After rumors involving many suitors, Rich Hill has signed with the Dodgers, who desperately needed a starter. In and of itself, Hill’s three-year, $48 million deal isn’t all that incredible — his teammate Scott Kazmir agreed to an identical dollar figure last offseason — but the backstory is. Hill came out of nowhere, when it looked like he was gone forever, to become the best free-agent pitcher left on the market.
Hill’s story over the past decade is nearly unparalleled in Major League Baseball. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2002 draft by the Cubs, Hill worked his way through the minors. He struggled with his command but his raw talent did not go unnoticed; Baseball America designated his curveball the best in the Cubs minor leagues in 2004.
Chicago called him up in 2005 and slotted him into the rotation when their flame-throwing, oft-injured starter Kerry Wood once again went down with an injury. In 23.2 innings across ten games (four of which he started) Hill posted an abysmal 9.13 ERA, giving up more home runs than innings pitched.
Due to his ineffectiveness in the big leagues, Chicago started him in Triple A in 2006, where he struck out 135 minor leaguers in 100 innings. His effective starts in Iowa earned Hill another shot in Chicago, and he went on to throw 95 effective, if not dominant, innings.
In 2007 it looked like Hill had turned a corner in the organization. The Cubs penciled him into their rotation right out of spring training, and he served as a key member of the Chicago starting core. Over 32 starts, the Cubs got a glimpse of his potential and with a 4.17 ERA and a 4.67 FIP, he was a better-than-league-average pitcher. His 3.1 fWAR was his best year to date (it is his second-highest total after 2016) and he even earned a starting slot in the National League Divisional Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. 2007 looked like a great step forward for Hill, but his success proved to be short-lived.
2008 was an unmitigated disaster. Hill suffered from major control issues forcing Chicago to option him back down to triple-A. In addition to his lack of success on the mound, Hill’s body began to break down and questions about durability began to circulate as one minor injury led to another. Due to what originally started as a tweaked back, Hill only threw a total of 58 innings across three levels (Chicago, Iowa, and high-A Daytona).
Chicago dealt Hill to the Orioles for a player to be named later (never a good sign for one’s career) and he developed an elbow injury before the season even began. Again Hill found himself barely pitching — he only threw 74 innings that season — across multiple levels of the organization as he tried to get healthy. His 53 big-league innings looked like the last glimmer of MLB hope.
Between 2010 and 2014, Hill was a non-factor in major league baseball. Bouncing between the Red Sox, Indians, and Yankees, he pitched sparingly and never had an opportunity to start. Before the 2015 season, the Nationals provided Hill with a minor league contract (which included a spring training invite), but ultimately he did not make the Opening Day roster.
By June of 2015, Hill again was out of work, having been released by Washington. Like many washed-up, could-have-been, or once-were players, Hill turned his eye toward the Atlantic League, where the Long Island Ducks signed him. In 11 innings with Long Island he struck out 21 batters and only walked three, and did not give up any runs. His performance caught the eyes of the Red Sox, who signed him to his second minor-league deal of 2015.
And this is where the story of the reborn Rich Hill is made. In four starts with Boston he pitched brilliantly. In his first start against the Rays, Hill tossed seven shutout innings and struck out ten batters, walking only one. In his second start, he threw another seven innings, gave up three runs, but again struck out ten, this time without walking anyone. In his third start, Hill pitched a complete-game shutout in which he hit the double-digit mark for the third straight game, and once again walked only one batter. Culminating with a six inning two-run game against the Yankees, Hill showed that his curveball stilled worked, and he could still be a productive member of a Major League team.
The 2015 offseason was a tipping point for Hill. He worked his way up through the minors and independent ball to demonstrate his curveball was still for real. The Athletics took a chance (although a nominal one) and offered him a $6 million one-year deal, knowing full well that they could flip him at the trade deadline if he performed well. Hill did exactly that, and landed with the Dodgers where he started six games, posted a 1.83 ERA and 2.07 FIP. His success continued in the postseason where he started three games for LA and gave up five runs in 13 innings.
Rich Hill accumulated only $9 million from the time he was drafted until the end of 2016. The Dodgers’ giving him a $48 million contract over three-years is as unlikely an end as his resurrected pitching career. Los Angeles hopes he can serve as a strong number two behind the game’s best pitcher to get the Dodgers to the World Series.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano