The term "decline," seems to be the most popular word in the game these days.
The minute a 30-something player has a bad year, we start hearing how he's in the "decline" phase of his career. Is it really so linear? If modern analytics were around in 1957, would they have projected Ted Williams to hit .388 at age 38? In 1997, would they have pegged Tony Gwynn to win a batting title at age 37?
Seven months ago, Torii Hunter appeared to be on that slippery slope, one of the worst first halves of his baseball career making everybody wonder whether his skills were eroding. At the All-Star break last year, right around his 36th birthday, Hunter was batting .250 and had seemingly lost his Gold Glove touch in the outfield.
What most people didn't know is that Hunter played those months on a painful quadriceps injury. He would prove over the final months that he still has something left. Hunter's .828 OPS in the second half, had it been sustained all year, would have been his fourth-best mark in a 14-year career.
As Hunter prepares to play out the final year of his five-year, $90 million contract, he'll have some uncertainty to play through. He said last season he would like to retire as an Angel, but with the No. 1 prospect in baseball, Mike Trout waiting in the wings, will the Angels have much interest in extending his contract beyond 2012?
That question will loom over his season as the summer moves along, but for now, the Angels would seem to be in pretty good shape in right field. Hunter has been the team's most consistent player over the terms of his contract, with a batting average ranging between .262 and .299, an RBI total between 78 and 90 every season and an OPS above .800 every season other than the last one.
Based on the stat Defensive Runs Saved, Hunter was the best right fielder in baseball, five runs ahead of Florida youngster Mike Stanton, though he didn't pick up his 10th Gold Glove.
Hunter is at a place in his career that he can focus on team goals -- and reaching his first World Series -- rather than dwelling on an uncertain personal future. With Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson as teammates this year, Hunter would seem to have his best shot yet. That should be motivation enough.