Torii Hunter’s mentor and center field predecessor with the Twins was Kirby Puckett. The player who finally pushed Hunter to the corner outfield for good was Mike Trout. One is in the Hall of Fame, and the other is sure to be inscribed as soon as possible. Whether Hunter gets the call to join them is another matter altogether.
Although Hunter didn’t immediately follow Puckett as the Minnesota Gold Glove’s perennial center fielder, the pair were the defining defensive stars for their respective eras. Puckett won six Gold Gloves from 1986 to 1992; Hunter won nine in a row from 2001 to 2009. Over the past 57 years, the Twins have made the playoffs 13 times. They haven’t won a postseason game in that span without Puckett or Hunter on the roster.
Hunter made brief major league appearances in 1997 and 1998 before staying on permanently in 1999. Over the next two seasons, he started a combined 187 games in center field for a pair of last-place Twins teams. His bat took a while to acclimatise, but he was a dynamic defender and had a lot of potential. He quickly became the face of a talented young core of position players – a group that included Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, Cristian Guzmán, AJ Pierzynski and David Ortiz – that would ultimately lead to Minnesota’s resurgence.
In 2001, Hunter hit 27 home runs with 102 OPS+ in 148 games, earning his first Gold Glove award. The Twins finished above .500 for the first time in nine years, and Hunter was on his way to becoming one of the league’s preeminent young stars. His exit party came the following season at the All-Star Game in Milwaukee, when he made one of the greatest catches in Midsummer Classic history.
Hunter’s rise into an All-Star caliber player brought about a revival for the Twins. Minnesota won American League Central four times from 2002 to 2006, a run that culminated with a trip to the ALCS in 2002. That streak was cemented by the arrival of a new group of young stars in Johan Santana, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Hunter’s 11-year run with the Twins ended when he opted to sign with the angels for five years and $90 million after the 2007 season.
Hunter continued to thrive in Anaheim, helping guide the franchise to back-to-back division titles from 2008-2009 and a trip to the 2009 ALCS. His 122 OPS+ with the Halos was his best five-year hitting streak of his career. He had two more productive seasons with the tigers before concluding with a swan song in Minnesota for the 2015 campaign.
Hunter’s jaw-dropping defense and megawatt smile would be his hallmarks for his entire career. But his bat was certainly more than enough too. From 2001 to 2013, he had an OPS+ above 115 in seven out of 13 years, topping 20 homers 10 times. Hunter made five All-Star appearances during that run and received MVP votes five times throughout his career (peaking with a sixth-place finish in 2002).
Defensive metrics being what they are, it’s hard to gauge the precise moment Hunter ceased to be a world centre-back. This likely happened before Trout’s debut in 2011 – Hunter had already spent about a third of his time in right field the previous year when the team called up Peter Bourjos – but his bat continued to improve. in his mid-thirties. He didn’t win his first Silver Slugger award until he was 33, and his second and last was at 37. His OPS+ in his thirties (117) was actually better than he was in his 20s (100)—an impressive feat for someone whose reputation was tied to his defensive magic.
It is this adaptability that is perhaps Hunter’s most impressive quality. That was certainly key to his longevity – hyper-athletic, first-time midfielders need another aspect of their game to fall back on when their speed and defensive prowess start to wane. Andruw Jones, for example, had a much higher career peak than Hunter. But his output fell off a cliff in his thirties, making Jones’ last career a fine contemporary composition for Hunter.
Add the two halves of both players’ careers together and you might get a much closer comparison than you originally thought. That’s good news for Hunter, who is currently below the 5% threshold needed to stay on the ballot next year (courtesy of Hall of Fame vote tracker Ryan Thibodaux). Jones, meanwhile, is floating just below the 70% mark in his sixth year on the ballot after receiving just 5.7% in his first year. Based on JAWS, Jones ranks 11th among centre-backs while Hunter is 36th, although the big difference here can be attributed to Jones’ absurd seven-year peak (46.4 WAR).
By more traditional measures, however, Hunter is doing more favorably, largely due to his 19-season career with a relatively steady output. Hunter is one of 15 players in MLB history to record at least 350 home runs, 150 stolen bases, 450 doubles and 2,400 hits. Of this group, 10 of them are in the room. Non-HOF members, along with Hunter, are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and Carlos Beltrán.
In a way, Hunter’s career offers easy-to-digest symmetry: he was an excellent defender and mediocre hitter in his first half, and a strong hitter but average defender in the second half. His assessment for the Hall is compelling in the sense that it’s a good litmus test for how voters weigh traditional tally statistics and subjective rewards for defense that don’t always hold up to modern assessments.
Given the results of the current public votes, Hunter’s accomplishments are unlikely to result in a Hall of Fame nomination. He’s going to need a strong finish this year just to see his name on the 2024 ballot. Even if he does, the road to Cooperstown looks like a tough one.