Over the hill

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As of this moment, the Cubs have the best record in the National League and are dueling with the Angels for the best in the majors. They have been carried by their potent offense, which has scored the most runs per game of any NL team at 5.33 per. Not to go unmentioned is their pitching, specifically their starting rotation, which has an ERA of 3.46. Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, and Jason Marquis have certainly been getting the job done, but one name is ominously missing from that list, the name of a pitcher who in the preseason was thought to be the ace or at least the number two of the Cubs pitching staff.

That name is Rich Hill. Most people have probably forgotten about Rich Hill, except for those beleaguered souls that drafted him, probably in the late single-digit rounds, only to get 19.2 innings of 4.12 ERA. If you even held onto him that long. Although his ERA doesn’t show it, Hill was having massive control problems and disastrous outings. In those 19.7 innings he issued 18 walks. In other words, he walked one of every five batters he faced. Completely unacceptable.

After a 0.7 innings pitched with four walks performance on May 2, the Cubs felt they had seen enough and optioned Hill down to Triple-A where he brought his control problems with him. In 26 Triple-A innings, Hill remarkably managed to raise his BB% two points to 22 percent. Realizing that their pitcher had completely forgotten how to pitch, the Cubs wisely sent Hill all the way down to Rookie League to work on his… well everything.

Background

Before I move forward with things, first I’d like to take one step back. Hill was drafted in the fourth round of the 2002 draft. In his first two years of pro-ball existence, Hill toiled away in different classes of Single-A. Then came 2005.

Year	Level	IP	ERA	BB/9	K/9
2003	A-/A	97.2	3.87	6.27	13.73
2004	A+	109.1	4.03	5.93	11.20
2005	AA	57.2	3.28	3.28	14.06
2005	MLB	23.2	9.13	6.46	7.98
2006	AAA	100	1.80	1.89	12.15
2006	MLB	99.1	4.17	3.53	8.15
2007	MLB	195	3.92	2.91	8.45

That year, Hill made the jump from Double-A to the majors as a September call-up. He started 2006 in Triple-A where he flat-out dominated, most notably walking just 1.89 batters per nine innings. When initially called up to the majors in May of ’06, Hill struggled and was sent back down. By July however, Hill was back in the majors and found success. His walk rate did creep up to a slightly alarming level, but Hill had pitched well enough to secure himself a spot in the rotation next year.

Any doubts remaining about Hill were erased completely in 2007. He managed to curb his walk rate to an above-average 2.91 per nine while increasing his already impressive strikeout rate ever so slightly. To anyone looking at Rich Hill coming into the 2008 season, he looked very, very good. Great numbers were expected of the tall lefty entering his prime.

The Present

As we know, that didn’t happen. Here’s what Hill’s 2008 season looked like, if you can even call it a season:

Year	Level	IP	ERA	BB/9	K/9
2008	MLB	19.2	4.12	8.24	6.26

It looks like a completely different pitcher, even though the sample size is just twenty innings. The first thing that jumps out at you is the 8.24 BB/9. Anytime a pitcher’s walk rate is higher than his strikeout rate, you know there’s trouble, like with Fausto Carmona this year. It is important to note that it was not luck indicators like BABIP or Left On Base percentage that caused his demise—Hill actually benefited a lot from these (.214 BABIP, 78.8 LOB%)—and if anything they helped keep his ERA down at the palatable 4.12 that it was. Instead it was his walk rate, strikeout rate, and his fly ball rate—which jumped seven percentage points up to 50 percent—or in other words, his skill indicators that deteriorated. Hill simply forgot how to throw the ball in the strike zone and get batters out.

Final Thoughts

This offseason Hill is obviously going to have to “re-learn” how to pitch again. I’ll admit, I have no definite reason why, but I feel Hill will reinvent himself in the winter and will prove himself again next season. He probably will start 2009 in the minors but if he starts off well, I don’t think the Cubs will waste much time in promoting him back to the majors. He has already proven himself at this level, so it won’t be anything new for him.

I don’t believe anyone has started mock drafting for next season—at least I hope nobody has—but I wouldn’t be surprised if Rich Hill falls all the way out of most drafts. That makes him a player to watch as the offseason progresses; Hill could end up being a good sleeper you can pick up in the last rounds of drafts. In the last rounds, after all, it is all about getting upside, and Hill has plenty of it.

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