Rich Hill: For Real or Fluke?

After his first three starts of the year, Rich Hill had allowed just 1 Earned Run. At that point, many people began to cite Hill’s great potential and fantastic start to the year as the reasoning behind a potential ascension to the elite ranks of starting pitchers. A couple of people I know even began to say that Hill would end up a legitimate candidate for the 2007 NL Cy Young award. Hold your horses there… those are some big predictions to make just three games into the season.

Well, that was back in April. We’re nearly a week into June now, and Hill’s ERA stands at an impressive 2.89 and his WHIP at a phenominal 1.03. Is Hill truly becoming one of the elite pitchers in baseball, or is he on the receiving end of some good luck? Let’s take a look at some of Hill’s critical numbers.

71.7 IP
7.91 K/9

We see that Hill has a good, but not great Strikeout rate. It sits just below 8.00, which provides a lot of value to fantasy leaguers just on its own. His Walk rate has improved from 3.53 in 2006 to just over 3.00 this year, leaving him with a good, but not great, K/BB of 2.63. Seems all of these stats are good, but not great.

His ground ball rate isn’t good or great. It’s up from 30.0% last year, but it is still well-below average. It is unlikely to improve much. A ground ball rate that low should lead to a lot of Home Runs, but as we see Hill has given up a rather average 1.26 HR/9. Because his ground ball rate is below-average, we see that he is giving up a few less home runs than he should be.

Now, let’s look at his hits and runs. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is nearly .080 below average. We can actually see that Hill has the second lowest BABIP in all of baseball among qualified starting pitchers. Hill isn’t giving up nearly enough hits, and this is liable to change at any time. When it does, his WHIP should raise significantly.

We also see that on the hits (and walks) that he is giving up, a disproportionate number of these batters are never crossing the plate. On average, a pitcher should allow 28% of base runners to score. In other words, he should strand 72% of these base runners. A large variance from this number is an indication of either good or bad luck. Hill, allowing just 17% of his base runners to score, is getting some very good luck, as he seems to be doing with most of his stats.

Over time, Hill’s HR/9, BABIP, and LOB% will regress towards the mean and his surface numbers will, correspondingly, worsen. Hill is a pretty good pitcher, but he is not the great pitcher that many are heralding him as. He has the potential to one day become a very good pitcher (although the low ground ball rate will always prevent him from becoming one of the absolute best), but for now his fantasy owners will have to settle for just good. If you can trade him for a proven starter such as Felix Hernandez, Curt Schilling, Cole Hamels, Jeremy Bonderman, John Smoltz, or a number of others, do it.

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