Walk This Way: Chicago Cubs Send Rich Hill to AAA

Ryan FayContributor IMay 3, 2008

Rich Hill is breaking a lot of hearts this year.

Many fantasy owners expected the 28-year-old lefty to be a key piece of their rotation. But those expectations have been dashed so far. Hill has lost his ability to throw strikes and has walked 19 in 18.2 innings.

The bottom dropped out last night when he lasted just 0.2 innings due to four walks. Cubs manager Lou Piniella pulled the plug on Hill at that point and now the Cubs have done the same, sending their troubled starter back to AAA Iowa.

"I think he’ll go down to Iowa, get a few starts and I think you’ll see him back here pitching well for us," Piniella told Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune. 

Hill was seemingly primed for another strong season this year. Almost all of his statistical indicators improved in 2007. He was striking out more hitters per nine innings while walking fewer batters — a clear sign of growth.

It resulted in a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.90. Anything over 2.00 is good, and Hill was approaching 3.00. He was also allowing fewer homers per nine innings and he saw his ERA dip slightly as well.

Those positive trends make this sudden collapse perplexing. He was a very good starting pitcher last year, and he didn't have problems with walks last season. Hill walked 63 in 195 innings last year and no more than 12 in any month.

According to data on fangraphs.com, he threw almost two strikes for every ball in 2007. This year, he's thrown 159 balls and 194 strikes - a ratio that would spell trouble for any pitcher.

Even Piniella is surprised by the turn of events Hill has endured this year.

"So it’s very surprising to me...because last year he was the best strike-thrower we had," Piniella said in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune.

Everyone says spring training stats don't matter, but Hill's spring now looks like it should have raised red flags. He walked 15 in 17 innings this spring, which mirrors what he's done since in the regular season.

Hill did have problems with walks early in his minor league career, but that can be expected for young pitchers at that stage in their careers.

Since then, Hill seemed to tighten his control, walking only 35 in 165 innings at AAA during 2005 and 2006.

There could be a number of causes of his current problems. He could be pitching through a hidden injury. His mechanics could be off, which would explain the lack of control and finish on his pitches.

It could also be something psychological. We've seen it before with the likes of Mark Wohlers and in the more distant past, Steve Blass.

Regardless of what's plaguing Hill, his fantasy owners have been devastated by his performance — or lack thereof — this season.

Owners in shallow one-year leagues might consider cutting bait if viable options are sitting in the free-agent pool. Those in keeper or dynasty leagues must hold out hope that his trip back to the minors cures him. Chances are, he's an important part of your long-term rotation in keeper or dynasty leagues.

In the meantime, the Cubs have tabbed Jon Lieber to replace Hill in the rotation. Sean Gallagher has been promoted from AAA to take Lieber's spot in the bullpen. Lieber can be a servicable stop-gap for the Cubs, but he is best left to those in deep leagues.

Gallagher would have been the more intriguing option from a fantasy perspective. In five starts spanning 29 innings at AAA, he had a 3.10 ERA and only allowed 21 hits and sported a 9/30 BB/K ratio.