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Tommy Hunter's breakout year anchors Rays bullpen

12

July

When Tommy Hunter made the Rays roster out of spring training, he was thrilled to be there. The right-hander's performance in March turned his minor-league contract into a ticket to the majors with his fourth club since 2015.

"I'm pretty excited," Hunter said at the time. "Whenever they call me, whether it's early, late or middle, it doesn't really matter anymore. Where I am in my career, I just like to play baseball."

More than three months later, Hunter has enjoyed a renaissance with Tampa Bay. In his fifth year as a full-time reliever, he has a career-best 2.13 ERA over 25-1/3 innings. For a Rays bullpen that has the 11th-highest ERA (4.38) in MLB, he's been a steadying force.

And Hunter's production isn't a small-sample fluke. His strikeout rate has jumped to 28.4 percent — before this year, he'd fanned 15.0 percent of his MLB opponents — and he's kept his walk rate at a nice 6.9 percent. Hitters have an exit velocity of 85.5 mph against him, down more than two ticks from the previous two seasons.

In other words, Hunter's process backs up his improved results. His FIP — a metric that uses strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed to gauge a pitcher's performance — is 2.71, the best he's ever had. Let's break down some of the factors that have helped Hunter make the leap this year.

Increased velocity

From 2013 to 2015, Hunter was one of the hardest throwers in the majors. His velocity dropped off in 2016, but it's mostly rebounded to this point.

In the 2015-16 offseason, Hunter underwent two hernia surgeries, missing all of spring training and most of April. Later in the year, he suffered a freak back injury when he fell down the stairs in his house and fractured his vertebrae. Those ailments "played a part in the velocity drop," he said.

This year, with a clean bill of health, Hunter pitched 10 innings in the Grapefruit League and is back to his flame-throwing self. At the MLB level, the difference between 95.9 mph (his four-seamer velocity in 2016) and 97 mph (his four-seamer velocity in 2017) can be huge.

While he spent time on the disabled list in April and May with a right calf strain, Hunter said he feels good physically. He credited his wife, Ellen, an occupational therapist, with helping him recover.

"(I had a) good offseason," he said. "My wife really took care of me. ... She's a motivator. She was taking care of the little man and letting me do my thing, letting me get in the weight room and out to the fields."

A different fastball approach

Of course, Hunter wasn't nearly this great from 2013 to 2015, when he threw slightly harder than he does now. Since then, he's tweaked his approach a bit, with some guidance from pitching coach Jim Hickey and his staff.

"(We have) a great group of guys who analyze, evaluate and look at the actual pitches themselves, the characteristics and the quality of the pitches, and basically let us know what the optimal mix is," Hickey said.

The largest change has come with Hunter's fastball mix. He's always had three fastballs in his repertoire, attacking hitters with a four-seamer, a sinker and a cutter. This season, though, the balance of that trio has shifted. He's thrown the four-seamer much less often, relying on the cutter and sinker in its place.

According to FanGraphs' Pitch Type Linear Weights, which use a variety of statistics to determine the value of individual pitches, Hunter's four-seam fastball has been worth -1.2 runs this year. By contrast, his sinker and cutter have been worth 1.5 and 1.1 runs, respectively. Thus far, it looks like this new strategy has paid off.

The spike in sinkers might appear curious, on a team that's famous for its love of the high fastball. But Hickey stressed that his high-heat mantra is not one-size-fits-all.

"I am a fan of the high fastball, but that's basically personnel-based," he said. "I'm not taking sinkerball guys and telling them to throw four-seamers up in the strike zone."

For Hunter, it's easy to see why two seams are better than four: His sinker is the eighth-hardest in the majors, at 96.6 mph. With more drop than his 97-mph four-seamer, the sinker has yet to allow a home run this year; both the long balls he's given up in 2017 have come on four-seamers.

Plus, while Hunter's sinker doesn't record many swinging strikes, its location patterns — on the lower parts and the edges of the strike zone — have duped hitters into laying off it. Twenty-three percent of his two-seamers have been called strikes, which has helped him punch hitters out.

"What you've seen him do is kind of (pitch) underneath the strike zone, in terms of trying to put guys away," Hickey said.

But the cutter is the more deadly weapon — if it is, in fact, a cutter. Hunter considers it one of his breaking balls (we'll get to the other one in a moment), and Hickey, who's "not a huge fan of the cutter in general," said he doesn't consider Hunter's a "true" cutter.

"It has late break, and it's bigger than your normal cutter," Hickey said. "You'll be fooled sometimes where you'll think it's a slider."

Not many sliders have an average velocity of 93.9 mph, though. Hunter's cutter velocity is the fourth-highest in baseball; pitch tracking website Brooks Baseball has deemed it "borderline unfair." Hitters have tried to turn on that heat, swinging at his cutter more than half the time, but its movement has made them miss on 28.4 percent of their hacks. That adds up to a 16.4 percent whiff rate, which ranks 14th in MLB.

Hunter's cutter has always gotten whiffs. This year, with a different location and usage pattern, it's helped him overcome one of his biggest hurdles.

Hunter has struggled to retire lefties in the past — heading into this year, they'd hit .287 against him, with a .335 on-base percentage and .482 slugging percentage. In 2017, he's gone with a new game plan: a steady diet of cutters inside. An even 50 percent of his pitches to left-handers have been cutters, who have a .154/.250/.231 slash line off him.

"To lefties in general, (the cutter's) been the difference maker," Hunter said. "It's a ball that moves, and right now lefties are having a hard time hitting it."

This year, Hunter's cutter has given up an exit velocity of 82.1 mph, better than all but 10 pitchers and a marked improvement from the prior two seasons. A high-octane cutter in on the hands is nearly impossible to square up, even if hitters can make contact with it.

While Hickey cautioned that pitchers shouldn't become too reliant on the cutter — "it's successful at times, it's productive at times, but it puts them in a hole at times, too" — Hunter's has served him well to this point. Together with a strong sinker, that's given him two top-notch fastballs to take down his opponents.

Crazy curves

Man does not pitch on fastballs alone. Hunter needs a breaking ball to put hitters away, which is where his curveball enters the equation. He's leaned on it as much as ever, and at 2.2 runs above average, it's been the most valuable pitch in Hunter's arsenal this season.

"If I was over here with a joystick, I'd be throwing more curveballs than he does," Hickey said with a chuckle.

Like pretty much everything else in his arsenal, Hunter throws his curveball hard. Big whoop. Yet something's changed about the pitch this year, to really make it separate from his other offerings. He's thrown it low — really low.

More than half of Hunter's curves — 56.1 percent, to be precise — have gone below the strike zone. He's always thrown his curveball low, but never this low.

And that's not all. As Hickey explained, Hunter's curveball has a later break than most. It's mostly flat when he releases it, which makes it look similar to his fastballs.

"Sometimes guys, out of the hand ... there's a little bit of a read to (the curveball)," Hickey said. "Tommy's comes out on that same plane as the fastball, and then all of a sudden, (it's) heading south."

Baseball Prospectus offers a metric called Tunnel Differential, which measures the distance between pitches at the "tunnel point," when hitters have to decide when to swing. By this statistic, Hunter's sinker and curveball are very close at the tunnel point — the 14th-closest for any pitcher with that combination. Meanwhile, his cutter and curveball are closer than every other hurler in baseball.

In practice, this means that hitters frequently mistake Hunter's curveball for a fastball. Despite living outside the strike zone, his curve has one of the higher swing rates in the majors, at 45.8 percent. While that hasn't translated to whiffs, it's induced a ton of weak contact: Only nine other curveballs have allowed a lower exit velocity than Hunter's 79.1 mph.

A power curveball is devastating enough on its own. Combined with deceptive movement — and a pitcher who knows how to take advantage of that — it's a nightmare for batters. Two fastballs plus a curveball makes for one hell of a reliever.

***

Hunter's still humble about his success. He lauded Hickey and the Rays staff for giving him a clear blueprint to follow and feedback on his performance. As for his thoughts on the career year: "Blind squirrels find nuts every once in a while," he quipped.

But at the season's midway point, Hunter looks like the real deal. Tampa Bay has long been renowned for its pitcher development, and the veteran right-hander is just another success story.

"Sometimes the guys embrace (our advice), sometimes they don't so much," Hickey said. "(Hunter's) been around the block now a time or two, and he's pretty comfortable with it."

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 12, 2017 4:46pm]

    

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