Rich Hill has been one of baseball’s most interesting stories in the past few years. I will not go into Hill’s amazing story in detail here. That has been done in other places. Suffice it to say that he became heavily reliant on his curveball, and it turned him into a totally different pitcher. He is a true ace when he is healthy, which sadly is not very often.
Hill is quite possibly the face of the curveball revolution. He throws it nearly half the times, with his fourseamer taking up the other half. He is far and away the most heavy curveball user in the league. Sometimes he will throw a slider or a changeup, but they are basically just “show me” pitches. According to Baseball Savant, Hill’s 49.2 percent curveball usage last year was by far the most in the league among starters who threw at least 1,750 pitches. Aaron Nola came in a distant second at 33.6 percent.
Besides seeing a pitcher of Hill’s age (37) turn himself into an ace, there are a couple aspects of his success that are particularly strange, and I do not just mean the excessive curveball usage. It is very difficult for a pitcher to start with less than three pitches. There is always a significant amount of doubt cast on a pitching prospect’s ability to start if he he does not have at least three good pitches. It makes turning over a lineup more difficult. It is also interesting to note that Luis Severino has been quite successful this year while relying on only two pitches, his fastball and slider.
Furthermore, Hill is a lefty without a changeup. That pitch is especially important for left-handed pitchers to get right-handed hitters out. Yes, I know Clayton Kershaw hardly ever uses a changeup, but let’s not compare mere mortals to him. With the caveat that single season platoon splits suffer from small sample size, Hill had almost no split in 2016, despite his lack of a changeup. Lefties had a .232 wOBA against him while righties were negligibly better at a .244 wOBA.
Command and the quality of his curveball are certainly factors in Hill’s success, but it is still bizarre that he has been this successful. Since coming back on the Red Sox in late 2015 through the end of 2016, Hill had a 2.20 RA9 and struck out 30 percent of hitters faced. His strand rate was a bit high, and his HR/FB ratio was just 5.1 percent, but his hard-hit rate was only 27 percent. All of that is to say that it is hard to find anything especially fluky to explain away 5.7 bWAR in just 139 1⁄3 IP.
I suspect that teams were interested yet very hesitant to sign Hill during the offseason, and not just because of his injury history. Hill was going to turn 37 years old and had little track record of pitching like an ace. How on earth does one project the true talent of a 37-year-old who was clearly a completely different pitcher than he had ever been in between DL stints over a one-year period?
The Dodgers and their endless supply of money are well equipped to take on risk, so they decided to hand Hill a three-year, $48 million deal. For a rich, competitive team, Hill would have to be worth 1-2 WAR a year to be worth that price tag. As long as his performance did not fall off a cliff, he should easily be able to return at least that much value even with multiple DL stints. But how confident could one be that he could continue to perform like he had been?
So far this season, Hill missed a month due to his reoccurring blister problem. I am sure that comes as no surprise to anyone. That sort of thing was easy to predict, and he will likely miss more time later this season with the same problem. Hill’s performance to date, on the other hand, is something else entirely.
Hill has a 4.50 RA9 this year, and though it is only six starts, he just has not looked like the pitcher we saw last year. For one, he has averaged only 4 1⁄3 IP per start and has yet to pitch more than five innings.
One of the great things about strikeout and walk rates is that they do not require a lot of batters faced to become significant. Hill’s strikeout rate is down almost 25 percent over last season. While there is nothing wrong with a 23 percent strikeout rate, the same cannot be said about his abysmal 15.9 percent walk rate. That is nearly double the league average. It is likely that will improve in time, but it might not improve by much.
Hill’s BABIP is in line with the league average, and his HR/FB ratio is 12.5 percent. That is probably a bit high, but it is difficult to say for sure because there is no real way of knowing what Hill’s true talent HR/FB is. Best I can do is tell you that the league average last year among starters was 13.3 percent. I can also say that Hill’s HR/FB is three times higher than it was last year, and that there is no way that year’s HR/FB was sustainable.
This is usually the part where I cite a player’s projections and share my thoughts on them. Well, Hill is such an anomaly that I am not confident that projections are useful for him. He likely does not have any historical comparisons, and he has only pitched 165 1⁄3 innings on and off since the end of 2015.
It is possible that Hill’s chronic blister problem is causing his control to plummet, and worse still, those blisters likely come from his curveball, the pitch that he throws all the time. If there is truth to that speculation, then that is obviously a big problem.
Luckily for the Dodgers, Alex Wood is pitching like Hill did last year, Brandon McCarthy is pitching well, and Clayton Kershaw is still Clayton Kershaw. That does wonders for making up for a struggling back of the rotation, but with the Rockies and Diamondbacks having surprisingly good seasons, the team needs Hill to be something close to what he was last year. Thankfully, there is still time for Hill’s great story to continue.
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.