By Peter Schmuck
The Baltimore Sun
5:01 PM EDT, March 29, 2014
SARASOTA, Fla. — If there is one thing you need to know about reliever Tommy Hunter, it is that he is the interpersonal opposite of the guy the Orioles hope he replaces in the critical closer role.
Jim Johnson, who last year became the first American League reliever with 50 or more saves in back-to-back seasons, remained all business, all the time. Whether he was warming up for a big save situation, going about his duties as the clubhouse union representative or putting together the club's annual spring training charity golf tournament, there was not a lot of nonsense.
Nonsense is Hunter's middle name. While Johnson never seemed to stray from the task at hand, Hunter is all over the place. Joshing with reporters. Challenging a teammate to a game of pingpong. Engaging in the fraternal goofiness that reigns in every baseball clubhouse this time of year.
When he finally sits still long enough for a reporter to start picking his brain, he pulls another chair up next to him and sets the tone right away.
"I love these 'True Hollywood' stories," he says.
This one starts about as far from Hollywood, so to speak, as you can get.
Hunter was a high school star in Indiana who went to Alabama and impressed scouts so much that he was chosen as a supplemental first-round pick in the 2007 amateur draft. Three years later, he was starting a World Series game for the Texas Rangers. Two years after that, he was converted into a full-time reliever by the Orioles after failing to hold a place in their rotation.
Somehow, none of it has gotten under his skin. He talks glowingly of his brief time in the Rangers' starting rotation and seemed perfectly happy to be in the Orioles bullpen last season. Perhaps it is that ability to go with the flow that will make him a terrific closer this year, but there is really no way to know until he actually starts pitching under end-game pressure.
That's why it's tempting to psychoanalyze him. There is no way to replicate those ninth-inning situations during spring training, because there are no pressure-packed innings. The reason Hunter came into camp as the presumptive closer is that he has classic stuff for the role, and he was very successful as a setup man last year.
Everybody knows he can throw hard and challenge hitters. The question is whether he can handle the night-to-night pressure and bounce back from failure. Clearly, he doesn't think that will be an issue.
"Yeah, I don't have a problem with it," Hunter said. "I mean, sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you. I like that quote. I'm not going to leave anything out on the field, and there are going to be times you're going to get beat. ... The guys who can forget the previous day are the ones who are going to play for a while, and I want to play for a while."
The closer mentality
If you ask longtime pitching coach Dave Wallace, who has had some experience with big-time closers, he'll tell you it isn't about outward personality. The fact that Hunter is an easygoing guy and Johnson appeared to be just the opposite is not all that relevant.
"I don't think that matters," Wallace said. "I've had John Wetteland, Eric Gagne, Jason Isringhausen, all different personalities. I think off-the-field personality is sometimes a little different when they get to the mound. I don't think it's a real big key what they are like off the field or away from the game. I think it's what happens when you're working out and what they bring into the ballgame."
Wallace doesn't think there is a perfect closer personality, but he does think there is such a thing as a "closer mentality."
"Absolutely, I wish I could describe what it was, because I could sell it and probably do well," he said. "I think it's being resilient. It's the ability to have controlled emotion. The two guys who come to mind are [Dennis] Eckersley, who used his emotion, and a guy like Mariano [Rivera], who internalized it and carried it into the game. … Call it controlled aggression. Closers in general all have that in common."
There is only one way to find out whether a pitcher has it, and it appears that Hunter will get every opportunity to develop that mentality if he hasn't yet.
"Your tendency is to say he's got that personality," Wallace said. "He's got what it takes, but obviously I haven't seen Tommy in the regular season. I've just seen him in spring training. I've heard all the talk about him. He's great. He's intense. He's aggressive. He does all those things. Can you channel him in the right way? Hopefully, we'll find out, but he's got that package that you look for."
Catcher Matt Wieters probably has a better sense of both Hunter and his predecessor than anyone. The differences between them, he said, are not so obvious when they take the mound in a big situation.
"They definitely go about their business different ways," Wieters said, "but I think the determination is the same for both of them. Really, it doesn't matter what your personality is, especially in this clubhouse. Everybody's going to be different, but everybody wants to achieve the same goal, and they both definitely have that."
Don't misunderstand — Hunter and Johnson are very different pitchers, stylistically and emotionally.
"Jim was the type of guy, he showed his emotions but he didn't. … He controlled it," right fielder Nick Markakis said. "Tommy's the type of guy, if he makes one bad pitch in a game, he's [angry] about it. That can be a good thing and a bad thing. You can see the competitiveness, and that's what you want as a closer. I think the thing Tommy needs to do is trust his fastball and go after guys. Take that closer mentality and go with it. We all know he's got the stuff."
Manager Buck Showalter still has to see it come together on the field, but he has seen enough of Hunter in the setup role to concede that he's the most logical candidate for the closer role on the Orioles roster until proved otherwise.
"That's the usual progression," he said. "I've seen more people follow that path. That's why Tommy's a candidate, because he has followed the path that good closers usually follow. That's no prerequisite, but I haven't seen many of them not follow that path and be good."
When opportunity knocked
Hunter doesn't get serious very often, but he wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He wasn't happy when Johnson was traded to the Oakland Athletics in December.
"It [stank]," Hunter said. "The guy saved 50 games, and he's a big part of the team. He was the first guy I got to talk to when I came over here. We have the same agent. He's just an all-around good dude."
Hunter considered Johnson something of a mentor and — if he becomes a successful closer — will give Johnson a lot of credit for helping him adjust to the bullpen and putting him in a position to succeed in save situations.
"We talk," he said. "Jim set the standard high. Jim had a regimen, what he did. He was fun to watch. He was a machine. He came in, did the same thing every day and had a set program with what he was doing. And he forgot about the night before really well. Having him and K-Rod [Francisco Rodriguez] here last year, it was fun to just ask questions and get solid answers from them."
When it was announced that Johnson would not return, Hunter said, he never doubted that he could be the guy to take over in the ninth inning.
"He's a hell of a competitor, and I like to think I am, too,'' Hunter said. "Not only on the baseball field, man … the basketball court, the pingpong table. I love competing. I wouldn't let my mom win."
He realizes that the job hasn't been won yet, because it can't be won during spring training. It will be won in April and, of course, it's a job that is never secure.
"If I don't, if I'm in the setup role, I'm going to do what I did last year — I'm going to fight and try to get it," he said. "Don't get bitter, get better. I actually told [Dylan] Bundy that while I was kicking his butt in pingpong: Don't get bitter, get better. I'll fight to get it. I'll get it someday. If I don't get it now, I'm OK. There's time. I'm only 27."
Six for the ninth
A look at six relief pitchers who were able to close out games for the Orioles through the years:
Gregg Olson (1988-1993) — A first-round draft choice in 1988, he reached the big leagues the same year and broke out with 27 saves and a 1.69 ERA during the Orioles' "Why Not?" season in 1989 to win the American League Rookie of the Year award. Olson went on to average 33 saves over the next four seasons before a partially torn elbow ligament interrupted his career. Over parts of six seasons in Baltimore, he saved a team-record 160 games and had a 2.26 ERA.
Stu Miller (1963-1967) — Although saves weren't an official statistic in major league baseball until the 1969 season, the right-hander is credited with 100 over five seasons with the team in an era when late-inning relievers routinely pitched two or three innings. He led the major leagues with 59 games finished and 27 saves in 1963, and had 14 wins, 24 saves and a 1.89 ERA in 1965 to finish seventh in AL Most Valuable Player voting. During the Orioles' first World Series title year, he went 9-4 with a 2.25 ERA and 18 saves to place 11th for the AL MVP award.That was good for only fifth among his teammates, behind MVP Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson (second), Boog Powell (third) and Luis Aparicio (ninth).
Randy Myers (1996-1997) — The left-hander spent only two seasons with the Orioles, but he made the most of them as he helped lead the club to the AL Championship Series both years and saved 45 games (in 46 opportunities) during the team's wire-to-wire 1997 AL East championship season. Myers is the only Orioles reliever with more than 10 save opportunities to have a career success rate that is more than 90 percent (90.47). Despite his brief tenure in Baltimore, he ranks sixth on the Orioles' career saves list (76).
Jim Johnson (2006-2013) — With 50 saves last year, the 30-year-old became the first reliever in AL history and second overall (Eric Gagne) to save 50 or more games in consecutive seasons. Though he spent only the 2012 and 2013 seasons as the club's full-time closer, Johnson ranks second among Orioles pitchers in career saves with 122. Although the veteran right-hander faced a couple of rocky stretches last season, he was successful in 81.3 percent of his save opportunities with the Orioles. That rate ranks fourth among relievers with 40 or more career saves in club history.
Tippy Martinez (1976-1986) — A transitional figure in the evolution of the closer role, Martinez did not put up gaudy single-season save numbers during the era of multiple-inning saves. But he was one of the game's most dependable and durable late-inning relievers for a decade and ranks third on the Orioles' all-time saves list (105). The left-hander made his only AL All-Star appearance during the 1983 season, in which he was 9-3 with a 2.35 ERA and 21 saves. Not coincidentally, the Orioles went on to win the World Series that year, and Martinez saved games 3 and 4. He's also famous for picking off three base runners in the same inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Aug. 24, 1983.
Don Stanhouse (1978-1979, 1982) — Let's be honest. If we're just crunching numbers here, "Full Pack" would also rank behind Eddie Watt and Dick Hall among the most accomplished relievers in Orioles history. But it's hard to leave Stanhouse off this list, if only for entertainment value. He used to Earl Weaver crazy with his suspenseful finishes, and he had a couple of terrific statistical seasons during the club's glory years. He saved a total of 45 games between the 1978 and 1979 seasons, had a combined 2.87 ERA in those two years and was named to the AL All-Star team in 1979.
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