Zach Wilt: Pitching low more important than higher velocity for Hunter

After struggling as a starting pitcher last season, the Orioles moved Tommy Hunter to the bullpen where he proved to be a successful, power right-handed reliever. Hunter appeared in 13 games in relief in 2012, pitching 17 innings with a 3.71 ERA and impressive 4.00 K/BB ratio. He also showed the Orioles that, in small doses, he could crank up his velocity to triple digits.

Hunter is back in the bullpen this season and he brought his velocity with him. In four appearances in 2013, he's peaked at 99.24 mph with his average four-seam fastball velocity between 95-96 mph

Two of Hunter's four outings this season have been stellar, while he's struggled to keep the ball in the ballpark in the others. I wondered if Hunter was overthrowing when giving up the longball, so I examined his PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net and FanGraphs.com. Here's what I found.

In his first appearance of the season, on April 3 at Tampa Bay, Hunter relieved Pedro Strop in the bottom of the eighth with the Rays up 7-6. He pitched a 1-2-3 inning, recording outs in the air from Shelley Duncan, Yunel Escobar and Sam Fuld. After the O's tied the game in the ninth, Hunter came back out in the bottom of the inning and gave up a walk-off home run to lefty Matt Joyce on a 96.12-mph fastball in the middle of the strike zone.

Hunter's next outing, on April 8 at Boston, proved to be much more effective (1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 ER 0 BB, 1 K). He relieved Wei-Yin Chen in the seventh inning with one out and the Orioles down 3-0. Hunter got Mike Carp to ground out to third base and Cody Ross to strikeout swinging in the seventh. Then Jose Iglesias grounded out to shortstop, Jacoby Ellsbury to second and Shane Victorino flew out to right field in the eighth.

Hunter's average fastball velocity was 96.63 mph and he touched 99 mph on a chilly night in Boston. While the velocity was slightly higher in his second outing, Hunter worked the lower part of the plate more effectively in Boston than he did in Tampa Bay.

Two days later, Hunter relieved Jake Arrieta in the sixth inning at Fenway Park with the O's and Red Sox tied 3-3. He struckout Mike Napoli and Will Middlebrooks, but gave up back-to-back home runs to Daniel Nava and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Nava, a switch-hitter batting left handed, hit a 96.61-mph fastball up and over the outside corner of the plate. Saltalamacchia, another switch-hitter hitting lefty, hit one up and over the outside corner.

With his average fastball velocity down to 93.99 mph, Hunter threw an inning of shutout ball against the Yankees on April 12. He relieved Pedro Strop in the eighth inning, and surrendered just one hit, a single to center off the bat of Lyle Overbay. Ten of the 13 pitches Hunter threw were in the lower half of the strike zone.

Upper-90s velocity is a valuable commodity in baseball, especially for a guy who comes in to pitch an inning or two at a time. Hunter has shown control at 97, 98, 99, but has also struggled at times to keep the ball down in the zone. No matter what the speed, pitching low seems to be working much more effectively than leaving something up for guys, specifically lefties, to drive out of the ballpark.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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