

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

On June 30, Vince Velasquez had to come out of a game early due to an injury. It meant the team would be forced to do a bullpen game since Velasquez exited after two innings. In that game, Tommy Hunter would enter in the 5th inning with a 3-1 lead he was asked to protect. The fifth inning was fine, surrendering only one hit. He would pitch the sixth inning too, giving up a home run to Anthony Rendon. The Phillies would end that game victorious, 3-2, and Hunter would end it with an ERA at 5.04. Social media at the time was pretty unanimous in their evaluation of Hunter’s signing here in the offseason.

Do a Twitter search with the words “Tommy Hunter” and some variation of “bad” and you’ll be inundated with results. It’s a fun little exercise! The problem is that since then, Hunter has actually been pretty good.

Let’s play a little game. Since July 1, these are the numbers of some relievers during that time. Which would you believe is performing the best?

Mystery RP

Who is it? IP TBF ERA K% BB% GB% HR/9
Who is it? IP TBF ERA K% BB% GB% HR/9
Player A 16.1 67 2.20 32.8% 7.5% 35.9% 1.1
Player B 16.2 70 2.16 28.6% 4.3% 65.9% 0
Player C 14.1 59 3.77 22.0% 5.1% 45.2% 2.5

Which one would you take? Here is the part where you wait for me to reveal which one is Tommy Hunter right? Wrong! In my dastardly plan, none of these relievers are Tommy Hunter. Instead, they are three of the better right handed relievers in the game right now. In order, they are Adam Ottavino, Craig Stammen and Raisel Iglesias. Why did I choose them? To show the volatility even the best relievers go through in any given time period. Now, let’s try that table again, only with Hunter put in at the end.

Hunter included

Who is it? IP TBF ERA K% BB% GB% HR/9
Who is it? IP TBF ERA K% BB% GB% HR/9
A. Ottavino 16.1 67 2.20 32.8% 7.5% 35.9% 1.1
C. Stammen 16.2 70 2.16 28.6% 4.3% 65.9% 0
R. Iglesias 14.1 59 3.77 22.0% 5.1% 45.2% 2.5
T. Hunter 18 75 2.50 13.3% 6.7% 54.4% 0.5

It’s pretty remarkable to see how different Hunter has been. While he’s not striking out that many people, he’s still pretty effective. Prior to this stretch, Hunter was...well...I don’t know. (last table, I promise).

Hunter 2018

Hunter 2018 IP TBF ERA K% BB% GB% HR/9
Hunter 2018 IP TBF ERA K% BB% GB% HR/9
July 1 - present 18 75 2.50 13.3% 6.7% 54.4% 0.5
April 22 - June 30 25 112 5.04 22.3% 3.3% 52.4% 0.7

Everything is generally the same, save for the ERA. That, unfortunately, is the one that most people use as a yardstick still when evaluating pitchers. They don’t really look at the underlying stats to see if something was wrong. Here, we can see that he was striking people out a little more often, walking batter less often, and getting them to hit it on the ground at basically the same rate. His BABIP in the first half of the season (.388) suggests some bad luck to compared to the past five weeks (.246). That suggests some bad luck was involved to start the season. Was it his pitches?

Hunter is primarily a sinker/cutter pitcher. Here is a heat map of those pitches from April to June, and here is one from July to now. Oddly, he’s more in the zone now than before with those pitches, so that’s strange. He also throws a curveball at times, but the usage of that pitch is dropping each month. So what’s going on? Well, you see that he’s using his cutter substantially more in July and August, which means he’s trusting it more often. Perhaps the pitch is doing something differently?

The pitch right now is very tight, having very little horizontal movement than what he had in the beginning of the year. In June, having more than two inches of movement on the cutter meant that hitters could identify it early and let it drift out of the zone. Lately, in theory, those pitches that were on the edge of the zone are moving away or in just enough to get the hitter to swing, but enough that contact isn’t good contact. This makes Hunter a more effective pitcher. Amazingly, the pitcher that got him signed to a big deal in the first place, his cutter, looks more like what he was throwing last year.

In essence, the pitch Hunter relies on was too unwieldy. Whatever adjustment he has made looks like it is helping him get back to where he was last year, when he was one of the better relievers in the game.

Bringing Hunter into a game still brings a bit of nervousness with it. That’s natural. Since he wasn’t that good to start, people are going to have a natural apprehension. It looks like we can all feel a little better though. If Hunter has truly re-discovered his cutter, we might have to start apologizing soon. Some of us already have a head start.