Rich Hill pitched for the Red Sox in the last three weeks of the season, mostly because Boston had few options in the ‘mop-up' portion of a lost season. He performed extraordinarily well, throwing 29 innings and giving up only five earned runs. The peripherals matched the output, and Hill managed to get paid and guarantee himself a spot in the Athletics rotation. Not too shabby for a guy who signed a minor league deal in August.
Last Friday I discussed why Craig Breslow is definitely NOT a starting pitcher. This week though, we look at the unique case Hill presents as a breakout veteran. In the four games he started for the Red Sox, the 35 year old posted a 34 percent strikeout rate and a 4.7 percent walk rate ----- a 36:5 K:BB ratio. He averaged seven innings per start and went the distance in a complete game shutout against the Orioles in which he struck out 10 and allowed only three baserunners. Every team goes cold at the plate sometimes, but Hill dominated the entire AL East, including a seven-inning shutout bid against the Rays and a two-run six-inning affair against the Yankees. Even his worst start served as a winnable game for Boston when Hill tossed six innings of three-run ball against Toronto's juggernaut offense.
Hill gave up only two long balls, and his home run to fly ball rate of 9.1 percent does not indicate good luck or negative regression. It just...was. Additionally, despite a low average on balls in play he allowed the softest contact of any time he's spent in the big leagues at 28.6 percent. His pitch mix looked utterly dominant at times, and the 15ish miles per hour difference between his curve and fastball kept hitters guessing.
Among all pitchers who threw at least 200 four-seam fastballs, Hill led the league in whiffs per swing, demonstrating the nastiness of his raw stuff. The 30.9 swing-and-misses percentage against his four seamer bested the likes of Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer ----- everyone! Hill lost a bit of velocity in 2015 (he sat at 90.6 down from 92 a year ago) but combined with a devastating curve ball, he wreaked havoc amongst some of the league's best hitters.
In 2015, Hill's curveball averaged 74 miles per hour and vertically danced more than it had in six years. The vertical movement last year was -8.4 compared to a 2010-2015 average of -5.11, which included a low of -3.49 last year in 2014. Brett Gardner got a taste of Hill's curve in a start Hill dominated; Gardner could do nothing but stare. It looked as if it would hit him, then it dove right across the heart of the plate:
In 2015, Hill relied primarily on his four-seam fastball, a pitch he threw nearly half the time. He supplemented it by throwing the curveball nearly 40 percent of the time. He rounded out his arsenal with a changeup (eight percent) and occasionally a slider (three percent). With a three-pitch mix (really just a ‘suped up' two-pitch mix) Hill has the ability to churn a lineup two and often three or dare I say four times. Not that I'd advocate that often, but you get my point. His stuff looked good.
The Athletics made a calculated risk in signing Hill. Despite not seeing him throw a full year's worth of innings, his stuff looked better than ever and for a team on a budget, a glimpse of a ceiling is worth the risk.
While he's unlikely to post a sub-2 earned run average and FIP, Oakland may have a mid-rotation starter who they hope can give them at least 100 innings, and perhaps 150 innings next season for only $6 million. The biggest issue is probably that Hill has not thrown 100 innings total since 2010, when he split time with the Red Sox and Cardinals and bounced between the minors and majors. His arm has not endured the stress of a full Major League season since 2007. At this point no one should be questioning the talent, but we should be questioning the durability.