Monday, June 29, 2015

More on Torii Hunter as a Hall of Fame candidate

Torii Hunter watches one of his two homers on Saturday
leave the yard in Milwaukee.
I wrote far too much for the Monday print column on Torii Hunter, the Hall of Fame, and center fielders who are in or out.

Too much is not enough for me, I guess. Here's a tangent I left out.

Hunter moved from center to right in midseason 2010. This, in my view, not only does not hurt his Hall of Fame case, it enhances it.

Center field is a premium defensive position. The ability to cover ground is essential, and teams will put up with a certain lack of offense to have a good defensive center fielder. This is why Aaron Hicks keeps getting playing time despite his anemic hitting.

Most center fielders, when they lose a step or two in the outfield, quickly fade out of the majors. They don't hit well enough to fill a corner outfield role, and if they aren't good enough defensively for the middle garden, they're done.

The ones who can hit move to a less demanding position. Mickey Mantle played first base the last few years of his career. Ty Cobb moved to right field for the last two seasons of his career. Kirby Puckett, of course, ended his career as a right fielder.  Andre Dawson would be an example more comparable to Hunter, although in his 20s he hit for better averages than Hunter did.

Hunter, in his first go-around with the Twins, was an exemplar of a center field type: Defense and power, but with a relatively low batting averages and high strikeout rates. This isn't as common as the speedy slap-hitting leadoff types, but there have been other examples: Vince DiMaggio (older brother of Joe). Mike Cameron. Paul Blair. Andruw Jones.

Those four were all quality center fielders, All Stars and (if the awards existed during their time) Gold Glove winners. But when they stopped being regular center fielders, they stopped being regulars. They hung on a bit as part-time players, but their days of 500-plus at-bats were gone.

Hunter turned out differently. He somehow hit better with age. Only now, approaching age 40, are his numbers receding back toward league average (and his three home runs this weekend have spiked his OPS+ sharply, so that he's now well above average for the season). His batting decline, such as it is, is coming about a decade behind schedule.

The point is: It's exceedingly rare for somebody to play center field into his late 30s. Only the best of the best get to do that. It's a real indication of quality for an aging center fielder to move to an easier defensive position and extend his career that way.

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