Diamondbacks Retain Aaron Hill

It was clear, at least at first, that the initial acquisition of Aaron Hill by the Arizona Diamondbacks was a short term move. With Kelly Johnson floundering, Kirk Gibson needed a different option at second base. Hill’s fresh face was just what the doctor ordered: he would go on to hit .315/.386/.492 in 33 games with the Diamondbacks and key their surge well past the San Francisco Giants for the NL West Championship.

Still, the Diamondbacks were by no means ready to commit the $8 million on Hill’s option for 2012 — after all, despite the late-season resurgence, Hill is still coming off wOBAs of .291 and .292 respectively. Late Sunday night, the Diamondbacks and the 30-year-old Hill managed to find a dollar amount that works for both sides. With a new two-year, $11 million dollar contract, Hill will remain a Diamondback through the 2013 season.

For a starting second baseman (or a starting anything, really) of any quality, $5.5 million per season tends to be a steal. The Diamondbacks are only paying for the market value of about one marginal win. Shockingly enough, even in Hill’s two recent down years, he has combined for exactly two Wins Above Replacement.

Of course, you have to buy the idea of Hill as an average-to-good fielder (+4.4 UZR over the two years) to accept that valuation. Some basic research — other defensive metrics, team writer opinions (like this one), some highlights — tell me this is a fair assumption to make.

Even if Hill’s resurgence last year was just a desert mirage, Arizona should get something resembling market value out of this new contract. They could be in for a real treat should Hill rediscover the days of 2007 or 2009. In those seasons he hit a combined 53 home runs for Toronto, compiling 23 batting runs above average. Those seasons were truly something special for Hill. Observe:

Click to see the full interactive chart.

Outside of 2007 and 2009, one of either BABIP or ISO have conspired to keep Hill’s bat at or below the league average. In 2010, it was a harsh, utterly unsustainable .198 BABIP which led to his collapse. In 2011, things predictably recovered as a 10.6% line drive rate became a 21.2% line drive rate, but the power deserted him once again. Perhaps Hill had to sacrifice some of a swing-for-the-fences mentality in order to regain a singles stroke, but a drop from 26 home runs to eight will make improvement difficult in any case.

Hill his been a relatively low-walk, low-strikeout guy (fitting into the Kirk Gibson-Kevin Towers mold) his whole career, but the one constant from 2008 through 2011 has been an absurdly high infield fly rate. At 13.2%, Hill’s IFFB% ranks 25th of 197 players with 1,500 plate appearances since 2008.

This helps explain his .260 BABIP over that period. Only five of the 24 players ranked ahead of Hill have BABIPs over .300. Troy Tulowitzki and Justin Upton both have an excellent amount of pop, and Rajai Davis and Carlos Gomez both have elite speed. The other is Johnny Damon, for whom there is little explanation except that he has done this his whole career.

Hill will need to limit the pop-ups before we can begin to project a return to his best form. As a result, the odds of the Diamondbacks rediscovering the borderline All-Star Aaron Hill that played with the Blue Jays seems minimal. Still, Hill is more than capable of outplaying his contract should he rediscover his power. In the thin air of the desert, Hill’s pop could easily rise again — he is all of one season removed from a stretch of 66 home runs in two seasons.

Even if he stays a singles-hitting, semi-slick second baseman, the Diamondbacks should get what they paid for. All-in-all, a prudent move from Kevin Towers with the potential to pay dividends.

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Agree with the article, solid signing.