Home MLB Pre-season research (i.e. recognising Rich Hill when you see him)

Pre-season research (i.e. recognising Rich Hill when you see him)

by Matt Smith

My last two articles have highlighted the two main pre-season purchases to get ready for the year ahead: MLB.TV and the Baseball Prospectus book.

The two come together really well in getting to know some of the players that have joined your chosen team over the off-season.

You’re not going to need to look back at some archived games to find out what David Price has to offer if you’re a Red Sox fan, but if your team tends to shop at the less-exclusive end of the market – sometimes rummaging through the bargain bins – then you may need to do some homework.

That definitely applies to me as an Oakland A’s fan and the player I was most interested in learning more about was Rich Hill.

Hill has been around the Majors for years so I have some familiarity with him, but he pitched only a combined 75.2 MLB innings in five seasons from 2010 to 2014 inclusive and then spent time in the Red Sox’s Minor League system last year before he was given a chance to start some games in September with Boston’s season already being a lost cause.

Out of nowhere Hill pitched extremely well, striking out 10 batters in each of his first three starts and then capping off his four-game season with six further strike-outs in six innings against the play-off bound New York Yankees.

The ever-opportunistic A’s signed Hill to a one-year deal worth $6m in the hope that those four starts were the sign of a late career revival rather than a last hurrah. I wouldn’t claim to be overly optimistic that he’ll still be in the starting rotation come the All-Star break, but $6m isn’t much for a free agent pitcher these days so you can understand why the A’s decided to take a chance.

Baseball Prospectus’s projected 2016 stat line for him suggests he could be a decent league-average starter and notes that “odds are Hill has at least temporarily revived his fascinating MLB career”, so there’s some cautious optimism to hang on to.

I didn’t catch any of Hill’s starts last September so got MLB.TV up on my TV via a Roku box and watched his second start, facing the potent Toronto Blue Jays’ batting line-up. The plan was to not only get to know how he goes about his craft (what type of pitches he uses etc) but also to start to learn the little details that you pick up when closely following players on your own team during the season.

There’s some very basic pointers to begin with, such as logging in my head that he’s a left-hander with a relatively conventional delivery (nothing especially unusual or eye-catching) and simply what he looks like so I’ll recognise him when I see him (again, not a factor for Red Sox fans and David Price).

From there, if you’ve been watching baseball for any length of time then you can pick up the basic scouting details for pitchers (albeit, this is just how he appeared in one start), which in the case of Hill meant:

  • His fastball is in the low-90s, although he’s not afraid to elevate it up in the strikezone (to his cost in the second inning of this game when Dioner Navarro struck a two-run homer into the left-field seats).
  • His main secondary pitch is a curveball (mid-70s MPH) that he is happy throwing to both sides of the plate. In this game he was particularly fond of throwing it to the outside corner to right-handed hitters.
  • He occasionally throws a change-up into the mix too, seemingly using a split-finger grip to do so.

That’s all good stuff, but what really made watching this start worthwhile was in learning two little tricks he likes to use.

The first because apparent when Hill got into some trouble in the second inning and the speedy Kevin Pillar was taking a lead off first base. Hill’s conventional approach went out of the window as he made all his throws to first base using a sidearm delivery. The NESN commentators noted that he had used a sidearm delivery to the plate in the past, something that I hadn’t ever logged in my memory bank (I’m sure I must have seen him pitching that way for the Cubs at some point) so was a useful tidbit to collect.

The second came in the fourth inning when, completely out of the blue, Hill suddenly dropped down and threw a sidearm curveball to Ryan Goins. I didn’t see that coming and neither did Goins. Hill then repeated the trick impressively in the fifth inning, first throwing the same pitch to strike out left-handed hitter Ben Revere, then doing so again to strike out right-hander (and far more dangerous) hitter Edwin Encarnacion.

All of this may count for naught if Hill staggers off a Spring Training mound clutching his elbow – the Spring Training sight we all dread – yet if he’s fit and raring to go in April, I’ll now know to watch for when he breaks out the sidearm curveball in the second or third time through the batting order.

And hopefully I won’t need to see his uniform number before working out who he is.

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