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St. Louis Cardinals: A Relief Target That Nobody Is Talking About

Tommy Hunter Pitching

At this point in the offseason we all know what the St. Louis Cardinals needs are. We’ve heard all about how a big bat and a closer are their top priorities. I think most people will tell you though, that they need at least two additions in the bullpen. There have been plenty of names tossed around. Wade Davis and Greg Holland are the name brand closers but names like Juan Nicasio, Brandon Morrow, and Addison Reed, among others have been talked about as well. A name that I haven’t heard discussed as a target for the Cardinals is Tommy Hunter and I think he makes a ton of sense for them.

I would guess that most Cardinals fans aren’t very familiar with Hunter because, outside of 15.2 innings with the Cubs in 2015, he’s spent his entire career in the American League. To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about him until I started really researching the free agent relief options this offseason. I’m here to tell you that Tommy Hunter is legit.

He found his home in the bullpen

In his first five seasons in the majors Hunter was a mediocre starter at best. In 2013 though, he moved to the bullpen full time. Ever since then he’s turned his career around. Since moving to the bullpen he has a 3.12 ERA in 300 innings with a 7.4 k/9 and a 1.9 BB/9 to go with it. Those numbers obviously point to a really useful reliever, but it gets better.

Hunter is also coming off of a fantastic 2017 season. He had a 2.61 ERA in 58.2 innings while increasing his strikeout rate to a lofty 9.82 K/9. This likely went under the radar because he spent the entire season in Tampa Bay and he was mostly relegated to middle relief due to Alex Colome doing so well closing out games.

What led to his 2017 breakout?

Back in 2013, whenever he made the full time switch to the bullpen, Hunter gained velocity, and a lot of it. He went from averaging 93.17 MPH on his fastball in 2012 to 97.42 MPH in 2013.

Tommy Hunter

As you can see, the rise in velocity happened across the board in 2013.

He seemed to fall in love with his fastball that year, throwing it about 20% more than he normally did. When you are all of a sudden hitting high 90’s with a pitch, who wouldn’t fall in love with it? This caused him to get away from his cutter though.
Tommy Hunter usage chart

In his usage chart you can see the uncharacteristic spike in his fastball velocity in 2013. That has come back down over the years. The really interesting part of this chart to me is his cutter usage. As you can see, he got away from throwing it much in 2014 and 2015. I assume because he was pumping newly found heat. He struggled in 2015 to the tune of a 4.18 ERA. After that season he made a change to his repertoire and went back to his cutter in 2016. In 2017, he used it more than ever, and more than any other pitch.

His cutter is lethal

As you can see in the velocity chart above, his cutter kicked up to almost 95 mph in 2017. That’s almost unfair. To put that in perspective, Kenley Jansen, who throws the holy grail of cutters averaged 93.50 mph in 2017 with the pitch.

In 2017 opponents hit just .154 against his cutter and had a slugging percentage of just .215. To go even further, opponents weighted on-base average(wOBA) against the pitch was just .232. For context, the lowest wOBA among qualified hitters in the league was Alcides Escobar with a .269 wOBA. So hitters facing his cutter fared worse than Alcides Escobar did at the plate last season.

He’s also likely to be cheaper than most options

For whatever reason, people just aren’t predicting Hunter to get the money or the years that comparable relievers on the market will get. Fangraphs predicts him to get 2 years and $10-$12 million. MLBTraderumors predicts him to get 2 years and $12 million as well.

This is good because it would allow the Cardinals to add a quality arm to the bullpen without hindering their pursuit of any other free agent or trade targets. While I certainly believe that fixing the bullpen this offseason is a necessity, I do worry about potentially tying up too much money to relief pitchers. Especially when you consider that Brett Cecil is already locked up for over $7 million for the next three season. Hunter offers a lower cost option to the back end of the bullpen without sacrificing any quality. Since the Cardinals seem set on acquiring an established closer, I think saving some money and adding Hunter might be a necessity.

Thanks for reading!

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