The return of Rich Hill

Rich Hill is back in major league baseball. The Chicago Cubs gave up on Hill after his demise (or regression) in 2008. They provided Hill with plenty of chances to turn it around, but in the end he went where a lot of failed Cubs prospects go these days: Baltimore. Felix Pie may not work out for the Orioles, but Hill might be a decent addition. Or a disaster waiting to happen. Either way, it will be worth watching.

Hill’s first start, against the Royals, is not the first time he has emerged since being demoted in May 2008.

Join me on a trip down memory lane as we follow Hill from a fall night in Chicago to a spring evening in Kansas City. In between, we’ll stop in Des Moines, Mesa, Daytona and Aragua, Venezuela. We’ll flip the calendar twice before ending up with a look at Hill’s pitches, and how they’ve changed, in PITCHf/x.

Sept. 29, 2007
Hill completed a 195-inning, 183-strikeout season. His 11 wins and a 3.92 ERA were enough to lock a spot in the 2008 rotation, and even some consideration as a Cy Young candidate.

Oct. 6, 2007
A moment I’ll never forget. A red, eerie sky. A tense Wrigley Field. Ceremonies are over, the umpire tells Rich Hill to start the NLDS game.

A first pitch fastball to Chris Young. A blast to left field. An Arizona sweep. A longer winter than expected.

March 20, 2008
After a clean opening to spring training, Hill’s second preseason outing was ugly, and a warning sign. He walked six of the 11 batters he faced in less than two innings of work.

May 2, 2008
Hill’s last appearance as a Chicago Cub ended with a fastball that didn’t reach the plate. Lou Piniella‘s patience undoubtedly had expired.

May 3, 2008
Sean Gallagher took over Hill’s spot in the rotation. Gallagher didn’t last and was traded to Oakland in the Rich Harden deal.

May 17, 2008
The Des Moines Register reported Hill’s departure in the third inning on May 16 was due to a stiff back. He ended up on the Triple-A DL.

May 31, 2008
Hill came back from the DL to allow three runs in three innings for the Iowa Cubs.

June 7, 2008
Five innings, seven walks for the I-Cubs. Hill’s days in the Pacific Coast League were numbered.

June 21, 2008
In just his second outing since June 7, Hill walked four and allowed six runs. In two thirds of an inning.

July 2, 2008
Hill retired one batter in a Rookie-A game for Mesa. He also walked three, hit one batter and allowed a base hit. He was charged with five runs. The Cubs discussed shutting him down. This was a very low point for Hill, but perhaps not the lowest.

July 7, 2008
Hill had a good game for Mesa, with four scoreless innings. He allowed one hit and one walk.

July 20, 2008
Hill’s hometown paper, the Boston Globe, asked him if he had Steve Blass disease. Once they explained who that was, Hill said his problem was not mental. He’d later change his mind after a couple of months in South America. The Globe also pointed out Hill was pitching for the Daytona Cubs, and poorly at that. At least he was able to skip right past Low-A Peoria.

Aug. 5, 2008
Back spasms forced Hill to the disabled list.

Sept. 1, 2008
Hill was recalled from High-A Daytona and placed on the 15-day DL.

Oct. 17, 2008
Hill debuted for los Tigres de Aragua in the Venezuelan Winter League. Hill picked up the win, working into the sixth inning before getting the hook. He had struck out six, allowed two runs on four hits and no walks.

Oct. 26, 2008
Hill, on extra rest courtesy of a rain-out, didn”t make it out of the fourth inning. Four walks told the story.

Oct. 31, 2008
Only a long rain delay could save Hill, who gave up six earned runs on five hits, two walks and a wild pitch in the first inning. The rain came after a one-out walk in the second inning. The free pass from Hill came after Edgardo Alfonzo was caught stealing. Alfonzo reached on a leadoff single to start the second.

Nov. 6, 2008
I realized Hill had been walking nearly a batter per inning across all leagues in 2008.

Nov. 11, 2008
Hill’s start was televised in Venezuela, and streamed over the Internet. Al Gore suffered remorse. His curveball looked great, he showed his side-arm delivery several times, but his fastball control was absent.

Nov. 18, 2008
Hill walked three and uncorked two consecutive wild pitches in 1.2 innings.

Nov. 24, 2008
Aragua dropped Hill from its rotation. There wasn’t room for him in this group:

Yorman Bazardo
Jesús Delgado
Horacio Estrada
Ryan Drese
Dave McKae

Dec. 1, 2008
Hill had completed two relief outings after taking a week off. The second appearance lasted just one batter, whom he walked. Of course.

Dec. 14, 2008
Hill was no longer listed on the Aragua roster. When interviewed, Hill revealed he had been working on the mental aspects of the game, since he was being told his mechanics were not the issue. I’m assuming Buddy Bailey, manager of los Tigres and part of the Cubs organization (currently managing Daytona), was the one telling him that.

Feb. 2, 2009
The Cubs era ended for Hill. Traded to the Orioles for a player to be named later, Hill was grateful to the Cubs for the chances he was given, and the opportunity to pitch for Baltimore.

March 1, 2009
Hill was scratched from a spring start due to elbow stiffness. This would set him back a couple of months in the end.

April 2, 2009
Hill landed on the DL.

April 24, 2009
Hill’s rehab assignment started in Single-A

May 10, 2009
Hill completed his fourth and final rehab start. With his three starts in Triple-A, the Orioles probably looked more at his ERA (1.35) than his walk rate (more than six per nine innings) when they decided the time was right to call him up. Or maybe they simply had no better options available.

May 16, 2009
Hill took the mound in Kansas City in his first start as an Oriole. He fell behind three batters in the first, but a single, a double play and a strikeout later, he was on his way to a win. Hill struck out six, allowed two walks and two runs on seven hits over 5.2 innings. It took a year, but he made it back.

Hill’s PITCHf/x data, 2007-2009

Most of the PITCHf/x data available for Hill is from 2007, which was the first season with the system in place. Unlike 2008, only select stadiums had completed installations. As the year continued, more parks were on board, but the data are still spotty, and, in some cases, noisy. Hill’s 2008 lasted just into May, and his 2009 just began.

Best known for his curveball, Hill seems to have hinged his success on his fastball command. At his best, Hill would work the zone at 91 mph, dropping in a large ration of curves and a sprinkle of two-seamers and change-ups along with a pretty good slider. But that was in 2007. In both 2008 and 2009, Hill is a couple mph slower. Keep in mind, the 2007 stats start in May, and both 2008 and 2009 end in May. It is quite possible Hill will add more velocity as the season progresses.

To get a feel for the change over time, here’s a look at speed for two pitches—Hill’s four-seam fastball and his knee-buckling curveball. I’m using the speed measurements at home plate, not release, so they’ll appear 8-10 mph less than what you’re used to. Using these values smooths out some park-to-park variation in PITCHf/x data (while probably introducing some variations).

click the images for larger versions

The red line shows maximum speed, the black minimum. The green line is the average, with one standard deviation error bars. I break the lines between years, and use dots to mark Hill’s lone 2009 start. Hard to draw a line with a single point.

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Essentially, the eyes of PITCHf/x have Hill’s post-2007 average speed sitting around his minimum speed from 2007. Seeing how the change affects both his fastest and slowest pitches, I’d guess he’s not generating the same amount of arm speed, as opposed to a more subtle change in fastball technique. To my eyes, his mechanics are about the same.

Over the winter, it appeared Hill was working on lessening the “tilt” in his delivery. It’s hard to say, not enough camera angles coming out of Venezuela, but it seemed his lean toward second base was less than it had been in early 2008. During his last days as a Cub, it did appear his tilt had increased from 2007. The way he reaches back with the ball, as if he’s going to touch it to the back of the mound, looked “normal” to me in his 2009 debut. There was nothing noticeably different in his mechanics, as I had felt during the winter. He was, however, consistent with his tempo, something he struggled with, either the cause or effect of a wild fastball, in the past.

Okay, enough of my observations. As I mentioned above, Hill throws five pitches. Mostly he’s four-seam/curve, but one of his most effective pitches, if not the most, is the slider. He hasn’t thrown one in 2009, though. Let’s back up. Here’s Hill’s average pitch speed and usage since 2007:

cfx # lhh rhh mph
Change (CH) 119 2 117 82.9
Curve (CU) 563 136 427 73.5
Two-seam fastball (F2) 53 14 39 90.6
Four-seam fastball (F4) 1193 243 950 90.6
Slider (SL) 99 53 46 81.8

Keep in mind, Hill is more like an 89 mph guy than 90 mph guy. He was around 91 in 2007, but lower since 2008 started.

Against right-handed batters, Hill won’t throw many sliders. The lineup he faced in Kansas City on Saturday consisted of five right-handed hitters, two switch-hitters and two left-handed hitters. He didn’t use the slider at all, which isn’t all that unusual.

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What’s next?

Hill had a decent outing against the Royals. His curveball was great, but his velocity was down. His command was fair, but Hill has had plenty of decent outings followed by garbage. In his next start, look to see what type of speed he’s got on the fastball and how well he’s commanding it, and keep an eye out for the slider. He dropped to side-arm only once in Kansas City (got Mike Jacobs looking with a curveball), but I’m curious if he’ll use that as a weapon instead of the slider against lefties.

Once Hill is working with his full complement of pitches, and has a couple more outings, we’ll start to know if he’s really back, at least with a little more certainty than we have now.

References & Resources
The Rich Hill label at Cubs f/x will give you sourcing on most of the time line.
USA Today has a handy time line that was used to fill some of my gaps.
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM. Pitch classifications by the author.

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