The Easiest Explanation for Rich Hill

When we tell a lie, it’s often rooted in fact. It’s tough to just completely pull a lie out of thin air; somewhere, entrenched deep down within a lie, there’s a factual base. But we start with that small fact, and we turn it into a big lie, and at first we know not to believe that lie but over time, if we continue to lie, two things begin to happen. One, the lie begins to expand. We add in new layers, hyperbolize the already fictitious tale, and turn it into something larger than we’d ever intended. Two, we begin to believe that lie. We’re not aware of this happening, but tell a lie enough times and you’ll forget where you started. That’s how you really wind up in trouble.

Rich Hill felt like a lie last season. I’m still not sure I believe it happened. And, as if I was the one who told the Great Rich Hill Lie of 2015, I began to embellish the story. Two days ago, I’d have bet good money that Rich Hill did what he did last year over 10 or more starts. Give me enough time and I’d have said he did it over a full season. But alas! Rich Hill was only literally Clayton Kershaw for four starts, not 10 or 20 or 33.

But Rich Hill being literally Clayton Kershaw for any amount of time last year still seems like a lie, and when we look at the numbers, it’s almost impossible to make sense of them. It took long enough for us to come to terms that what Clayton Kershaw does is just what he does. We can’t have a second one. When we see 36 strikeouts in 106 batters faced, what does that mean? What does five walks mean? Half of balls in play on the ground — what’s that? In just four starts, these types of numbers have so little context, it almost does more harm than good to think about them. So naturally, we go deeper.

The Rich Hill story has many layers. The six years as a reliever, the multiple Tommy John Surgeries. The transformation from sidearm reliever to over-the-top starter, and the switch from the first-base side of the rubber to the third-base side. The realization that his curveball had one of baseball’s best spin rates, and the conversation with Brian Bannister about pitch sequencing and shaping.

Each and every one of those steps act as a middle-tier Jenga block to Hill’s transformation — remove one, and everything collapses. But the very bottom Jenga block, the base of most every pitcher’s profile, is the fastball, and sometimes, it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. Granted, without all of the middle-tier Jenga blocks layered on top of the fastball, Hill would’ve never gotten to place the top blocks — last year’s jaw-dropping results. But domination with a fastball just seems so simple, and with Hill, it brings some clarity to an otherwise confounding situation.

On the surface, Hill’s fastball, which travels just 90.8 miles per hour on average, is unremarkable. But it’s also got horizontal movement that rivals Chris Sale’s and Steven Matz‘, coupled with average rise and a well-above average spin rate. And that’s not even where it becomes remarkable. This is where it becomes remarkable:

Highest whiff/swing, 4-seam fastballs:

  1. Rich Hill, 31%
  2. Chris Sale, 29%
  3. Rick Porcello, 28%
  4. Max Scherzer, 28%
  5. Jacob deGrom, 26%
  6. David Price, 26%

It’s Rich Hill, right above four of the best pitchers in baseball. We’ll talk about Rick Porcello some other time. But look, there’s Rich Hill, getting a whiff on almost one-third of the fastballs he threw. When you don’t even need your breaking stuff to make hitters look silly, that can be the mark of an elite pitcher. Last year, Rich Hill had that.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “But it’s still only four starts!” True. It is still only four starts. But four starts is more than 200 fastballs thrown, and because there’s so many more data points and so fewer outside factors that cause variance (like there are on balls in play, for example), these pitch-type stats stabilize rather quickly, and in fact, 200 pitches may be a reliable sample. That’s not to say we should expect Hill to continue blowing three of every 10 fastballs swung at past batters, but rather it’s to say there’s probably considerably less noise in this data than you might expect. Certainly less noise than in his more traditional, results-based numbers.

And then there’s the other part of the fastball-specific stats. The whiff is the best outcome, and Hill was the very best at getting whiffs, but if you don’t get a whiff, you either want a grounder or a pop-up. Well, Hill was the best at getting pop-ups on his fastball, too. He was the best at getting pop-ups, and it wasn’t particularly close.

Hill’s fastball got more whiffs than anyone and more pop-ups than anyone, and here’s the silly, silly image that comes out of that sentence:

Hill

Once again, Rich Hill looks like a lie.

Hill’s fastball is the most extreme when it comes to positive results, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s also the most extreme when it comes to location. Splitting the strike zone in half, horizontally, let’s look at the starters who most often threw their fastballs elevated:

Percentage of fastballs in the upper-half:

  1. Rich Hill, 75%
  2. Jordan Zimmermann, 73%
  3. Johnny Cueto, 72%
  4. Jake Odorizzi, 71%
  5. Matt Cain, 71%

For the visual learners:

Rich Hill

I see this chart, and I see the results, and I think back to the conversation Hill had in Boston with Brian Bannister about sequencing and spin rates. Hill gets great spin, and with four-seam fastballs, we know great spin works best up in the zone. So Hill took it to the extreme. We know Hill reshaped his curveball, which also gets great spin, and so he plays that off the fastball.

I understand this comes at a weird time, considering Hill’s walked 12 batters and struck out seven in 7 2/3 innings with a 15.26 ERA. But he’s also toying around with a occasionally mixing in a new arm slot, and maybe he’s working on his changeup in an attempt to give him a more solid third pitch. Who knows, it’s Spring Training?

Don’t let it confuse you. Rich Hill doesn’t have to be all that confusing. After a series of tweaks — arm slot, position on the rubber, pitch types and grips — Hill found himself with two elite pitches. From there, he just needed to know where to put them to get the most out of them, and that’s exactly what he did. No one touched Rich Hill’s fastball last year, and there’s easy reasons to see why. It all starts with the fastball. You can’t fake a fastball.

We hoped you liked reading The Easiest Explanation for Rich Hill by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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tfil05
Member
tfil05

I’d still say that sample size from last year is too small. Batters makes adjustments to pitchers and we didn’t really have time for that to happen.