There was no doubt in Rich Hill’s mind that he would make it back to the major leagues as a starting pitcher. Not after the veteran lefthander moved from the rotation to the bullpen after a dismal 2009 season, not after he underwent left shoulder surgery that same year, not when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow in 2011, and not after he bounced between the majors and minors while with the Indians, Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Nationals as a reliever from 2012 to '14.
“No doubt,” he said of his comeback, before adding with a laugh, "Not yet. I've been fortunate."
A pitcher who has undergone two major arm surgeries and spent years as as journeyman certainly isn't someone whom most would consider fortunate, but it's also hard to argue against Hill. Stuck in Triple A as a reliever last summer, Hill yearned to get back to the mound as a starter, so he opted out of his deal with Washington and went all the way to the independent Atlantic League to get a starting role. After two successful starts with the Long Island Ducks, he signed a minor league contract in August for a third stint with the Red Sox, who were looking for a pitcher to take some rotation turns in Triple A.
Hill had experienced success in the bullpen—he'd struck out 72 in 58 1/3 innings across his two healthy seasons as a reliever in 2012 and '13, and his sidearm delivery made him particularly strong against fellow southpaws—and likely could have carved out a career as a lefty specialist. But his mind was set, and his goal was clear: He would be a starter once more.
"Being able to be healthy and feel I could throw multiple pitches over and over again and sustain my delivery through 100-plus pitches, it's something I like," he said. "When I was relieving, I always wanted to get back as a starter, but when you have a role at the major league level, you're not going to necessarily give that up to pursue something that may not happen. Timing and opportunity just fell into place."
When that opportunity did come, Hill didn't miss it. Called up from Triple A Pawtucket to take the ball for a depleted Red Sox rotation down the stretch of a forgettable season in Boston, the Milton, Mass., native made four starts in September and posted a dazzling 1.55 ERA in 26 innings, with 36 strikeouts and just five walks. That surprising reemergence earned Hill a one-year, $6 million deal with the Athletics in the off-season, who are betting that their small investment could pay off in a big way this year.
“There’s no reason why he can’t repeat those four starts [in 2015] and turn it into 10, 15, 20,” A’s pitching coach Curt Young said recently. “He’s got that kind of talent.”
Now 36, Hill has put that talent on display through his first four starts of this season. His strikeout-per-nine rate of 13.7 is the best in baseball among starters with at least 15 innings pitched and is notably higher than last season’s 11.2, and in 19 innings of work, his ERA is a solid 3.32 and his FIP is a terrific 2.72. In his most recent start, last Thursday at Yankee Stadium, the lefty frustrated New York over six innings, striking out 10 hitters and giving up just two runs (one earned), albeit with four walks.
“We're going in the right direction,” Hill said last week. “Everything feels good."
"The consistency of his stuff has been the same all three games," Young added. "His breaking ball game has been outstanding, and his command of his fastball has been better as we’ve gone along."
Perhaps the biggest reason for Hill's renaissance is an increased emphasis on the curveball, the pitch that has been his strength since he debuted with the Cubs over a decade ago. A fourth-round pick out of the University of Michigan in 2002, Hill reached the majors with Chicago three years later, and for his first five seasons (four with Chicago and the '09 season with Baltimore), he started 70 of his 78 games and threw twice as many fastballs as curveballs, according to Brooks Baseball. But after five years of poor results as a starter (a 4.87 ERA and a walk-per-nine rate of 4.0) and the 2009 shoulder surgery, he moved to the bullpen in '10, first with the Cardinals' Triple A team, then with Boston, and eventually started throwing sidearm. More significantly, he also changed his approach to become more curveball-oriented. From 2010 through the end of ‘14, 47% of his offerings were curveballs, and he used it mostly against southpaws, who hit just .204 against it with 35 strikeouts in 103 at-bats.
When Hill returned to starting last summer, he kept his renewed emphasis on the curveball but decided to revert to the traditional over-the-top delivery he had used as a starter in Chicago. Going back over the top, Hill says, was a move designed to help give his curveball more vertical break than it had when he was a reliever, making his best pitch that much harder to hit.
“The ball that stays along the plate and stays a little bit more flat, you get more time to put the barrel on the ball,” Hill explains. “When you have more depth to a breaking ball, you don't have that many chances to barrel it up.”
With more break on the pitch, batters find themselves unable to get under the ball. As a result, Hill’s ground-ball rate improved to 48.4% last year, the highest mark of his career, and is at 54.5% through the early going this year. And with batters unable to square up the pitch, he's giving up fewer hard-hit balls; his soft contact percentage has doubled since his days as a reliever.
The other important mechanical adjustment for Hill was a move to the third-base side of the pitching rubber, something suggested by former Red Sox director of pro scouting Jared Porter when Hill threw a showcase for the team last summer.
“I crossed my body a little bit when I landed,” Hill says. “When I was missing, I'd miss down and in [against] lefthanders, but now I’m catching more of the plate and getting more consistent strikes.” The change helped Hill greatly improve his command; his walk rate went from 5.9 per nine from 2010 to ‘14 to 1.6 last year.
If Hill can avoid the control problems from his early days and keep getting ground balls, then maybe his 2015 resurgence can carry through this season—and beyond. One key will be withstanding the grind of a full season. The lefty has broken the 100-inning mark in the majors only once in his career, when he threw 195 in 2007, and he totaled just 94 innings last year while pitching in Boston, the independent league and at two minor league stops.
“The expectations for us, of [him] making 30 starts and getting close to 200 innings, [are] definitely something he’s looking for and something we are as well,” Young says. “We’re going to be counting on him.”
Keeping righthanders honest will be crucial as well. While Hill was able to hold his own against them last season—they hit just .138/.198/.225 against him—he’s had more trouble with them this year, particularly in throwing strikes; they’ve drawn eight of his nine walks allowed so far. The extra break on his curveball could be vital: Righthanders hit .295 against the pitch when Hill was a reliever, but that average has plummeted to .213 since he returned to throwing over the top.
If Hill can do all that, then he’ll complete one of the league’s more improbable turnarounds. It’s safe to say no one saw that coming—except Hill.