How 36-Year-Old MLB Journeyman Rich Hill Has Become a Potential All-Star

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 2, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 1: Rich Hill #18 of the Oakland Athletics warms up on the field prior to the game against the Houston Astros at the Oakland Coliseum on May 1, 2016 in Oakland, California. The Astros defeated the Athletics 2-1. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Rich Hill doesn't dwell on things that aren't important. Even if that means shrugging at his status as one of baseball's best pitchers and, in all probability, a likely first-time All-Star at the age of 36.

With a 2.25 ERA through 11 starts, the Oakland Athletics left-hander has indeed been one of the American League's elite starters in 2016. Add in what he did in four starts with the Boston Red Sox late last season, and MLB's ERA leaders over the last calendar year line up like this:

  1. Jake Arrieta: 1.32
  2. Clayton Kershaw: 1.46
  3. Rich Hill: 2.03

But when this was tossed at Hill as he was sitting in Oakland's dugout this past weekend, it had the same effect on him that a bullet has on Superman. As far as he's concerned, reveling in success is not the best use of his time.

"As I've gotten older, I've realized that there's no real time to waste," he said. "The opportunities are in the present, and focusing on what you're doing means focusing on the process and not the results."

Such laser-guided focus would suit any player well. But coming from a guy who's been on a journey like few others, it feels less like a luxury and more like a well-honed survival instinct.

Rich Hill looked like he was going places when he broke through in 2007.
Rich Hill looked like he was going places when he broke through in 2007.Jerry Lai/Associated Press

Way back in 2005, Baseball America ranked Hill as the Chicago Cubs' No. 5 prospect and gave him a projection as a possible No. 2 starter. That's where he seemed to be headed by 2007, when he broke through with a 3.92 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 195 innings as a 27-year-old.

But then the injury bug bit him, and it kept chewing. A bad back limited Hill to five starts in 2008. In 2009, he needed surgery to repair a torn labrum. In 2011, it was time for Tommy John surgery.

By 2012, Hill's career wasn't sidetracked so much as derailed. What was once an over-the-top delivery had become a sidearm delivery, and what was once a life as a promising young starter had become a life as a not-so-young LOOGY.

But after stops with the Baltimore Orioles, Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Washington Nationals organizations, a chance to turn back the clock arrived last June. All it took was his release from the Syracuse Chiefs, Washington's Triple-A team.

Hill's best season in relief came with the Indians in 2013, when he struck out 51 in 38.2 innings.
Hill's best season in relief came with the Indians in 2013, when he struck out 51 in 38.2 innings.Mark Duncan/Associated Press

"Timing and opportunity came together to where I was able to go home for a month and reassess getting back into starting," Hill said. "It was something that I'd always wanted to do, but while I was relieving...I was dedicating my time and effort to being the best I could be as a left-handed reliever."

Back home in Milton, Massachusetts, Hill began working out with the same American Legion team he played for growing up. As he stated at the Players' Tribune, he began with a 75-pitch bullpen session and went from there, proving to himself he could maintain his old over-the-top delivery.

The problem was that no affiliated team was going to gamble on a guy whose last major league start happened in 2009. With a nudge from Jared Porter, formerly the Red Sox's director of pro scouting and now a member of the Cubs front office, that's how Hill ended up with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League.

The result was two starts of utter dominance: no runs, two hits, three walks with 21 strikeouts in 11 innings.

The Red Sox pounced, signing Hill and sending him to Triple-A Pawtucket. And though he wasn't guaranteed a shot at Boston's rotation, a chance materialized when the Red Sox called him up to be part of a six-man rotation in September.

Hill immediately made it clear he didn't mean to waste it:

That was the first of Hill's three straight 10-strikeout games. After a fourth solid effort, his return to starting featured a 1.55 ERA, 36 strikeouts and five walks in 29 innings.

That got everyone's attention, including the A's, whose offseason to-do list included finding a starter.

"We've followed Rich for a long time," Dan Feinstein, Oakland's assistant general manager, pro scouting and player personnel, said in a phone interview. "But after he put together four really good starts for the Red Sox, we looked at potential free agents and we saw him as a low-risk option with plenty of upside."

Oakland's offer was $6 million for one year. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported Hill did have a better offer elsewhere, but he wanted the rotation spot the A's were offering. Done deal.

Fast-forward six months, and what was a small-sample-size slice of dominance has turned into the real deal. So at this point, the only question is why anyone is still surprised.

May 1, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Rich Hill (18) throws a pitch to Houston Astros in the first inning of their MLB baseball game at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

As Feinstein said, Hill has always had two valuable talents: "He’s been able to induce a high number of swings and misses, and he’s been able to keep hard contact to a minimum. He’s never really given up a lot of extra-base hits."

No kidding. Hill's career strikeout rate now stands at an even 9.0 per nine innings. And among lefties who've made at least 80 starts since 2005, the .374 slugging percentage he's allowed is a top-10 mark.

At first, these numbers look out of place on a pitcher who only throws a 90-91 mph fastball with a curveball and not much else. But this is a day and age of newfangled pitching metrics, and Hill is a poster boy for several of them.

Such as, a "Spin Rate!" poster. According to Baseball Savant, Hill has averaged more spin on his pitches than any other starter since resurfacing last year:

  1. Rich Hill: 2,565 rpm
  2. Garrett Richards: 2,554 rpm
  3. Justin Verlander: 2,495 rpm

Hill's Uncle Charlie leads the way, averaging 2,792 revolutions per minute. Ho hum, says he.

"I think it's the same as asking a guy about his great fastball. They've always been able to throw a fastball at 96, 97, 98, 100 miles per hour," he said. "With my curveball, I've always been able to have a feel for spin."

That spin creates a curveball unlike any other. According to Baseball Prospectus, the amount of glove-side run on Hill's curveball dwarfs that of any other curveball thrown by any other lefty starter. In person, it looks like this:

Except for those times when Hill feels like throwing sidearm, of course. Then it looks like this:

Other times, Hill's curve takes the form of an eephus worthy of Rip Sewell:

Whatever the shape, the damage Hill has wrought with that curveball could fill a disaster movie. Per Brooks Baseball, it's held hitters to a .183 average and racked up 48 of 110 strikeouts since last September.

It's therefore no small compliment that Hill's fastball has been just as good. It's held hitters to a .181 average and recorded 54 of those 110 strikeouts. This season, the whiff-per-swing rate on his four-seamer is the highest of any starter. That's good for a guy who maxes out at 93 miles per hour, which points back to the spin.

"We can sit here and talk about a 90-93 fastball and why it looks like it's 96-97," he said. "When you have the highest swing-and-miss percentage in baseball on your fastball, people might ask, 'Why is that?' Because when people see velocity, sometimes they don't understand the perceptual side of it."

If you want to be a dominant starter, overpowering stuff is a good foundation. But it's also necessary to have an idea where it's going, and that's where Hill's rebirth looks more like a transformation.

Apr 21, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA;  Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Rich Hill (18) delivers a pitch against the New York Yankees in the first inning  at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

After walking 4.3 batters per nine innings through his first 10 seasons, Hill has walked only 2.8 batters per nine innings since his return. And that's actually underselling his ability to find the strike zone. Over the last year, he's frequented the zone more often than every starter except Steven Matz.

The easy explanations are Hill going back over the top and also back to the third base side of the rubber. But as Hill sees it, it also has to do with an unexpected gift from one of his career's darkest chapters.

"It's really my shoulder strength, and I think that came back due, in part, to having Tommy John surgery," he said. "Having Tommy John and being able to come back from that with a well-rounded shoulder program really strengthened my ability to command the ball better."

Hill's resurgence is not a case of a guy making good on a bargain with the baseball gods. What he's doing is making better use of the same great stuff he's always had. Health permitting—and this is where his recent groin strain permits crossed fingers—there's no reason it can't continue.

Clearly, his first All-Star Game is just around the...uh, wait.

"That's nothing I even think about," he said at the mention of the idea. "All the extracurricular stuff outside of what you're focusing on in the moment is irrelevant because you can't do more than what you can do right now in this moment."

Hey, if it works, it works.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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