When the Los Angeles Dodgers signed southpaw starting pitcher Rich Hill, the club knew there were some inherent risks.
To go along with HIll’s advanced baseball age — 37 years old (perfectly young enough in real life, but ‘old’ for a baseball player) — the club would have to contend to his reoccurring blister issues, which limited him to 110.1 innings over 20 starts in 2016.
Heck, the Dodgers dealt with Hill’s blister issues before he even took the mound for the team. Despite acquiring him at the August 1st trade deadline in 2016, it would take until August 24th for Hill to make his Los Angeles debut. Those three weeks were mostly spent by HIll in the Dodgers’ Arizona spring training home, ostensibly to allow the “dry air” to help his fingers find their way back to health.
Flash forward through several DL stints and missed starts, and Hill looks very much like the pitcher the Dodgers were hoping to get through his first three starts in July.
Now seeming to be fully recovered from his most recent blister bout, Hill has been masterful. Over his past three contests, he has hurled 19.1 innings, compiling a 1.09 FIP on the back of inducing a well-earned .263 BABIP against his opponents.
Hill deserves other superlatives as well, with a 13.74 K/9 against a very-low 0.47 BB/9 — Hill had just one walk over those three starts.
To be sure, a blister-less Rich Hill is an effective Rich HIll. While the specter of the dreaded malady will always be just a few steps behind the veteran, he is a very different pitcher when he is not limited by digital dilemmas.
But, he is decidedly different not just in results, but how he gets there.
The fix is in the mix
There are few certainties in life, but several ring true.
Death. Taxes. Rich Hill emphasizing his curveball.
For all intents and purposes, Hill has been a two-pitch pitcher over the last two seasons, mixing his four-seam fastball along with his bread and butter curveball. Sure, he will throw in the token slider or cut fastball. And, once in a blue moon, you can see a changeup or cut fastball leave his hand.
But, again, the bender and the heat have been the mainstays. In his 2016 rebound year, Hill threw the curveball the most at 49.92 percent, with his four-seam close behind at 49.92.
It was fascinating, really, that a pitcher can compile a 10.52 K/9 off of just two pitches, but that is exactly what Hill did that year. So effective was his curveball, hitters could only muster a .246 slugging percentage off of the pitch.
In 2017, during the days in which the blister was front and center, Hill had to adjust. His four-seam fastball usage rose from 36.92 percent in April up to 54.12 percent in June.
With his past history, one could easily see Hill going right back to the higher curveball usage once his blister was fully healed. That simply has not happened, with Hill throwing the four-seam 53.48 percent of the time in July against just 41.18 percent for the curve.
Has this new “four-seam heavy” approach worked for Hill? You bet.
In the month of July, Hill’s heat has resulted in a 39.3 percent called strike rate to go along with a 17.3 percent whiff clip. Just 6.7 (10 in total) four-seamers have been put in play, with only three falling for hits.
It is not as if the curveball has been a slouch during this time — the pitch still carries a 20.2 whiff rate, a figure indicative of a good level of deception -- but has been a bit more hittable, with 15.8 percent of them being put into play.
With the ability to vary his arm slot deliveries in his fastball, Rich Hill can stave off further blister issues and remain an effective starter simply by not going back to the well that is his curveball so often.
Jason Rollison is a contributing writer to Beyond the Box Score, and will now proceed to hear the word “blister” in his sleep for the next few days. Follow him on twitter.