Following the conclusion of the 2015 regular season, Torii Hunter announced his retirement. Hunter finished his fantastic playing career with a .277/.331/.461 batting line, 2452 hits, 353 home runs, 9 Gold Gloves, and 2 Silver Slugger awards over 19 seasons. Hunter’s career started as a glove-first center fielder with decent contact skills and a little bit of pop. By the time he reached retirement, Torii Hunter was a slugging right fielder. This piece isn’t meant to be a reflection of Hunter’s entire career, though I had to start somewhere.
Let’s move on to Hunter’s first and last team: the Minnesota Twins. The Twins finished last season with a record of 83-79 (.512 W%), missing the second Wild Card spot by 3 games. This was a huge improvement from the four-straight 90 loss seasons they’d experienced between 2011-2014. Following a two-year stint in Detroit, Hunter returned to his first team, the Twins, to finish up his career on a 1-year deal. In fact, much of the team’s success in 2015 was attributed to Torii Hunter’s leadership and contributions as a mentor on the young team.
Statistically, Hunter was no longer a superior player. Hunter’s 2015 season finished with a .230/.293/.409 (.702 OPS) batting line, 22 home runs, and a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) ranging between .5 and -.8, depending on who you ask. That means that as far as Hunter’s on-field performance goes, he was either worth half a win, or he cost the team almost one full win.
2016 hasn’t been friendly to fans in Minnesota. At 12-34 (.261 W%), the Twins are tied with the Braves for the worst record in the league. Despite the lack of statistical evidence that Hunter’s absence is making an impact, the Twins definitely miss having the veteran around. Their only major offseason moves were a 1-for-1 swap of Aaron Hicks (CF) to the Yankees for John Ryan Murphy (C), and the signing of Korean slugger Byung-Ho Park, so the roster hasn’t changed all that much.
Part of this seems to be poor timing for the Twins, as almost every player on the team has regressed this season. Joe Mauer and Eduardo Nunez are the only two exceptions, as Mauer is playing like we expect him to these days, and Nunez is actually hitting well with a .314/.347/482 batting line. Top prospect Byron Buxton still hasn’t hit his stride, and last year’s rookie sensation Miguel Sano is going through the wretched “Sophomore Slump.” According to Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), a statistic that measures a hitter’s value compared to the rest of the league while taking ballpark effects into consideration, Sano’s 2015 production was 51% better than the rest of the league. This season, Sano’s been about 4% better, which is not good for a Designated Hitter.
The Twins were certainly hoping that Sano would improve on his impressive rookie campaign, but that hasn’t been the case. In addition, mainstay sluggers Trevor Plouffe (3B) and Brian Dozier (2B) are having the worst seasons of their respective careers. Shortstop Eduardo Escobar had a strong 2015, hitting .262 with 12 home runs, good for +2 WAR. This season, he’s yet to go yard, and has contributed negatively according to WAR (-0.3).
John Ryan Murphy, who was regarded as a strong offensive catcher in New York, is hitting under .100 this season, while earning minimal playing time. Byung-Ho Park, the other offseason acquisition, has provided mixed results so far with solid pop (9 HR), but a batting average in the .230’s. This seemingly never-ending list of unfortunate circumstances should explain why the Twins current rank 27th in Runs with 167, and 26th in OPS at .676.
The pitching has been equally painful to watch, as Tyler Duffey’s 3.93 ERA is the lowest of any starter on the team. Collectively, Minnesota pitching has combined for a 5.07 ERA, second-to-last in all of baseball. Veteran starters Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco sport near-identical, ugly ERAs of 5.55 and 5.54, respectively. Meanwhile the once-great, once-suspended Ervin Santana sports a pedestrian mark of 4.12.
Now let’s go back to Hunter, and his inaccurate value according to WAR. Maybe statistically, Hunter didn’t make the biggest difference for the Twins last year. I’m not saying he should be held accountable for the regression of almost every player on the team, but when a single player’s absence results in the complete turnaround of a franchise (in the worst way), that begs the question: how important was Torii Hunter’s clubhouse presence to the Minnesota Twins?
It would appear that he was much more valuable than his statistics would indicate. Over the past year, writers for Fox Sports, Bleacher Report, and 1500 ESPN (to name a few), have praised Torii Hunter for his leadership and clubhouse presence in Minnesota. Many also predicted the Twins would struggle upon Hunter’s departure, and they were right. He can’t be blamed for every player’s shortcomings, but he can sure be missed.
It’s possible the Twins could have done themselves a favor by signing a different “clubhouse guy” to keep spirits high. Jeff Francoeur comes to mind as the player they could have most easily pursued. Jonny Gomes isn’t very productive anymore (explaining his lack of employment), but his leadership qualities have been deemed helpful for the Red Sox, A’s, Royals, and on a more personal level, James Shields. As Shields told NESN’s Ricky Doyle, Jonny Gomes was a major influence on him, and helped him “develop as a leader.”
As with Hunter last year, neither of Jeff Francoeur or Jonny Gomes would help the Twins much statistically, but maybe they need the voice of a veteran winner on their team; someone to help them tap into their potential, and teach them to let go of the pressure. Obviously this sounds more like the job of a Bench Coach or Manager than it does a player, but everybody doesn’t have Torii’s (or Jonny’s or Jeff’s) personality. Right now, it looks like the Twins are really missing that clubhouse leader, that guy took the field with them. The numbers don’t lie: Hunter made the team better. I think it’s safe to say that WAR doesn’t tell the whole story here. Why was he so important to the team? The numbers don’t say. As unfair as it is, Torii Hunter’s value to the Twins was intangible, and now he’s gone.