2009 O’s Retrospective: Rich Hill

In part seven of my almost 50 part series “Better Know An Oriole” (otherwise known as 2009 Orioles Retrospective), I take a look at left-hander Rich Hill… THE FIGHTIN’ (WITH HIS CONTROL)!

When Andy MacPhail brought Hill over to the Orioles from the Cubs in a trade this off-season I though it was a good move, though I didn’t set my expectation very high. My pre-season projection was for only 100 innings and an ERA around 5.00.

My comments at the time of the deal:

“Hill was very good in his first full season in 2007, using his 90 mph heater and big-time curveball to pitch 195 inning of 3.92 ERA ball. He got strike-outs (8.5 K/9), showed solid control (2.9 BB/9), but had some issues with the long-ball (1.25 HR/9). His 4.28 tRA (114 tRA+) showed a lot of promise for 2008.

Some regression might have been expected, but nobody saw Hill’s control issues coming. 18 walks in 19.2 IP and Hill was sent down to the minors despite a 4.12 ERA. Instead of getting his head on straight, he walked 28 in 26 IP in AAA (5.88 ERA) and 11 in 12.1 IP in A+ (8.03 ERA).

There’s been some speculation that his issues were due to a mechanical change the Cubs tried to impart on him after the 2007 season. Rich Kranitz was Hill’s pitching coach in the minors, so hopefully he can help him return to form.

I think it’s a great low-risk, high-reward move. The O’s are one of the few teams that can give Hill (who’s out of options and so must be on the roster) a spot on their pitching staff to try to work on his control. If he can harness his stuff again, Hill would be a good guy to slot in behind Guthrie in the rotation.”

Hill started the year on the DL, not making his first major league start for the Birds until May 16th against the Royals (5.2 IP, 2 R, 2 BB, 6 K, and the W). Things largely went downhill after that, though there were a couple of bright spots (like his 7 innings of shutout ball against the M’s, including 7 K’s).

His final 2009 line was 57.2 IP, 7.80 ERA, 5.21 FIP, 7.18 K/9 (solid!), 6.24 BB/9 (awful!), 1.09 HR/9 (average!) and he was worth 0.4 Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs. That kind of production would cost the team $1.7 M to acquire on the free agent market so – considering the O’s only had to pay him $0.445 M this year and the difference is more than the team gave up to get him from the Cubs (nothing, as far as I know, but almost certainly not more than a C prospect) – the Orioles still came out slightly ahead in that trade.

Hill’s main problem this year was, obviously, his inability to throw strikes consistently.  After throwing around 55% of his pitches in the zone from 2005-2007, that dropped down to 49.9% last year and 49.6% this year (those latter two are actually around league average though).  His first-pitch strike percentage went from average (56-59%) to way below average (47%). Hill’s primary weapon – that big curveball – was rendered much less effective given how often he was pitching from behind in the count. 40 walks in 57 innings just will not get it done, especially for a flyball pitcher.

Hill made his final start of the season July 28th, before being placed on the DL with a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. He had surgery in August, but it’s unclear if he’ll be back pitching at some point (with the O’s, at least). It’s hard enough to rehab from that kind of thing without the additional problems on the mound when healthy.  It is possible that Hill’s relatively sudden loss of control in 2008 was partially the result of the injury (which wasn’t discovered until much later for some reason), in which case this might be exactly what he needs to get back to being the effective Rich Hill of old.

Overall, I usually enjoyed watching Hill pitch – even with all the walks – but he just wasn’t effective enough to keep a spot in the rotation one way or another (especially with all the youngsters coming up). I love his curveball.  The thing floats and snaps and loops and bends, and often makes batters look silly. That is all well and good when he can get his fastball over for strikes, but that wasn’t often the case this year.  I’m glad he got a chance though.