Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
Torii Hunter probably shouldn't be here right now. I remember the day we almost lost him.
In Game 2 of the 2013 American League Championship Series, Red Sox DH David Ortiz launched a long fly ball to right field. Hunter had a bead on it, following it all the way to the warning track. The operative words here being warning track, as in "Look out Torii, the fence is right there!" The image of Hunter crashing face-first into the Boston bullpen became legendary. So legendary that it's been the background of my Twitter page for the last several months.
But don't feel too bad for Torii. He's doing fine. Better than fine, actually. His .318 batting average this season is sixth-highest in the American League. Of the 21 big leaguers hitting .315 or better, Hunter is the only one older than 35. Hunter's 13-game hitting streak, which came to an end Wednesday (0- for-4 versus Houston), was his longest since August of 2011.
Hunter's success isn't what surprises us. With five All-Star appearances, nine Gold Gloves and 318 career homers, the Tigers right fielder is a borderline Hall of Famer. The surprising part is that at age 38, Hunter actually seems to be getting better, not worse.
Hunter's 184 hits last season were a career-high and he should have a chance to top that in 2014. Hunter didn't hit over .300 until his 16th year in the big leagues but now he's done it each of the last three seasons. During that stretch, he's hit .309 with 37 HR and 196 RBI in 1,247 at bats.
Bizarre isn't it? Hunter seemed to be bottoming out in 2011. That year he hit just .262, his lowest average in eight seasons. At that point, it was fair to wonder how much Hunter had left in the tank.
Ironically, Hunter's revival isn't unlike the one Ortiz (who almost killed him a few months ago) has experienced in recent years. Since the start of 2011, Ortiz has collected a .307 average in 1,487 at bats. In the three seasons leading up to 2011, Ortiz hit just .257 with a strikeout rate close to 24 percent.
So what's the secret? Pilates, anti-aging cream ... maybe a gluten-free diet?
For Hunter, it's been about making sacrifices. In his first 15 seasons, Hunter carried a .274 batting average while homering once every 23.7 at bats. Since then, Hunter has averaged just one homer every 33.7 at bats. At the same time, Hunter has stopped stealing bases, something he used to do on a regular basis (17.5 steals per season from 2002-09).
Basically, Hunter has reinvented himself by accepting his limitations. That sounds simple enough. But is it?
Usually when players sacrifice power for average, they do it by hitting more ground balls. Between 2012 and 2013, Hunter did just that. During that span, he collected a 1.11 ground ball to fly ball rate, well above the 0.92 rate he recorded from 2004-2011. Still, that doesn't explain this season, where Hunter has a career-low 0.63 ground ball rate but also the highest batting average of his 18-year career.
Hunter's plate discipline paints an equally confusing picture. Instead of being more selective, a trait often associated with higher batting averages, Hunter has actually become less patient, swinging at 54 percent of pitches compared to his career rate of 50.8 percent. It's worth mentioning that Hunter is swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (34.4 percent) than he has in the last few seasons.
Hunter's contact rate is also at an all-time high. So far, he's connected on 79.1 percent of the pitches he's swung at. Of course, he had a similar contact rate three seasons ago (79.0) and hit only .281, so maybe that's a bit of a misnomer.
So if contact isn't the answer, what is? Maybe it's who's hitting behind him.
In 2012, Hunter hit in front of Albert Pujols, a three-time MVP and the 26th member of the 500-HR club. Since 2013, he's been the bridge to Miguel Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years. Cabrera and Pujols have combined for a .320 average, 871 HR and 2,809 RBI in 3,681 major league games.
So who would you rather pitch to? Hunter seems like the obvious choice.
With Cabrera hitting behind him, Hunter is getting better pitches to hit and just like a good veteran should, he's taking advantage. So can fantasy owners, assuming Hunter doesn't face-plant into a bullpen anytime soon.