Torii Hunter's Clutch Bat, Leadership Keying Twins' Shocking Rise

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2015

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If it was your first and only glance at the case, it would appear flimsy at its strongest.

But that would be a glance, without any deeper examination of the act, the perpetrator or history. On its own, it is Torii Hunter acting like a deranged athlete incapable of handling adversity anytime he perceives a slight or things do not fall in his favor. 

That would be so, so wrong, though. Yes, the footage is bad. The man, the player, the clubhouse role model are not.

That wild tirade last week, one of the more epic ones we’ve seen from a player in a while, led to a two-game suspension. Hunter objected to the “harsh” penalty and appealed, but he retracted and started serving the ban Saturday.

“Just a lot of emotions,” Hunter told reporters after the meltdown. “I thought it was a ball. The pitch before that, I thought it was a little up. He called it a strike, that’s fine. I thought the last pitch he called a strike was revenge because I said something about the pitch before that, because it was definitely a ball.”

Hunter will speak his mind. Over the duration of his 17 full major league seasons, he always has. He is something of a Major League Baseball spokesman, waxing on issues on and off the field, as he did in 2010 when he told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that Latino players were “impostors.” Hunter later said he regretted his poor word choice.

As he approaches his 40th birthday in about a month, Hunter certainly has not gotten shyer. His standing in the game has grown as big as his smile, and his standing in the Minnesota Twins’ clubhouse is that of team leader, its most valuable player possibly on the diamond and definitely away from it.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Hunter is a mentor, especially important for the franchise right now as top prospect Byron Buxton breaks into the big leagues—Sunday was his debut. The 21-year-old center fielder could not ask to be dropped into a better clubhouse, and he already has a bond with Hunter because the two were not coincidentally locker neighbors during spring training.

The organization has a lot of its future invested in Buxton becoming one of the game’s premier outfielders, so it will look to Hunter to help guide him.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Angels, one of Hunter’s former teams, did the same thing with him and Mike Trout. Since his first full season in 2012, Trout has repeatedly praised Hunter’s mentoring as a reason he transitioned so well into MLB. They also were locker neighbors in Trout’s first full season.

Hunter is one of the highest-character players the game has, and it is why he was such a coveted free agent last offseason despite his advanced age. Front offices understood that while his production might be sliding, his character is still steadily rising.

The Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles all wanted Hunter, but he eventually signed a one-year, $10.5 million deal with Minnesota.

“Hard to find,” an American League general manager told the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo about players of Hunter’s ilk. “We all search for that guy. When you get him and it clicks, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Meanwhile, Hunter is still a productive everyday player for the Twins. He’s not quite the hitter he once was, but he’s been excellent in high-leverage situations—.345/.433/.655 and a 1.087 OPS with runners in scoring position in 67 plate appearances and .348/.444/.957 with a 1.401 OPS in 27 plate appearances in that same situation, but with two outs.

There are other reasons for the Twins’ unexpected rise in the American League Central standings—Mike Pelfrey and Kyle Gibson in the top 20 of AL ERA leaders, closer Glen Perkins and setup man Blaine Boyer creating a strong back end of the bullpen—but Hunter has undoubtedly been one of them, prompting Minneapolis Star Tribune blogger Michael Rand to call Hunter the team’s MVP earlier this month:

Post: There are tons of good candidates, but Torii Hunter is my 2015 #mntwins MVP for the first 1/3 of the season.

— RandBall (@RandBall) June 5, 2015

We don’t know if Hunter’s clutch numbers will continue all summer, or if he will continue being an integral piece of the Twins lineup. But it is safe to assume his effect on the clubhouse will not change.

Hunter apologized to his teammates and manager Paul Molitor for his ejection last week, but he is such a respected player that they said an apology from him was unnecessary.

“It’s who you are. I was born that way. I’ve always had character, even before I got to the majors,” Hunter told Cafardo. “I had it in high school. I always made people laugh or try to make them happy and lift up their spirits. It’s just you. You are who you are.”

Almost as much as his production, that is what the Twins valued in Hunter when they signed him for what could be his final season. If he continues to produce in the clutch, he could be a major reason the team gets to value it in meaningful October games.

All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.


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