On August 14th, 2008, two days before rookie right-hander Tommy Hunter was banished to Triple-A Oklahoma City for the remainder of the season after yielding nine earned runs in just 1.2 innings to a potent Red Sox lineup (securing a seven-game season sweep of the Rangers at Fenway Park), then-Texas Rangers pitching coach Andy Hawkins presciently stated the following: "Not all the lessons learned here are going to be easy ones. There are going to be bumps and bruises. Some good, some bad, but you've got to find a way to learn from what happened."
In the 11 months that have passed since that catastrophic final start of Hunter's first major league season, the sturdy 6' 3" hurler has, by his own admission, enhanced his arsenal of weapons from one and a half pitches to four pitches, supplementing his high-80s and occasional low-90s heater with his trademark plus curveball (a devastating mid-to-high 70s offering with extreme two-plane break that might well be the best of its kind in the entire Rangers organization), a brand-new cut fastball and a greatly refined change-up with which he is able to neutralize left-handed hitters.
Confronted yet again by one of the most disciplined and balanced lineups in professional baseball, Hunter produced markedly better results in his second-ever start against the Red Sox, inducing numerous fly balls that were primarily of the weakly-hit variety and ceaselessly hammering the strike zone in what would end up being arguably his best major league start to date. Displayed below is an exhaustive pitch-by-pitch dissection of his 85-pitch outing, which utilizes a slightly modified version of the pitch-recording system popularized by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus:
Basically, each notation has three pieces on information: TYPE-VELO-RESULT. Under Type, FB is fastball, CU is curveball, CH is changeup; SL is slider; Velo is simple enough. Under Result, 'b' stands for ball, 's' for swinging strike, 'c' is a called strike, 'f' a foul ball, and 'x' is a ball in play. So, an 81 mph slider taken for a strike is SL-81-c.
Important note: A handful of pitches were reclassified due to blatantly incorrect pitch classifications; Pitch f/x technology has struggled to accurately classify a number of Hunter's pitches in his recent major league starts, as evidenced by the numerous sub-80 mph pitches in one of his recent starts which were deemed sliders. An example of what I'm talking about: One second-inning "curveball" thrown to Jason Bay was clocked at 88.3 mph.
Jacoby Ellsbury: FB-89.5-c, FB-89.2-x (fly out, 9)
Dustin Pedroia: FB-90.7-c, FB-92.1-b, CU-78.8-s, FB-90.9-b, FB-90.9-x (fly out, 9)
Kevin Youkilis: FB-90.6-c, SL-87.8-b, FB-89.1-f, CU-81.3-s (strikeout swinging)
Notes: Hunter squandered little time in launching his full-scale assault on home plate umpire Randy Marsh's strike zone (which was presided over with relative fairness, notwithstanding one simply horrendous ball-strike call in the top of the third inning), assailing the contact-inclined one-two punch atop the Red Sox' batting order with a fastball-rich diet of strikes before burying his fastest and perhaps all-around nastiest yakker of the night in the dirt on a 1-2 pitch to Youkilis, yielding a check-swing strikeout as the All-Star slugger proved incapable of halting his bat in time. A simply fantastic inning that set the tone for the entire evening.
David Ortiz: FB-89.4-b, SL-87.0-c, SL-87.0-b, CH-80.4-x (single, 9 -- thrown out at second base)
Jason Bay: FB-89.7-b, FB-88.3-b, FB-88.9-f, FB-90.3-b, FB-89.4-f, FB-89.2-b (walk)
J.D. Drew: SL-86.2-c, CH-79.8-x (fly out, 8)
Mike Lowell: CU-76.2-s, CU-76.5-s, FB-89.8-b, CH-80.2-x (pop out, 4)
Notes: Pitch classification difficulties immediately began to manifest in this second inning, as the second and third pitches hurled plateward to Ortiz both had the outward appearance of being cutters (and possessed movement similar to that of the prototypical cutter as well, but the neural network utilized by Pitch f/x technology in pitch identification classified both offerings as 87 mph sliders. Hunter recently indicated to MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan that his current repertoire consisted of just four pitches -- the fastball, the cutter, the change-up and the curveball -- and this dovetails with the data compiled by Baseball Info Solutions, but Richard Durrett of the Dallas Morning News reported earlier this month that Hunter mixed a slider into his July 3rd start against the Rays, and a subset of his mid-80s offerings possess horizontal movement that is more reflective of the slider than the cutter. Confusing.
Since we cannot be absolutely 100 percent assured that he is, in fact, not throwing a slider in some form, the best way to approach these high-velocity "sliders" is to leave their initial classifications intact and simply acknowledge that upwards of 75 percent of these pitches are likely cutters. It may not be entirely accurate, but it's better than manipulating potentially valid classifications as I see fit, and I've always been one to err on the side of caution when it comes to preserving data integrity.
That fourth pitch to Ortiz -- that being a change-up, a pitch which Ortiz has struggled to hit this year -- was ultimately mashed into the right field corner and should have stood alone as a lead-off single, except that the husky Dominican designated hitter elected to make a futile run at stretching his base hit into a double and was consequently cut down at second base by a good 15 feet. Hunter failed to entice Bay to hack at an array of early-count heaters and pitched cautiously through the remainder of the plate appearance, then yielded a long fly out to left-center field off the bat of J.D. Drew before simply embarrassing Lowell with back-to-back curveballs and inducing a pop fly in foul territory that second baseman Ian Kinsler ensnared with a sensational back-to-the-plate basket catch.
Jason Varitek: FB-87.4-b, SL-85.8-c, CH-80.8-x (fly out, 9)
Jed Lowrie: FB-88.4-s, SL-87.4-b, FB-89.0-x (double, 9)
Jacoby Ellsbury: CU-75.6-c, FB-88.4-b, FB-88.9-x (ground out, 3)
Dustin Pedroia: FB-88.2-c, SL-87.3-x (fly out, 8)
Notes: After permitting Lowrie to lace an outside fastball into the right field corner for a one-out double, Hunter overcame a baffling ball-strike call -- that being the second pitch to Ellsbury, which clearly fit within the parameters of Marsh's strike zone even though he wasn't really giving Hunter the low strike to begin with -- and proceeded to induce harmless back-to-back instances of weak contact.
Kevin Youkilis: FB-88.0-c, CH-79.9-x (fly out, 9)
David Ortiz: FB-88.6-f, SL-86.9-f, FB-89.3-b, FB-88.2-f, CU-78.1-x (ground out, 4-3)
Jason Bay: CU-76.1-c, CH-79.5-b, FB-90.2-b, SL-87.3-x (pop out, 4)
Notes: More consistent, harmless contact -- Youkilis weakly flied out to an eager and waiting Marlon Byrd, Ortiz grounded into the teeth of a well-constructed overshift and Kinsler robbed Bay of a second opportunity in his plate appearance by swooping out of nowhere and ensnaring a foul pop that first baseman Hank Blalock had taken himself completely out of position to catch.
J.D. Drew: FB-86.5-c, SL-84.5-f, CU-77.1-x (fly out, 9)
Mike Lowell: CU-75.6-b, SL-88.2-c, SL-86.5-x (fly out, 9)
Jason Varitek: SL-87.1-c, SL-86.1-f, SL-86.1-s (strikeout swinging)
Notes: Drew finally caught up to a curveball that Hunter left dangling in the breeze up in the zone, but couldn't quite muscle a rare Hunter meatball out of the Ballpark; Byrd successfully ran down the drive in front of the 407-foot marker in the deepest part of the stadium. Pitching up in the zone can have its unintended consequences. As for the Varitek confrontation, I'm virtually 100 percent certain that at least one and possibly two or all three of these "purported" sliders were, in fact, cutters, so take that as you will.
Jed Lowrie: SL-85.9-b, CU-75.3-b, SL-87.3-x (fly out, 8)
Jacoby Ellsbury: SL-86.7-b, FB-87.5-x (fly out, 7)
Dustin Pedroia: FB-86.9-f, CU-77.2-b, CU-76.6-c, FB-87.0-b, SL-88.1-b, FB-88.4-f, CU-77.8-f, FB-89.0-f, FB-89.2-f, FB-90.1-x (single, 9)
Kevin Youkilis: CH-78.1-c, CU-76.9-b, FB-86.5-f, SL-87.8-f, SL-86.3-x (double, 9)
David Ortiz: SL-85.6-s, SL-86.2-f, FB-89.0-f, SL-86.8-b, CU-78.6-b, FB-89.3-x (pop out, 6)
Notes: Hunter's exemplary pitch conservation and strict adherence to the "pitch to contact" philosophy through this point in the game had his pitch count for the evening resting at just 59 pitches through five innnings, although he would not get his shot at logging his first seven-plus-inning start as a major leaguer by virtue of what transpired in this frame.
[Additional note: Severe thunderstorms passing through the greater Tyler-Whitehouse area prevented me from charting the entirety of this inning in real time, although I certainly did come close.]
After recording two quick outs, Pedroia sapped Hunter of precious energy with a superb 10-pitch plate appearance, then lined a single into right field just to add insult to injury, and Youkilis proceeded to bang an up-and-away "slider" into the right-center field power alley to plate Boston's first run, although Hunter fortunately put out the intensifying flames by hammering Ortiz with inside pitches, precluding him from being able to fully extend and ultimately inducing a jam-shot infield fly to shortstop Elvis Andrus.
Final Pitching Line: 85 pitches (58 strikes), 6.0 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 0 HR, ground-to-fly ball ratio of 2-to-13
[Direct link available here.]
THE SENSATIONAL ROY HALLADAY COMP
Just how good is Hunter's curveball, you ask? While sample size is an abundantly obvious issue, the pitch currently rates as 3.20 runs above average per 100 instances according to the pitch type value data available at FanGraphs, which would stand as the sixth-best curveball in the majors if Hunter had amassed enough innings to qualify. Brilliant.
And of the 15 curveballs which Hunter slung against the Red Sox en route to his much-deserved victory on Tuesday evening, two produced outs, three produced called strikes and four produced swinging strikes, with the average horizontal movement of these pitches registering at plus-8.11 inches and the average vertical movement registering at minus-1.24 inches -- similar readings to those registered by curveballs thrown in other recent starts of his.
Curveballs with that much horizontal movement are typically tremendously dangerous pitches, and if you love superficially-sensational-but-somehow-more-realistic-than-you'd-expect comps, here's the ultimate comp: Hunter's curveball is startlingly similar in terms of both movement and velocity to that wielded by Roy Halladay (2.55 runs above average per 100 curveballs), as illustrated by this graph. Some grousing has evidently developed with respect to the notion that Hunter doesn't possess a legitimate "out pitch," but if he learns to command his curveball with a fair degree of proficiency, you don't need to look much further for the quintessential "out pitch." It's already there.
If Tommy Hunter hasn't already become my favorite Rangers starter to watch ply his craft every fifth day, he's getting there very, very quickly. And he's only getting better.