For all the attention other pitchers get on the Dodgers, one, in particular, seems to fly under the radar. From Clayton Kershaw’s greatness to young studs like Walker Buehler and Julio Urias, our team has tons of pitching talent. Even more so, we have a storied history of great pitchers. Koufax, Drysdale, Hershiser, Valenzuela. All of these pitchers have etched their names in history. One pitcher in particular since joining the Dodgers back in August of 2016 has been a steady presence, and just as dominant as Kershaw at times. This would be Rich Hill.
Rich Hill, 75mph Curve and 89mph Fastball (tunnel) pic.twitter.com/yKAHZbt9wl
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 26, 2017
The soon-to-be 38-year-old who sits at about 90 MPH with his fastball is a modern pitching marvel. In an age of mid to high 90’s fastballs, hard cutters, and hammer curves, Rich Hill defies all modern wisdom. So what makes this 38-year-old veteran so good and so valuable to this team? Let’s take a look at how Rich Hill has gotten to where he is today.
Rich Hill was drafted all the way back in 2002 by the Chicago Cubs. He made his Major League debut three years later in 2005. Early in his career, Rich Hill was still known for his huge breaking curveball, but his fastball also had a couple of extra ticks on it which gave him an advantage. During his 2002-2005 minor league seasons, he struck out a whopping 491 batters in only 351 innings. Since the very beginning, Rich Hill has had the stuff to get hitters to swing and miss.
2007 brought his first full season and his most successful season up to that point. He pitched to the tune of an 11-8 record, 3.92 ERA, and struck out 183 in 195 innings. It would seem that this young lefty was ready to break-out. Unfortunately, injuries began to plague Hill.
By 2009 the Cubs sold his contract to the Orioles. From 2008 through 2014 he threw more than 40 innings just once. During this period, he made the transition to the bullpen in hopes of reviving his career. Even then, success and durability issues would continue to plague Rich Hill.
From 2008 through 2015 he threw a mere 182 innings to a 4.80 ERA. His strikeout numbers were still solid (9.54 batters per 9 innings), but he had a high walk rate (5.59 per 9 innings). Control and consistency were his Achilles heel during this time.
Rich Hill hit a low point both in his career and personal life in 2014. His two-month-old son, Brooks died in February of 2014. As a father myself, I cannot imagine losing a child, let alone at such a young age. Despite this life tragedy, Hill was determined to continue playing the sport he loved. Over the course of the years, he bounced between the Red Sox, Angels, and the Yankees. Finding varying degrees of success, Hill began to find a niche as a reliever with the Yankees.
With the advent of 2015, Hill was once again in the minor leagues coming out of Spring Training, this time for the Nationals. However, he was released on June 24th and signed on with the Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic League. After a brief sting in Independent ball, the Red Sox took another chance on him. This time his success was immense and immediate.
After twirling 29 innings (4 starts) of 1.55 ERA ball, Hill began his Cinderella story in earnest. His new found success was due to utilizing only his fastball and curveball. During 2015 he started maximizing his curveball usage much to batter’s dismay.
After a successful late-season run with Boston Hill was brought on board by the A’s in 2016. Through the first half of the season, he threw 76 innings of 2.25 ERA ball, while striking out 10.66 and walking 3.32 per 9 innings.
At the 2016 trade deadline the Dodgers acquired his services along with Josh Reddick for prospects Jharel Cotton, Grant Holmes, and Frankie Montas. Despite not pitching for the Dodgers until August 24th, Hill compiled a minuscule 1.83 ERA across six starts down the stretch. His strikeout rate slightly fell to 10.22, but his walk-rate vastly improved to 1.31 per 9 innings. His performance in Dodger blue was highlighted by his 7 innings of perfect ball in Miami.
After a successful 2015 season, he became a free agent, again. Heading into the 2016-2017 offseason, there was the uncertainty of what kind of contract he would get. Would it be more than a 1 year deal? Would it be more than $20 million annually? Certainly Hill’s performance since late 2015 warranted some consideration. During that time period, only Clayton Kershaw had a better ERA and ERA-FIP difference. The concern was that Rich Hill always struggled to be healthy over a full-season. In 2016 it was no different as he threw only 110.1 innings. However, on December 5th, 2016 the Dodgers brought Hill back on a 3-year, $48 million deal. The comeback story of Rich Hill had come full circle. Hill’s comments during his presser showed a grateful man:
“I told myself I wouldn’t do this,” Hill said, composing himself after a long pause. “It’s been an incredible journey, but I never felt like packing it all in. You fail, you learn. When you fail, you learn. I don’t think you really know what failure is — or I didn’t know what failure was until I got older and understood that that was experience. Baseball teaches us to deal with things off the field that are far greater than what you deal with on the field.”
The general sentiment around the deal seemed to be that if Hill could give the Dodgers 130-150 innings of the type of pitching he showed from 2015-2016, then it would be a win. And Hill did just that in 2017. Though he struggled in the first 2 months of the season, he achieved his highest innings total since 2007 (135.2 innings). Despite the early struggles, his July and September months were fantastic (1.45 and 1.86 ERA, respectively). His end season line was very solid: 12-8, 3.32 ERA, 11.01 K/9, and 3.25 BB/9. His season was highlighted by a marathon performance in Pittsburgh. He took a perfect game into the 9th inning. Unfortunately, despite throwing 9 no-hit innings, he came amazingly came out in the 10th inning and subsequently gave up a homer that barely cleared the left-field wall to Josh Harrison.
He also was exceptional during the playoffs (4 starts, 2.55 ERA, 12.23 K/9). Going into 2018 Rich Hill is the #3 pitcher in the rotation. With Alex Wood’s exceptional 2017, Hill is now viewed as that #3 in the rotation. Despite the low innings total in 2017, Hill made 25 starts. If the Dodgers can get another 25-30 starts from him in 2018 and 2019, he will undoubtedly continue to be a boon for this team. Many wouldn’t consider him the Dodgers’ secret weapon, but he really is. Not only has he brought some stability to the rotation, but he has also brought a strong veteran presence. Clayton Kershaw has spoken in the past of the experience Hill brings to Sports Net LA:
“I’m so excited to have Rich back. He’s an awesome competitor and he’s a great guy; just what you want around your clubhouse. Not to mention what he brings on the field, the consistency that he had the last two years and his ability to get guys out. Thankful we got that done and I’m excited to see him here soon.”
Having Hill available for the next two years, and with the Dodgers’ pitching depth to allow him to skip a start or two when necessary, will continue to bring the team more success. It would not be a surprise if Hill only throws another 130-150 innings in the next couple season. But at the same time expect more of the same from him. Dazzling curves, the highest whiff rate on a 4-seam fastball despite it sitting at an average of 90 MPH, and a whole lot of crazy leg swings on his follow-through.
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