In two months, Rich Hill is going to be the best starting pitcher available on the free agent market. Just let that sink in. One year ago, Hill was basically getting a try-out with the Red Sox after tossing 54 above-average minor league innings in 2015. The perfect embodiment of the term “journeyman”, Hill turned his curveball into one of the most unhittable pitches in the majors at age 35. At age 36, he became one of the most sought-after starting pitchers on the trade market, even after multiple DL stints.
Call him unique, improbable, ageless, whatever you like. But, in the past year, Rich Hill has performed like a #1 starter with numbers to back it up.
Since his first start with the Red Sox on September 13 last season, Hill has racked up an impressive 4.7 fWAR in just 129 innings with three different teams in two leagues. On that pace, Hill is performing like a seven-win player if he could stay healthy for an entire season. A groin injury and lingering blister problems have hindered Hill to only seven starts since June 1.
In just 18 starts, Hill ranks 17th in the Majors in fWAR at 3.6 and 8th in K/9 with 10.58. Furthermore, his most impressive accomplishment may be his minuscule HR/9 rate. At 0.27 home runs allowed per 9 innings, Hill leads all major league pitchers with at least 90 innings in keeping balls in the ballpark. Hill ranks in the top 10 in highest soft-hit and lowest hard-hit contact rate. Basically, Hill has been doing a great job at not letting opponents hit the ball all that often, and when they do it isn’t doing much damage.
If you’re poking around at Hill’s FIP and xFIP values, you may notice that his xFIP is particularly high. You may also notice that his xFIP has been higher than his ERA his entire career. This is because xFIP usually penalizes pitchers who are particularly good at not giving up home runs. As a result, groundball-heavy pitchers like Zach Britton, or any pitcher that suppresses home runs, will usually see a bump in their xFIP compared to their ERA. How much lower their HR/FB rate is than the league average will determine the size of the bump. The lower it is, the higher the bump.
There is a most definite chance that Hill can give up more homers and see his HR/FB rate increase. After all, he had a 9.1 percent HR/FB in 2015 and has seen that drop to 3.4 percent. But, I don’t think that his almost 2-1 xFIP to ERA ratio is something to cause concern moving forward.
Comparable Free Agent Deals:
After the 2013 season, Tim Hudson inked a two-year, $23M deal with the Giants. Hudson was going to turn 39 in July of 2014, whereas Hill will be just turning 37 as the 2017 season starts. Hudson had a much more impressive and consistent track record of performance and health, though he threw only 131 innings in 2013. That season was shortened due to a freak accident in which Hudson was stepped on while covering first base, breaking his ankle.
AJ Burnett signed a one-year, $15M dollar deal with the Phillies before the 2014 season. Burnett was entering his age-37 season in 2014 and then signed a one=year, $8.5M deal with the Pirates before 2015. All told, he was paid $23.5 million for his age 37-38 seasons. Burnett, similar to Hudson, had a more consistent and healthy resume than Hill’s. However, they both lacked a stretch of starts as dominant to Hill’s before signing their deals.
The most recent significant free agent signing for a pitcher in Hill’s advanced age is John Lackey, who signed a two-year, $32M dollar deal with the Cubs last offseason. In 2015, Lackey completed his first 200-inning season for the first time since 2010 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in late 2011. In 2015, he produced 3.6 fWAR with BABIP, FIP, and xFIP totals all near his career norms.
Looking at the Market:
Royals starter Edinson Volquez entered play Friday with a 5.40 ERA in 175 innings so far in 2016. The two seasons previous, he had been a solid mid-rotation arm with some impressive postseason performances last year for the Royals. Volquez may or may not get a qualifying offer from the Royals. Even if he does, Volquez may still turn down the offer and explore multi-year deals on the open market.
Ivan Nova hasn’t pitched a full season in three years. Entering 2016, the Yankees needed him to regain his old form and help stabilize a rotation full of question marks. Instead, Nova was as inconsistent as he was in 2015 and was dealt to the Pirates at the trade deadline for two players to be named later. Since his move to the National League, Nova has completely turned things around. Entering play Sunday, in his eight starts with the Pirates, Nova has pitched 52.1 innings with an ERA of 2.41. His FIP supports his ERA at a sturdy 2.72, and he’s put up a very nice 7.39 K/9 to go along with a sparking 0.52 BB/9. Nova has pounded the strike zone and will be cashing in as a result.
Nova and Volquez headline the free agent class of pitchers alongside Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson has rebuilt his value with a resurgent season in Philadelphia. In 30 starts, he’s put up a solid 3.0 fWAR in 181.1 innings to go along with a 7.40 K/9 rate and 2.08 walks per nine. Hellickson is sure to be given a qualifying offer by the Phillies, making his market a little less full than Hill’s or Nova’s, both of whom won’t get a qualifying offer due to being traded mid-season.
Hill, even with his age and blister problems, deserves to be one of the top pitching targets in most offseasons. It isn’t a reach to believe that 100 dominant innings from Hill are worth more than 170-190 innings from Volquez, Nova, or Hellickson. Depending which rotation he would join, the decision can get easier. For a team with an abundance of mid-rotation options that aren’t getting moved anywhere, like the Dodgers, 100 great innings is worth more than 180 average innings. With the glut of similar pitchers like Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Scott Kazmir, Ross Stripling, and Alex Wood trading rotation and disabled list spots, The Dodgers should be more willing to pay more for great innings than average ones.
Whether it’s the Dodgers, Red Sox, Cardinals, Giants, or any other team in need of pitching, Hill has a pretty good shot of getting three years. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors believes that Hill is going to top a contract of three years for at least $45 million, and I think that’s a pretty good starting point. Once the average annual value starts to creep into the $17-20 million per year range, the decision starts to get a lot tougher. There is no pitcher near his level of excellence, but the injuries have piled on in 2016. Are the fewer, more dominant innings worth the investment? We’ll have our answer in a few months when the journeyman becomes the coveted free agent.
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Ronnie Socash is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at@RJSocash.