Last week, the Mets signed Tommy Hunter to a minor league deal with an invitation to major league spring training. Now 34 years old, Hunter has been mentioned on this site several times in the past as an option for the Mets in free agency, and the team was reportedly interested in him following the 2017 season.
Drafted by the Rangers in the first round back in 2007 out of the University of Alabama, Hunter made his first professional appearances in relief that year at the team’s Low-A affiliate. But following that introduction to professional ball, he spent the early chunk of his career as a starting pitcher. In 2008, he started the year in High-A and worked his way up to Double-A and Triple-A before joining the Rangers in August for his major league debut. He made just three starts for them, and they went poorly, but his rise to the big leagues was pretty rapid.
Hunter started the 2009 season in the minors and got a spot start with the Rangers in late May before getting called up in late June and sticking at the major league level for the rest of the season. In nineteen starts, Hunter threw 112.0 innings with a respectable 4.10 ERA, 4.40 FIP, 114 ERA+, and 1.8 bWAR. Despite that, Hunter began the 2010 season in the minors, too, but was called back up to rejoin the Rangers’ rotation in early June. In twenty-three appearances the rest of the way, all but one of which were starts, Hunter had a 3.73 ERA, 4.99 FIP, 120 ERA+, and 2.7 bWAR.
Shortly before the 2011 season got underway, Hunter suffered a groin injury that delayed his season by several weeks. He made some rehab starts in the minors and rejoined the Rangers in July, but this time, Texas opted to use him out of its bullpen. Hunter fared well, putting up a 2.93 ERA in 15.1 innings through the end of July. And then the Rangers traded him, sending him to the Orioles along with Chris Davis in return for fellow relief pitcher Koji Uehara.
Baltimore used Hunter in relief once, in a one-inning outing, and moved him into their rotation three days later. He made eleven starts in total for them that season, and the results were not good. He had a 5.00 ERA in those starts, and with those innings accounting for the bulk of his season, he finished the year with a 4.68 ERA and just 0.4 bWAR.
For the majority of the 2012 season, Hunter continued his role a starting pitcher for the Orioles, but he kept struggling. At the end of August, with twenty starts, a couple stints in Triple-A, and three major league relief appearances under his belt, he had a 5.95 ERA through 121.0 innings of work at the major league level. His final start that year came on August 22, a game in which he lasted just three innings and gave up eight runs. The Orioles sent him down to Double-A.
After two appearances there, the latter of which was in relief, Hunter returned to the Orioles and worked exclusively as a reliever. He was brilliant in the role, as his fastball velocity jumped from an average in the low-90s to 97 miles per hour working in relief down the stretch. And in 12.2 innings, he gave up just one run and had a 0.71 ERA.
While he didn’t quite live up to that level of dominance, Hunter stuck as a major league reliever with the Orioles, compiling a 2.88 ERA in 147.0 innings across the 2013 and 2014 seasons. It’s worth noting that despite his improved velocity, Hunter wasn’t all that much of a strikeout pitcher, with his 113 strikeouts resulting in a rate of 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
Hunter pitched decently for the Orioles through the first few months of the 2015 season, too, with a 3.63 ERA. But they traded him to the Cubs for Junior Lake at the trade deadline. In Chicago, Hunter struggled mightily, with a 5.74 ERA in just 15.2 innings the rest of the way. Following the season, he hit free agency and signed with Cleveland, where he pitched decently again in the first half of the 2016 season. But he was released in early July, and the Orioles signed him. He rejoined their bullpen in late August and finished the season strong with a 2.19 ERA in 12.1 innings there.
The Rays signed Hunter to a one-year deal ahead of the 2017 season, and he pitched well for them. In 58.2 innings, he had a 2.61 ERA and struck out 64 opposing batters, making for a 9.8 K/9 that was and still is the best single-season mark of his career.
Coming off that season, the Phillies signed him to a two-year deal, and in 2018, he had a 3.80 ERA in 64.0 innings, a step back from his performance the year before but still a decent enough showing. In 2019, Hunter threw only 5.1 innings and missed the rest of the season after having surgery on the flexor tendon in his right arm.
The Phillies signed Hunter to a one-year deal ahead of the 2020 season, and once that short season got underway, Hunter pitched 24.2 innings with a 4.01 ERA and 3.31 FIP. In total, Hunter had a 3.64 ERA and 3.42 FIP with 81 strikeouts and 21 walks in 94.0 innings over three years with the Phillies.
As far as 2021 goes, Hunter certainly has an opportunity to make the Mets’ bullpen. With Seth Lugo having just undergone surgery himself, the Mets’ bullpen has at least one glaring vacancy, and there were already question marks slated to make up the final four or five spots of the team’s bullpen.
Hunter’s fastball averaged just 93 miles per hour in the 2020 season, according to Brooks Baseball, a much more significant drop than the small decline he had seen in his time with the Phillies. If that drop was largely a product of the completely disjointed 2020 season, maybe he gets a tick or two back. And even if he doesn’t, his performance last year was solid enough that he could be at least as good as several of his peers.
It’s also worth mentioning that throughout his career, Hunter has been very good at limiting walks, averaging 2.0 walks per nine with a 5.4 percent walk rate for his career. His walk rate over the last three seasons has also been 5.4 percent, and among relief pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings over that span, it’s the 15th-best walk rate out of 315 pitchers. The Mets’ overall defense might not be the absolute best fit for him given his relatively low strikeout rates, but limiting walks is always helpful.
There are still at least a couple of free agent relievers on the market who have better recent track records than Hunter, but if the Mets don’t make any more moves, Hunter could very well get a look in the team’s Opening Day bullpen.