Torii Hunter’s Uphill Battle with Father Time


Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

By the time you start reading this, Torii Hunter may have already signed with a team, and this post will no longer be relevant to the Royals. Unless the Royals sign him, in which case, this post becomes even more relevant. But as it stands, the Rangers appear to be the front-runners to sign the 39-year old “outfielder,” who’s coming off a solid offensive campaign in 2014, in which he had a 113 wRC+ in 586 plate appearances. The Royals are reportedly still in on Hunter, but they may fall short of signing him, if things continue down the current path.

Still, I wanted to look into Hunter’s numbers to see if he really should be so highly sought-after (and yes, it does feel kind of weird to type my name as if I’m writing in the third person, until I remember I’m referring to a professional baseball player who’s made millions of dollars, and not some idiot blogger in Omaha). Somewhere around 10 teams have shown interest in him this offseason, and I’ve seen several Royals fans indicate they would be fine with the team signing him, particularly if he could be had on a one-year deal.

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  • There is some reason behind that, as Hunter has had an above league average wRC+ in every season since 2004, and as I mentioned above, he was productive in his age-38 season, so it isn’t totally crazy to think he could be productive in his age-39 season. The Royals need offense, and as long as Hunter stays out of the field, he could possibly provide some value to the team. Steamer projects Hunter to have a 107 wRC+ in 2015, which would have been the third-best mark on the Royals last season. So again, I get it. Kind of.

    I see a couple of problems with Hunter. This is a thing I’ve heard many times about myself, but this refers to Torii. First, his cost. Because so many teams are interested, and because he’s been successful recently, Hunter is probably looking at a large one-year deal, although a two-year deal seems likely. I’m guessing this will push him out of the Royals’ price range, but even if it only takes a one-year deal, I’d still be wary of handing him very much money. The aging curve isn’t kind to players in their late 30s, and even a successful 2014 is no guarantee of a successful 2015. I just think Hunter could go in the tank at any minute.

    To see how likely it is that Hunter underperforms next year, I pulled some statistics of players like him from 2000-2013. I didn’t want to wade too far into the 1990s, since performance-enhancing drugs could possibly skew things in regards to aging. I also didn’t use 2014, because my goal is to see how well these players performed in the following season.

    I couldn’t include all players, so I set some filters around Hunter’s age, plate discipline, and power numbers. My arbitrary endpoints were players between the ages of 36-40, who had a single-season walk rate no higher than 7%, a strikeout rate no higher than 18%, and an isolated slugging percentage no higher than .200. I also set a minimum of 400 plate appearances, and because Hunter hit well in 2014, I only wanted to see players who had a wRC+ of 90 or higher. These weren’t really scientific choices, so feel free to quibble with the numbers if you’d like.

    Anyway, the result was 21 player seasons, the full list of which you can see at this link. It’s a pretty fun list of names, including some future Hall of Famers. Among that set of data, the average wRC+ was 102, with a median of 98, and the players combined to put up 35.8 fWAR.

    From there, I looked up stats from each of those players’ following seasons to see how well they performed after aging for exactly one more year. Here are those numbers, in a relatively random order, because why not:

    [table id=12 /]

    If you’re wondering about the zeroes at the very bottom, Jeff Kent and Vladimir Guerrero never played another big league game due to retirement. I could exclude them from the calculations, but reduced playing time is always a risk with older players, due to injury, retirement, less effectiveness, or whatever, so they were included.

    For this set of data, the average wRC+ was 73. The median wRC+ was 83. In total, the 21 player seasons combined to be worth 7.5 fWAR.

    Father Time always wins.

    As you can see, only two players in that table had a wRC+ of at least 100 following a season in which they had a wRC+ of at least 100, and one of those players is probably getting elected to Cooperstown next year. The other is Torii Hunter, so I suppose that could be a point in his favor, but I see it the other way. It’s hard enough for older players to have 1 season like that, and Hunter has done it twice in a row. The odds of a three-peat, so to speak, are quite low.

    This sample size is obviously pretty small, and is in no way conclusive. This article isn’t a guarantee that Hunter will flame out in 2015. It is possible he’s a productive hitter for at least another season. You could argue that my endpoints skew the data down, and  you might be right. But even granting that there may be some bias in the numbers, the point remains that Hunter is a 39-year old baseball player, and 39-year old baseball players tend to be relatively worse than their younger peers, and relatively worse than their younger selves. An investment in Hunter is a gamble the Royals shouldn’t be willing to make.