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Rays 2017 Season Preview: Tommy Hunter

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After signing with the Rays to a minor league contract this offseason and proving himself on the bump this spring, Tommy Hunter earned a spot on the Opening Day roster this week as one of the club’s bullpen arms.

Since committing to a full-time role as a reliever, Hunter has been a reliable bullpen piece for teams over the past couple of seasons. In 2016 with the Cleveland Indians and the Baltimore Orioles, the righty compiled a 3.18 ERA (3.06 FIP) and a beautiful 49.5% GB%.

Over the past three seasons, Hunter has accompanied a GB% over 40% with a Soft% of at least 20%. When he converted to a relief man, Hunter gained about three to four more ticks of velocity. In 2014, he began to mix his sinker in more to the point where last season he used the pitch more than his four seamer. This pitch and his fastball were great ground ball pitches in 2016.

His sinker is an interesting pitch. And when I mean “interesting,” I mean puzzling. Hunter threw the pitch on average around 95 miles per hour in 2016, which is fantastic, but without much depth (7.22 vertical movement). The sinker generated 2449 rpm (the average is between 2122 and 2156 rpm) last season, third-highest among pitchers who threw at least 100 sinkers last year.

Generally, you want below-average spin on a sinker because lower spin is better for inducing ground balls and weaker contact. At the same time, higher spin rates on sinkers are good for whiffs. What is weird about Hunter’s sinker is that it is the reverse; it has a higher spin rate, but produces a below-average whiff rate (8.57 Whiff/Swing) and an above-average ground ball rate.

Regardless, the pitch gets the jobs done.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As for the rest of his repertoire, Hunter also features a hard cutter that tops out at around 92 mph. He bumped up the cutter usage this season and threw his curveball less, which was a smart decision. Hunter’s curve offers little drop and relatively average spin. Whereas his cutter has good movement, one of the major’s highest spin rates at 2491 rpm and chalks up superb whiff and ground ball rates.

Hunter usually threw his cutter to lefties last year. He typically has struggled against lefties with a career .352 wOBA against them, but improved against southpaws in 2016 with a .305 wOBA. He will figure to see more time against same-handed hitters with the Rays, but I wouldn’t discount his progress against left-handed batters.

Steamer projects Hunter to pitch to a 3.90 ERA (4.06 FIP and 4.26 xFIP) this season. He doesn’t have much experience in high leverage situations, but Hunter has great ground ball and strikeout abilities and should be a trustworthy mid-relief piece for the pen in 2017, as he was for two different playoff teams last season.