Free-agent outfielder Torii Hunter has aged pretty gracefully. At an age where most players find themselves out of the league, Hunter has managed to put up decent offensive numbers. While he’s clearly fallen out of his prime, he can still be a useful piece for clubs. Teams will have to debate how useful Hunter can be this offseason, as the 39-year-old is freely available. Given his offensive numbers, and reputation as a strong clubhouse guy, it seems certain Hunter will get another deal despite his age. The real question is whether he can continue to defy the odds as he approaches 40.
While he’s been effective over the past few seasons, Hunter has clearly made some adjustments with his approach at the plate. In 2012, Hunter started getting more aggressive. Both his O-Swing% and Z-Swing% took a step forward. His Z-Swing% has remained about the same since, while his O-Swing% jumped again in 2013 before falling back to 2012 levels. It’s the O-Swing% that really stands out here, as Hunter never offered at balls out of the strike zone as much in his career. The strategy has worked, or, at least it’s helped Hunter deal with his decline better. Again, his numbers have fallen a bit, particularly the past two years, but he’s still posted a wRC+ higher than his career rate in each of those years.
Will that be the case as Hunter approaches 40? In order to find out, we can look at similar players at the same age. Since Hunter has adopted this new approach, it seemed logical to look at outfielders from age-36 to age-38. The idea here is to find comparable players be wRC+, but also to hopefully find players who have done it with the same aggressive approach.
Obviously, it’s easy to find players with a similar wRC+. The problem begins when we try to find players with similar approaches. Hunter’s 4.8 walk rate over this period is actually the fourth lowest among qualified outfielders since 1969. For reference, here are some of the names near him when sorted by walk rate.
The main thing that stands out here is that Hunter has been better than all of these guys over the last three seasons. Most were on their last legs as players, while it looks like Hunter will at least get a two-year deal on the market.
If you compare Hunter strictly by wRC+, it’s tough to find a good comp.
Hunter has been roughly as good as those players, but has done it with a completely different skill set. Lee Lacy has the second-lowest walk rate on this list, and it’s still two percent higher than Hunter’s figure. Carlos Beltran is the next closest, and that seems like a strange comparison. Plus, Beltran is a year younger, and is heading into his age-38 season in 2014.
When we sort by the first chart to look at how those players performed at age-39, we only get five names. One of them, Felipe Alou, only received three plate appearances, so that doesn’t help. The highest wRC+ was 82, which went to Tom Paciorek in 220 plate appearances. Not exactly encouraging stuff here, though Hunter has clearly been better than this group.
If we sort by the good list, about half the players posted at least a league average wRC+ at age-39. The other half, obviously, were not league-average hitters by wRC+. In other words, not that helpful. If there is one thing to take away from this list, it’s that the players who were able to remain effective are mostly recent guys. Of the six players who posted a league-average wRC+, five played at least into the 1990s. That at least provides some hope that Hunter can keep it up despite his age. It seems to have happened more in recent years, so he’s got that going for him.
Mostly, though, he’s a major question mark. His new approach makes him somewhat of an anomaly. Players with his approach don’t perform this well late in their careers, and players who have performed similarly to Hunter don’t utilize the same approach. The fact that recent players have been able to hold up at advanced ages does help, but the evidence isn’t strong enough to make any conclusions. If anything, it should be fun seeing whether Hunter can stave off Father Time for another year. Well, unless your team signs him. Then, it might be nerve-racking.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.