We’ve talked a lot about Rich Hill over the last 14 months or so. Almost precisely a year ago, Steven Martano wrote a prescient piece in which he argued that the Athletics had made a risky but savvy move in signing Hill to a one-year, $6 million deal. Two starts into that deal, I myself wrote about the lefty, noting that he hadn’t resolved the questions about himself in those first two appearances of 2016. It didn’t take too much longer, however; at midseason, Evan Davis named Rich Hill the third-largest All-Star game snub, and in September, Hill threw seven perfect innings before being pulled due to recurring blister concerns. Finally, just a couple months ago, we came full circle, as Ronnie Socash noted that Hill was likely the best free agent starter of this offseason. That’s partially a function of this terrible free agent class, but just as much a product of Hill’s demonstrated ability over the last year.
Hill is really, really good. We’d probably be talking about him even if he didn’t start Game 3 of the NLCS less than 18 months after pitching in the independent Atlantic League. There simply aren’t that many 36-year-old aces. Per FanGraphs, he was worth 3.8 WAR over 110.1 innings in 2016, which translates to 6.9 WAR in a full, 200-inning season of work. Here are the ten pitchers 36 and older who threw at least 100 innings and accumulated value at the highest rate since 1990:
Rich Hill just had an all-time-great Old Man season, putting himself on a list populated by Hall of Famers and some of the best pitchers of all time. Even if you ignore the ups-and-downs of his path to this point, Hill is deserving of all this attention.
Still, those ups-and-downs are what make him truly special, and inspiring in a real way. Hill is often described as “coming out of nowhere,” but that’s not totally accurate. With a long enough time horizon, Rich Hill’s success is still surprising, but it’s not unpredicted.
After Hill’s 2016, we have a sense for what makes him good: his curveball. It’s outstanding, he throws it nearly half the time, and batters are still nearly powerless to hit it.
But if you’ve been following baseball closely (like, really closely) for long enough, that’s not a surprise. Hill was a prospect, once; Baseball America ranked him the Cubs’ 27th, 24th, and 5th best prospect, respectively, from 2003 to 2005, and pegged his curveball as the best in the Cubs’ system in 2004 and 2005. In the 2006 Baseball Prospectus Annual, his player comment contained the following line: “What [Hill] does exceptionally well is fool people with his curveball.” His 2008 comment led off by stating that “Hill’s curve is simply an excellent pitch.”
Rich Hill’s dominance is completely shocking, but how he’s dominating isn’t. How he’s dominating was predicted more than a decade ago, almost exactly. In that way, Rich Hill is the ultimate post-hype sleeper. If you’re not familiar with that phrase, it’s used in the prospect community to refer to a player who was once a blue-chip prospect, but has since fallen out of favor as their promise has failed to materialize. That’s the “post-hype” aspect; “sleeper” refers to the fact that the author believes that promise is simply delayed, not gone entirely, making that player a worthwhile pickup. For example, earlier this year, Greg Wellemeyer at Baseball Prospectus identified Kevin Gausman, Brett Lawrie, Jose Ramirez, Eddie Rosario, and Aaron Sanchez as his candidates for resurgence. Gausman, Ramirez, and Sanchez all had great years, so good work Greg, but I cite this more as an example of the archetype than for any analytical purpose.
If those players were post-hype – slightly older than most prospects, still waiting for their breakout to come after two, three, or even four years of coming up short – then Rich Hill was post-post-post-hype. Hill’s career before 2016 had gone through three or even four moments where people thought this would be the year that he and his curveball would finally live up to their promise. That they finally did, in exactly the way everyone thought they would, is nothing short of miraculous.
There’s nothing practical to be learned from his late-career blossoming. I don’t think anyone can look at Hill and derive any sort of method for identifying the players who haven’t quite been good enough for the first fifteen years of their career but are nonetheless on the verge of a breakout. Nonetheless, Hill is one of the best arguments for baseball I can imagine – a sport in which his story is possible is a great sport – and also, one of the best arguments for a certain optimism one can bring to their enjoyment of baseball.
The minor leagues are populated with players who will never see a MLB roster. Pre-hype, post-hype, no hype at all; the vast majority of them won’t ever get a big payday, won’t ever rub shoulders with a superstar, won’t ever ride a plane from city to city instead of a bus. They’re also one of the best thousand baseball players in the entire world, probably, and possess the kind of talent that puts them in the very corner of the bell curve of baseball skill. Each one of them is a baseball player for some reason, just like Rich Hill was a player because of the tantalizing promise of his curveball.
And in the last year and a half, we saw Rich Hill, Long Island Duck, transform into Rich Hill, desired free agent and playoff superstar. Any one of those unhyped prospects, too old or not good enough for their level, could undergo the same transformation. It’s not likely, by any stretch, but Hill has shown that it’s possible. That possibility, I imagine, is what keeps a lot of those minor leaguers coming back to the ballpark every day, and it’s a good reason to keep watching baseball, too. The next Rich Hill is out there, somewhere, toiling away in obscurity, with eight or twenty or one hundred scouting reports documenting the thing that makes them special. The possibility of finding that player, and watching them do what Hill has done in the last two years, is a good reason to be a baseball fan.
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Henry Druschel is a Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.