We are just passing draft season and the big flurry of July 2nd prospect signings. We've heard phrases like "raw tools" and "will need development time" and "high upside, high risk" quite frequently. Of course we won't know how these players will turn out for at least another five years. Prospect development is not necessarily linear and predictable.
Torii Hunter is a good example. With a nearly complete career under his belt, Minnesota Twins veteran outfielder Torii Hunter is a fine case study of a raw tools player who developed the skills to make the tools work.
Torii Kedar Hunter was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the first round in 1993, out of high school in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He was considered to be a prototypical raw tools outfielder: fast, strong, but raw and inexperienced. He hit just .190 with a horrible 4/23 BB/K ratio in 28 games of rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League. I was working for Bill James at the time, and I remember telling him that the Twins had spent their top draft pick on a player who was unlikely to amount to much. I would have rated him a Grade C prospect at the time.
The next season, Hunter made major progress, hitting .293/.346/.439 in the Midwest League. This was very credible for a 19-year-old, but particularly one who had hit so badly in rookie ball. Although his plate discipline still left something to be desired, he did improve it, drawing 25 walks against 80 strikeouts in 335 at-bats. Retrospective grades are problematic, of course, but by my current criteria I would likely have raised his grade to B-. In the first edition of the Minor League Scouting Notebook, my friend Eddie Epstein gave Hunter a Grade B-.
Either way, it was obvious that the poor rookie ball numbers were not predictive (this was also true for players like Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter and is an important principle to remember).
In 1995, Hunter struggled at times in the difficult High-A Florida State League, hitting .246/.317/.348. Most of that was due to the park/league environment; Hunter actually continued to improve his strike zone judgment, drawing 38 walks against 77 strikeouts in 391 at-bats. He was also drawing raves for his defense in center field. With the bat, Hunter hammered fastballs, but had a lot of problems handling breaking stuff, according to his manager. I gave him a Grade C+ in my 1996 book, rating him as having "a tremendous ceiling but remains a risky bet".
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In '96, Hunter moved up to Double-A, and found a balance between his sharp '94 numbers and his weak '95 production, hitting .263/.324/.401 in his first look at advanced pitching. He earned another Grade C+ from me; I remained intrigued with his physical potential, but concerned that he wouldn't reach it, particularly in the power department.
In '97, Hunter returned to Double-A. His production actually got worse: .231/.306/.338, but he did increase his walk rate, drawing 47 walks against 94 strikeouts. Despite this, I was getting ready to give up on him, and moved him to the back of the 1998 book. "Tools player," I wrote, "Had terrible year in Double-A. Great defensive outfielder." By this time he had slipped to a Grade C prospect.
But Hunter took a step forward in '98, hitting .282/.329/.438 in a third try in Double-A, then hitting .337/.349/.543 in a 26-game trial in Triple-A, granted the thin air in the Pacific Coast League helped him. I bumped him back up to Grade C+ for the '99 book. In my book I noted that his power production had been disappointing, but that he was still young and toolsy enough to get a lot better.
Hunter opened 1999 as the regular center fielder for the Twins, hitting .255/.309/.380, impressing with his trademark outstanding defense, but not hitting consistently well. He split 2000 between Triple-A and the Majors, then broke out with power by hitting 27 home runs in 2001 with a .261/.306/.479 line.
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Torii's defense and power solidified his hold on a job and his other hitting skills gradually caught up. Although never a threat for a high batting average, his strike zone judgment became adequate over time and helped him get to his raw power more frequently.
His best offensive seasons were 2009 (128 OPS+, 122 wRC+, 3.8 fWAR), 2002 (124 OPS+, 122 wRC+, 4.2 fWAR), and 2010 (124 OPS+, 126 wRC+, 3.1 fWAR). His most valuable season overall was 2012 with the Angels (129 OPS+, 131 wRC+, 5.2 fWAR), an unusual peak season at age 36. Since then both his hitting and defense have steadily deteriorated, although his 2015 return home to Minnesota has gone about as well as could be expected given his age (1.3 fWAR).
Through 19 years in the majors with the Twins, Angels, and Tigers, Hunter has hit .278/.333/.464, OPS+111, wRC+111, with an fWAR of 42.2. He was a five-time All Star and won nine Gold Gloves. His list of most similar players by Sim Score stands at Dave Parker, Chili Davis, Luis Gonzalez, Carlos Lee, Carlos Beltran, Tony Perez, Ruben Sierra, Garrett Anderson, Joe Carter, and Bernie Williams.
Hunter's 42.2 fWAR puts him in the neighborhood with Lou Brock (43.2) Chuck Klein (42.9), Brett Butler (42.2), Jose Canseco (42.1), Devon White (41.8), Dave Parker (41.1), Roy White (41.0), Paul O'Neill (41), Steve Finley (40.4), and Amos Otis (40.2). Although their styles and contributions varied, these were all excellent players and includes two Hall of Famers.
Remember, Hunter couldn't hit in rookie ball and it took him three years to master Double-A, yet he still developed into an excellent player. Torii Hunter is the prototype for why scouts like taking chances on raw tools players. Through good coaching and hard work, he took his natural talent and turned it into on-the-field performance.
photo by Victor Decolongon, Getty Images