Random Brave Wednesday - Brian Hunter
Baseball is a game of moments. Take Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves. Had Barry Bonds played a foot more closer to the infield, would the Slide be so remembered? Had his thrown been a little better, would Sid Bream be toast at the plate? If Bream got a microsecond worse of a start from second base, maybe the Braves don’t return to the World Series.
And had Brian Hunter not popped up, would we even know the name Francisco Cabrera?
Of course, the moment went the way it did. After Hunter popped up to make it two outs, Cabrera sent a base hit to short left field. Bonds charged and fired home. David Justice scored easily and then Bream just beat the throw-and-tag to end not just the game, but the NLCS. Hunter celebrated with his teammates. He was pissed off, but winning helps with the anger.
Plucked out of Cerritos College in the 8th round in the 1987 draft, Hunter flashed the power he'd be known for quite quickly, bashing 25 homers in two different A-ball stops during the '88 campaign. He'd add another 19 in each of the following two seasons as he moved from Greenville to Richmond. Now, was Hunter a top prospect? No, he didn't make enough good contact or reach base enough. That said, he was a decent defender at first base with a lot of pop. There are worse things to be.
Hunter was in the minors to begin 1991, but by Memorial Day, the Braves made the call to the right-handed slugger. In his fourth game, he delivered a game-tying two-run homer in the 11th. See, kids, back in the day, a runner (in this case, Lonnie Smith) had to reach base without being placed there. Smith walked and with two outs, Hunter tied it up. Unfortunately, he'd throw a ball away the next inning leading to a run, but let's focus on the homer. Speaking of homers, Hunter would smack another one three days later. On June 21, he hit a three-run homer and drove in four against Frank Viola in a 4-2 victory against the Mets. Hunter would take off, in fact, pushing his OPS over 1.0000 a month into his career. When August came, he was hitting .269/.304/.513. August would not be kind to him, but he opened September with his first four-hit game. Overall, Hunter would close the season with a .251/.296/.450 clip, a dozen homers, and 50 driven in.
Hunter became a thorn in the side of the Pirates in the NLCS. In Game 7, Hunter hit a two-run homer in the first inning off John Smiley to extend the Braves' lead to 3-0. He added an RBI double in the 5th. And like it was a movie, it was Hunter picking up Jose Lind's groundball in the ninth inning and taking it to the bag to jumpstart the celebration as the Braves headed to the World Series.
He hit a homer in the Series, part of a four-hit effort over 22 plate appearances. Hunter would play much of the series in left field when the series moved to Minnesota for the first two and final two games. But largely, Hunter was a non-factor, going 2-for-16 in those starts as the Braves dropped all four games on the road.
Now firmly established as Sid Bream's platoon partner, Hunter entered '92 with some big hopes that he would build on his rookie season. And when he was good in 1992, he was really good. He'd post a .900 or better OPS in 4-out-of-6 months. But when he was bad, he was damn near unplayable with a .337 OPS in April and .397 OPS in July. He wanted more playing time ahead of Bream, who finished with a worse overall OPS, but Hunter did himself no favors by hitting .181/.225/.313 against right-hand pitching in 90 PA. Overall, he was a nightmare against lefties, but powerless when he lost the platoon advantage.
So, that's why what happened in Game Seven of the NLCS was, while frustrating for Hunter, not so much of a surprise. The Pirates had just one left-hand starter for the series, Danny Jackson. He'd start only Game 2, a 13-5 drubbing that put the Braves up 2-0 in the series. As a result, Hunter started only that game. By the time Game Seven came along, Hunter had stepped up to the plate just four times. Down a run, the inning started with a double and then an error. After Bream walked to load the bases against Doug Drabek, Pirates manager Jim Leyland brought in Stan Belinda. The sidearming righty was not a great matchup for the Braves, who had already used left-hand hitting Jeff Treadway and Deion Sanders earlier in the game along with the righty Lonnie Smith. That left Hunter, Greg Olson's rookie replacement Javy Lopez, and third catcher Francisco Cabrera. The latter two combined for just 27 plate appearances during the season.
Ron Gant stepped in with the bases loaded and sent a screamer toward left that Barry Bonds tracked down. It scored Terry Pendleton, who opened the inning with a double, to make it 2-1. Damon Berryhill, who took over as the full-time catcher for Olson following the latter's broken leg, worked a walk on five pitches to load the bases. Cox made his move for Hunter to hit for Rafael Belliard. Again, it was a bad matchup for a lefty masher to face a righty who drops down like Belinda. During the regular season, Hunter would go 0-for-3 with a K lifetime versus Belinda. The results didn't get any better here. With the count 0-and-1, Hunter looped a bleeder to short center field. In Hunter's eyes, it was bad luck. If the infield was playing in to keep the Braves from tying the game, the looper would have fell and at least tied the game. But the Pirates were playing for a series-ending double play and kept the infield back, allowing Jose Lind enough time to catch up to Hunter’s blooper. Frustrated, Hunter went back to the bench.
But again, baseball is a series of moments. After swinging at a 2-0 pitch, Cabrera went after the 2-1 delivery that caught way too much of the strikezone. It got through the infield, scoring Justice to tie it. Bream got the wave home and was able to beat the poor throw by Bonds to end the series and crush the Pirates.
The Blue Jays, like the Pirates before them, only had one lefty starter so Hunter only got one start in the World Series. Overall, he would finish 2-for-10 in the postseason, a far cry from the 10 hits in 39 AB the previous October.
In 1993, Hunter's streaky nature would ultimately lead to his move to the minors and, finally, another organization. It didn't help that postseason hero Cabrera was stealing some of the playing time at first against southpaws, but even when Hunter was in the lineup, he couldn't get in gear. In just 85 PA, Hunter slumped to .138 with no homers for the season. His struggles and the team's overall lack of offense helped convince John Schuerholz to make a change, adding Fred McGriff at the deadline. That move took away any remaining hope that Hunter would be a factor for the Braves. After the season, Atlanta moved on, trading Hunter to the Pirates. He'd flash some power, especially after a midseason trade to the Reds, but the Strike halted Hunter from increasing his new personal high in homers beyond 15.
A non-factor for the Reds the following year, Hunter would be cut in the spring of ‘96 and resurfaced with the Mariners. He earned 221 PA for Seattle and resembled the guy the Braves saw, but a lot had changed. When he put up a .746 OPS in his rookie season of 1991, Hunter's weighted runs created plus (wRC+) was 104. To put that in another way, Hunter was offensively 4% better than league when said league and ballpark were taken into account. In 1996, Hunter finished with a comparable OPS of .752. This left him with an 87 wRC+, or 13% below league average. The game was getting more offensive and a first baseman with good pop, but no real skills at getting on base had little to build on.
In 1997, Hunter returned to the Reds but couldn't work his way back up to the majors. The following year, the Cardinals brought him in for right-handed depth behind Mark McGwire, Ron Gant, and Brian Jordan. Hunter would struggle, though, hitting only .205 before being a post-deadline casualty. He finished the year in the minors for the White Sox.
It looked almost like Hunter was reaching the end when fate gave him another chance back where it all began. On Februrary 19, 1999, the Atlanta Braves announced that Andres Galarraga would miss the season after a tumor was found on his lower back. With it being so late in the offseason, the Braves had limited options. They did have Ryan Klesko, long considered a first baseman miscast as a left fielder. But Bobby Cox wasn't convinced Klesko could handle a full-time gig in the majors, leading the Braves to search for a lefty masher. Why not Hunter?
So, just a matter of days after the Galarraga announcement, the Braves brought back Hunter and once again used him as an important cog in the machine. Hunter would benefit greatly by working with Don Baylor. For the first time, Hunter ditched his hyper-aggressive nature and took his walks (14% walk rate after closer to 6% rate during his first run with the Braves). Sure, he was still hitting just .249, but with his pop and willingness to take a pitch, Hunter finished with a career-best .352 wOBA. For the first time since 1992, his wRC+ was over 100. And in terms of WAR, for a guy with a career fWAR of 1.6, 1.1 of that came in 1999. All in all, while Hunter was hardly an exciting pick-up, he was productive.
In the postseason, Hunter's numbers would tank. Though he finally did something he never did in 1991 or 1992 - he walked! - Hunter managed just a pair of singles in 30 trips to the plate. But, hey, he did walk six times so that's something considering his 0 postseason walks prior to ‘99.
Brought back for insurance in 2000, Hunter was squeezed out by a roster crunch and waived in late-April once Brian Jordan came off the IL. Hunter landed with the Phillies and he finished up his major league career with a .210/.310/.399 slash in 158 PA with the Phils. Though he'd play for the Blue Jays and Rays' organizations, along with a run in the independent Atlantic League, Hunter wouldn't get back to the majors.
It is worth mentioning what happened in Brian Hunter's final at-bat as a Brave. On April 18, facing his future teammates, the Phillies, Hunter was called on to pinch-hit against Carlos Reyes with the score tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the 12th. A righty, Reyes was not the usual type of pitcher Hunter feasted on, but that didn't stop him from ambushing the first pitch he saw for a walk-off homer in front of the Turner Field faithful. Three days later, he'd be a Phillie. Maybe they were just trying to keep Hunter from doing that again to them.
With his playing days over, Hunter eventually got into coaching young baseball players back in his home state of California. Hunter also is a leader for the On-Deck Foundation, a non-profit that seeks to add resources to the Los Angeles County foster system. According to a thinly-updated LinkedIn page, he also has worked as a scout for the Braves. Speaking of his former team, Hunter's occasionally showed up at alumni events as well, including this year for the rain-soaked event that led to the home run derby being cancelled.
For his career, Hunter slashed .234/.298/.430 with 90 doubles and 67 homers. Of his 699 career games, 352 came during his two stints as a Brave. All 76 plate appearances in the postseason came as a member of the Braves, including two of them that ended in homers. And yes, he was never a star. But Hunter was, almost entirely when he was a Brave, a productive platoon option for the Braves when they needed it.