Aaron Hill’s uphill season

Aaron Hill started 2010 by heading to the 15-day DL almost immediately. That would cost him a decent chunk of time as he’d ultimately play only 138 games, when he’d played in 158 in 2009. After spending way too much time on his FanGraphs page, I’m convinced there’s reason to believe that his hamstring wasn’t the only factor that hamstrung him in 2010…

Before the 2010 season, Dwayne Murphy became the Blue Jays’ hitting coach. He encouraged that his players take a new approach. His mantra, according to Tim Brown’s piece last summer:

…Get ready, get a pitch, swing hard.

“Murph’s a big believer in getting started early and letting it fly,” said Vernon Wells, the club’s resurgent cleanup hitter. “If you know anything about him, he didn’t hold anything back at the plate. He expects the same out of us.”

The result of Murphy’s imparted philosophy: a lot of home runs and a lot of strikeouts. Just ask Jose Bautista, perhaps the most significant benefactor of Murphy’s tutelage. The Blue Jays finished first in the American League with 257 home runs and fourth in strikeouts with 1,164. A year earlier, they ranked fourth in home runs with 209 and 10th in strikeouts with 1,028. The biggest difference from Bautista.

Bautista owns a career 45.8 percent flyball percentage. He hit 42.1 percent in 2009, but that figure jumped to 54.5 percent in 2010. The results for him were nothing short of fantastic. The jump in fly balls helped, of course, but he also went from a having a HR/FB rate of around 12 percent to 21.7 percent. His jump in both fly balls and the rate at which they left the yard were the main factors in Bautista’s huge 54 home run season. Further, those rates resulted in a Dan Uggla like extension for Bautista at five years and $64 million, something that was unfathomable at the outset of the season. Teammate Aaron Hill wasn’t so lucky.

Maybe there was something to Murphy’s let-it-fire mentality. But if there was, not every hitter on the roster caught it like Bautista had.

Vernon Wells had a much better season, but his batted-ball rates were pretty much within career norms. So were Alex Gonzalez’s prior to the trade to Atlanta, as well as all of the other Jays I checked. While they had quality seasons with the bat, their new hitting coach’s mantra didn’t manifest in more fly balls.

Perhaps, though, it did manifest in another, but in his case to his detriment. Hill had a horrific season and, if we take a closer look, we might just figure out why.

In looking for a sleeper to have a bounce-back season in 2010, I headed to FanGraphs to see the leaders in specific statistical categories. AL MVP Josh Hamilton led all position players with a .390 batting average on balls in play (BABiP). But I wasn’t much interested in that. No, what I was interested in was who posted the very worst BABiP. Boy did I find myself a winner—or loser, depending on which way you look at it. I was delighted to find Hill there, bruised and battered from a season that must have been truly exasperating for him.

Hill’s a heck of a second baseman whom many teams would love to have, at least those not blessed with running out Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Chase Utley, to name a few. He broke out in 2007 at the age of 25 with a .341 weighted on-base average (wOBA) and 3.5 wins above replacement (WAR). He also won the Fielding Bible award for best defensive second baseman that season. From 2007-2009 he ranks 11th among second basemen with an 8.0 cumulative WAR. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Hill played in only 55 games in 2008 due to a concussion incurred by slamming into David Eckstein, of all people; I wouldn’t go around telling people that if I were Hill. He missed the remainder of the season. He came back in 2009 and won the Comeback Player of the Year award by hitting 36 home runs, finishing with a .357 wOBA and 3.9 WAR. Further, he took home his second Fielding Bible award in three seasons, with his concussion rendering him virtually ineligible to win in the other. Then came his forgettable 2010 season.

Hill’s season was a disaster. You might not mind that he hit 26 home runs, but finding anything positive beyond that is a dubious task. His average was just .205, barely above the Mendoza Line. His on-base percentage (OBP) was an unconscionable .271 and his slugging percentage of .394 isn’t quite worthy of mentioning the word slugging. His wOBA of .291 stunk, to put it mildly.

In aggregate, despite another season of quality defense, his WAR plummeted from 3.9 in 2009 to 1.1 in 2010. That’s understating things, too, because one has to take FanGraphs’ UZR for Hill in 2009 (-4.9) with a grain of salt for two reasons: (1) it’s long been known it’s far better to look at two or more years of data for fielders than one to come up with a consensus of their ability, and (2) he won the Fielding Bible award for second basemen in 2009, casting further doubt on FanGraphs’ UZR for him in that particular season. In all likelihood, he was probably worth closer to five wins.

So what happened? Hill still posted a quality isolated power (ISO) of .189, which is over his .157 career mark though a bit lower than the outstanding .213 ISO he had a year prior. I think we have to assume the biggest problem was no doubt that pesky BABiP which I mentioned earlier. After all, he had the lowest mark in the major leagues in 2010. It dropped from a perfectly average .288 in 2009 (which also happens to be exactly his career mark) to .196 in The Great Crash of 2010 (as shown below). But why?

image

Maybe Ken Fidlin of the Toronto Sun has the answer, after speaking to Hill personally:

… Hill blames some bad habits that crept into his swing mechanics and just wouldn’t go away.

“I got a little too pull-happy,” he said. “I’ve always been a pull-the-ball kind of guy but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. I just got in a funk early and never got back because I just dug myself into a deep hole.

In a funk.

“When I’m at my best, I’m taking my line drives to centre and right-centre*. Even the year when I hit 36 home runs, I was true to myself but last year I was just wide open and pulling everything.

*Yep, that’s how they spell center in Canada.

Thanks to FanGraphs, we can verify whether what Hill thinks the problem was is in fact the actual problem. I knew Hill had struggled in 2010, but I was shocked by how poor his luck was on balls in play. Looking at the data, his line drive rate fell at an alarming rate from 19.6 percent in 2009 to 10.6 percent in 2010, also a huge delta from his 18.5 percent career mark. But was it really because he became too “pull happy?”

No. It doesn’t look that way, anyway. There are slight differences, but they seem negligible. He pulled 49 percent of his balls in 2010, with 34 percent to center and 18 percent to the opposite field. In his excellent 2009 campaign he pulled 46 percent of the balls he put into play, with 34 percent headed to center and 20 percent headed to the opposite field. Finally, his career numbers are similar as he’s pulled 45 percent of balls, punched 33 percent to center, and 22 percent of his balls have gone to the opposite field. The differences, as I said, appear more random variation than a worrisome trend toward pulling everything. There has to be some other explanation.

Meanwhile, his fly bat rate jumped tremendously, much like that of teammate Bautista, and this is where the data get truly interesting. He went from 41.0 percent in 2009 to 54.2 percent in 2010, a rather massive delta from the 41.4 percent he’s posted over his career. That’s actually an even bigger change than Bautista experienced. Unlike Bautista, the increase in fly balls didn’t have a compounding effect on home run production with a parallel increase in HR/FB rate. Instead, his rate went down from 14.9 percent in 2009 to 10.8 percent in 2010. So, in a nutshell, he was hitting more balls in the air with fewer of them leaving the yard.

Heading to his plate discipline numbers, I also determined that he was swinging at more balls out of the zone than ever. It went from a career high in 2009 of 26.5 percent to a huge 31.63 percent in 2010, well up from his career 23.6 percent. There’s a good chance Hill was cheating a bit more on pitches, looking to trot around the bases rather than letting pitch location dictate ball trajectory. Just maybe, Murphy’s philosophy of getting started earlier was drowning Hill’s ability to see ball, hit ball.

Intrigued this point, I dug into his splits as well. I’m not talking about how he did at home and away, but rather where and especially how he was hitting the ball in 2010 as compared to 2009 and earlier seasons.

One thing we know is Hill is a dead pull hitter who can crush pitches left on the inner half. In 2010 his pull side (to left field) he hit 37.2 percent fly balls and 12.1 percent line drives. He hit 12.7 percent line drives to center and 62.7 percent fly balls. But if you look at his opposite field splits, you see that 83.8 percent of balls he hit to the opposite field (right field) were fly balls. His line drive rate that way was a minuscule 2.5 percent. That’s simply not good; I think a 2.5 percent line drive rate on the moon would be a bad sign.

In 2009, he hit 21.7 percent line drives to his pull side and 25.7 percent fly balls. To center he hit 16.7 percent line drives and 48.0 percent fly balls. Even to the opposite field he was still driving the ball to the tune of a 19.5 percent line drive rate that season, and his fly balls were much more reasonable that way at 64.4 percent. Hill said it himself: he hits line drives to center and right “when he’s going good.”

Instead of going season by season, let’s take a look at these numbers over his career. He’s had an 18.6 percent line drive rate to his pull side with 26.3 percent fly balls. To center he’s hit 19.4 percent line drives and 45.5 percent fly balls. To the opposite field, a 16.6 percent line drive rate and a 65.3 percent fly ball rate.

Finally, we can also take a look at his BABiP in this manner. His career BABiP to his pull side is .299, and it was .315 in 2009. It dipped to .214 in 2010. His career BABiP to center is .323 and in 2009 it was .289. In 2010 it was .211. Lastly, his career BABiP to the opposite field is .218 and it was .231 in 2009. In 2010 it was a measly .125. Suffice to say, Hill had trouble no matter where he hit the ball.

I’ve put all the data for your viewing pleasure below.

image

As you can see, his flyball deltas (in addition to the BABiP) are significant. Compared to his career averages, he hit nearly 11 percent more fly balls to his pull side, over 17 percent more to center and over 18 percent more to right field, most of which landed in a glove as you’ll see below in the Hit Tracker image. He simply doesn’t hit home runs to center or right field.

image

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that hitting the ball in the air to both center and right field isn’t in Hill’s best interest. The fact that he was doing just that, hitting more fly balls to center and right, and at an increasing rate approaching 20 percent, is startling.

His strikeout rate jumped, too. It went from 14.4 percent in 2009 (also exactly his career mark) to 16.1 percent in 2010. Couple that with a .196 BABiP and you have a recipe for ruin. That’s exactly what you would expect from a player like Hill who posts below average walk rates—his career rate is 6.7 percent, and his 7.1 percent in 2010 was about right—when a player gets hammered by the hitter’s equivalent of the Bogeyman: BABiP. Where most hitters land near .300, and Hill is no exception with a .288 mark in his career, a drop of 92 points is going to wreak havoc on a player. It did just that to Hill.

Brown ended his article this summer with a quote from Vernon Wells:

“I think you ride it as long as you can. We’ll continue to have the same approach until we die trying.”

Hill died trying; his approach is certain to change. I won’t say Murphy’s to blame. Then again, it’s certainly curious how his introduction had such a magnificent impact on one player and the exact opposite on another. An emphasis on driving the ball, especially in the air, may well be the culprit. Bautista’s results cannot be ignored, and frankly they have not been—we’ve heard an awful lot about him all winter long.

On the flip side of the coin, we haven’t heard much about Hill at all. His season shouldn’t be ignored either. What I’ve offered here is at least some evidence that maybe, just maybe, we should be paying attention. Is it possible for a hitting coach to have such an enormous impact, for that impact to be wonderfully positive and disastrously negative, and all in the same season? I don’t know, but as I said: curious. Drawing conclusions about what hitting coaches are and are not doing isn’t exactly a science, but this is perhaps the most peculiar instance I’ve come across either way.

If Hill gets back to reacting to pitch location and hitting line drives to all fields, I suspect he’ll once again become a very productive player. He’ll also pull his fair share of balls over the left field fence, as he always has. His experiment to attempt to drive balls over the fence to all fields was a spectacular failure.

Hill won the Comeback Player of the Year award back in 2009 and I’ll throw it out here he may be one heck of a good bet to do it again in 2011, which would be pretty cool. Something tells me that honor hasn’t gone to the same player in two of three seasons.

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Comments

  1. Rory/ Paapfly said...

    Thanks! I think a well-tailored plan is always to create a plan for each individual player, rather than to mold each of them to something that worked for you 20 years ago. Intuitive, right? It remains to be seen. And, really, who knows if my take is right. That said, it seems impossible he will hit anywhere near .200 on balls in play this season. That, is a very good thing.

  2. Bryan Martell said...

    Very informative article, well done. I had never really thought about how Murph’s approach could have such detrimental impact on other players (outside of the strikeout numbers, of course, while assisting others tremendously (Bautista, and of course ‘ol Johnny Marlin). What do you think is the plan for this year? Have a solid, all-out approach for the entire team, or develop strategies to maximize the individual talents? Either way, a good read and well put-together article.

  3. Wayne Cowell said...

    It would be interesting if you extended this analysis to Adam Lind to further support your thesis, who also had a terrible year. 

    Hill and Lind have very comparable career averages, power numbers, and dreadful 2010 seasons.

  4. Rory / Paapfly said...

    Hi Wayne:

    I did look into Lind and his FB% only increased by about 4% which wasn’t as significant. He did see his BABiP fall to .277 but it wasn’t so drastic.

    If I’m being honest, I’m not very encouraged by his numbers. He’s never drawn a league average number of walks and his power and walks spiked in 2009. It looks like more of an outlier than anything else.

    He hasn’t been a great hitter otherwise, and that’s bad news given he’s a bad fielder, 1B/DH type.

    Bill James’ projections (which are always optimistic) have him at .362 next year which isn’t great, and he may not even hit that well.

    Expect a rebound… but don’t hold your breath for the 2009 version of Lind to return.

  5. Wayne Cowell said...

    Fair points.

    It all boils down to both Hill and Lind never really seemed to come to the plate during 2010 with the right game plan. 

    A coaching change and fresh start should benefit both players dramatically.

  6. JoeDaddy said...

    Awesome analysis.  Always look forward to reading your blog, btw. 

    When you get a chance, I’ve always wondered why I seem to lose socks in the dryer, as well…if you can draw any statistical data on this matter, I’d be more than grateful.

  7. Rory / Paapfly said...

    Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying my work. You’re in luck, my new piece goes live tomorrow.

    I’ll have to think about the sock issue…

    If you’re anything like me, I suspect it’ll be too small of a sample to draw definitive conclusions (one load a quarter).

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