Torii Hunter is a bit of an enigma when it comes to discussing defense. The now-retired outfielder isn’t a big believer in shifts — or data in general — yet he understands the importance of positioning. A nine-time Gold Glove winner, Hunter had a way of being in the right place at the right time when he patrolled center (and sometimes right) for the Twins, Angels and Tigers.
Hunter was at Twins training camp earlier this spring, working with the club’s young fly-chaser mix. His tutorials were called for. Minnesota’s starting outfield projects to be still-wet-behind-the-ears Byron Buxton, flanked by former infielders Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano. Compounding the trio’s inexperience are a large Target Field outfield and a pitching staff that induces a lot of balls in play.
Talking to Hunter a few weeks ago, I was struck by his paradoxical approach to positioning. Yes, you need to know where a batter is likely to hit the ball. No, data isn’t particularly helpful. Shifting is overdone, if not unnecessary.
When Hunter and I parted ways — our conversation continued beyond what was captured here — he smiled and said, “That was a good argument.” Regardless of how you define it, our back-and-forth elicited some interesting commentary.
Hunter on the Twins’ outfield: “To get better defensively, you draft more athletes. And you need a great centerfielder. If you have a great centerfielder, that helps make up for lack of (defensive) talent in the corners. But Rosario in left field isn’t bad at all. I don’t know where that came from.
“With Sano, you don’t know the expectations, because you’ve never seen him play. You can’t automatically stamp him as not being a good outfielder. I think he’s athletic enough, he wants to learn, and he works hard. He’s going to make himself better. He’s going to try to make himself into one of the best outfielders in the game. Defense is something I’ve always prided myself in, and helping guys like him is why I’m here.
“But again, it starts with a great centerfielder. If you have somebody out there who can run it down, that takes some of the pressure off your left fielder and your right fielder. They know there’s someone between them who is going to get to a lot of balls, and I think (Buxton) is right up there.
“You can never stop learning defensively. For me — and everybody knows this — it’s knowing the pitchers, knowing the hitters, knowing the league. The more you play against certain hitters, the more you know what their tendencies are. The more you see your own pitchers pitch, the more you know what their tendencies are.
“I don’t think (Buxton) has enough time in yet to know his pitchers, or the hitters around the league. He doesn’t have that time and experience in him yet. The more experience he gets, the better he’s going to be. But right now, he doesn’t really have a weakness beyond that.”
On positioning and defensive shifts: “Whether balls are hit hard, or if they’re bloops, some of them are going to fall in. Balls are going to drop and they’re going to go over your head. Regardless. I know. I played the outfield for a long time, and I think I did it well.
“I think teams naturally shift in the outfield already. If a guy is a right-handed pull hitter, he’s rarely going to go down the right field line. If he’s 20 percent down the right field line, that means he’s 80 percent from right-center to the left field line. I can see where you’d want to to put the right fielder in right-center, the center fielder in left-center, and the left fielder along the left field line. You take away more of the 80 percent and let them have the 20 percent. That makes sense, but I still don’t believe in data.
“Baseball has been played all these years, right? To overdo things isn’t worth it. Look at Victor Martinez. The year they shifted on him, he had the best year of his career. So does the shift really work? I don’t know. It’s not proven.
“To me, if there’s a guy who the shift works on, he shouldn’t be in the big leagues. You never would shift on me, because you know what? I’m going to hit it to right field. If you can’t do that, you don’t belong here. But if a guy can’t go the other way, and you’re an outfielder, you better know that.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.