Orioles' Tommy Hunter is more than 'the other guy' in Chris Davis trade
As a reliever, Tommy Hunter is throwing 100 mph, with a cutter (slider?) at 95. The question is, could he close?
But the truth about Tommy Hunter is this: He might be worth more than Koji Uehara all by himself, now that he's a reliever who can throw 100 mph (with a 95 mph cutter) rather than a starter who averages 91-92 (with a 4.88 ERA).
Uehara is now closing for the Red Sox, but only because they ran out of other options.
Hunter isn't closing for the Orioles, but two seasons after the deal that brought him and Davis from Texas to Baltimore in exchange for Uehara, he's pitched so well and so impressively in late-inning relief that plenty of people wonder if he could. Less than a year after the Orioles moved him to the bullpen because they needed late-inning help, he looks like a guy who should eventually get a chance to pitch the ninth.
"He's a closer waiting to happen," said one scout who has watched Hunter this year.
"He's got the talent to do it," fellow Orioles reliever Darren O'Day said.
It's not a certainty he could, because Hunter has yet to prove he can bounce back successfully. Orioles manager Buck Showalter hasn't used him three straight days at any point this year, and two of the four times he pitched on back-to-back days, Hunter allowed a run (including Adam Dunn's walk-off home run on Thursday in Chicago).
But stuff-wise, Hunter is a closer, with the four-seam fastball he can throw between 97-100 mph and a cutter that is regularly clocked at 95.
"He calls it a cutter, but it's a slider," O'Day said. "It's a 95 mph slider. You see good hitters just shake their heads."
Hunter has good enough control that he has walked just eight in 47 1/3 innings. His WHIP of 0.824 ranks second to the Pirates' Mark Melancon among relievers with at least 40 innings.
For now, the Orioles remain committed to Jim Johnson, who leads the majors with 30 saves but is also tied for the lead with six blown saves. Hunter has pitched mostly in the eighth inning, filling a void created when 2012 setup man Pedro Strop was ineffective (and was then traded away).
Hunter did get one ninth-inning save opportunity, on June 28 against the Yankees. Johnson had pitched three times in the previous four days, so after Hunter pitched the eighth, Showalter left him in the game to pitch the ninth with a one run lead.
The result -- two strikeouts followed by a weak game-ending ground ball from Robinson Cano -- gave the Orioles (and anyone else watching) a taste of what Hunter might do as a closer. Perhaps just as importantly, it gave Hunter his first real taste of what life as a closer is all about.
He loved it.
"There's nothing better than having the crowd on its feet, with the big hitters coming up," he said. "That second inning, the crowd got me through it. It was so much fun."
It convinced Hunter that pitching the ninth inning is what he really wants to do, a belief that wasn't shaken when he gave up the walk-off home run to Dunn.
Some with the Orioles still wonder if Hunter should eventually move back to the rotation. The right-hander just turned 27, and there's some belief that the improvement he has shown in the bullpen could help him if he gets another shot at starting.
"I wouldn't rule it out," Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair said, pointing out that Hunter was stretched out as a possible starter this spring.
Hunter, though, made it clear. His preference is to close.
"Maybe they'll give me a chance to do what I'm really good at," Hunter said, reaching down and grabbing a bat.
So in that trade for Uehara, the Orioles got the best power hitter in the major leagues (who also can pitch) and "a closer waiting to happen" (who also thinks he can hit).
Davis did get a chance to pitch last year, and got a win out of it. Now he's too valuable for the Orioles to let him do it again.
And Hunter? He's not becoming a full-time hitter anytime soon.
The Orioles already found out what he's really good at.