Peter Gammons: A year’s difference makes all the difference for Rich Hill

Rich Hill Dodgers

When Rich Hill awakened to the morning after his Wednesday Dodger debut, he tried to remember where he was on August 24th last year. “I know I was in Pawtucket,” he says, with no recollection of whether or not he pitched. Which he did not.

A year ago Wednesday he probably threw a bullpen in Pawtucket, practicing throwing overhand from the first base side of the rubber, thinking about the shape of his curveball, wondering if he might somehow get called up to the Red Sox in September to complete a season in which he’d been released in June by the Nationals, for whom he’d relieved throwing sidearm in Syracuse. Then worked out for more than a month at Milton (Ma.) High School with the Milton American Legion team, for whom he pitched nearly 20 years ago. Then Pawtucket. And 30 days after August 24th, he was called up to Boston, made four bedazzling starts with a line of 29 14  5  5  5  36.

He awakened Thursday in San Francisco. The night before, Aug. 24th 2016, he beat  Johnny Cueto 1-0, throwing six innings with five baserunners, raising the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, in this season in which he is being paid more than the previous nine combined, he was the most significant starting pitcher acquisition at the trade deadline, a potential game two or three starter in the playoffs behind Clayton Kershaw.

Now, that Hill has done. In his first full major league season with the Cubs in 2007, he started Game Three of the NLDS against Arizona. Between then and Wednesday night against the Giants, he pitched in Dayton, Bowie, Frederick, Norfolk, Memphis, Salem, Portland Pawtucket, Baltimore, Boston. Cleveland, Anaheim, New York, Syracuse, Scranton, Long Island, Pawtucket again, Boston again, Oakland, Stockton and, finally San Franasisco.

In two of the write-ups of the game, there were references to the fact that Hill “only” threw 89-91 mph. In fact, he averaged 90.7 and topped out at 93.3, but that’s essentially irrelevant. 6 5 0 0 0 3 was relevant.

“All I know is that when he’s thrown the ball over the plate,” says Cubs professional scouting director Jared Porter, “no one’s hit him.”

Porter goes back with Hill, and is a significant part of his journey. Before Hill headed off to Ann Arbor and Porter headed up to Bowdoin College, they faced one another in the Cranberry League during the Bill Clinton Administration. “They didn’t hit him at Michigan, they didn’t hit him in the Cape League, they never hit him except when he was hurt. Which he was, good for three different operations and being forced to try to be a Javy Lopez clone.

“It was always about fastball command,” Porter says.

So last July, when Hill was working out with the legion team, he called Porter, then the pro scouting director of the Red Sox. Porter went to see him. Then one day Hill was scheduled to throw a bullpen at Milton High School and decided to go back to throwing overhand. He told Porter he’d like to re-sign with Boston, but he wanted to start.

“For years, he threw from the first base side of the rubber, and I understand why clubs wanted that. His fastball moved so much he was very tough on lefthanded hitters. But he couldn’t keep it in the strike zone. I simply suggested he move to the third base side. His fastball still moves like crazy, and on that side of the rubber, it stayed in the strike zone. All I did was suggest he go to the Atlantic League, and the Red Sox would scout him.”

So Hill went to the Long Island Ducks for two games, 11 innings, 2 hits, 3 walks, 21 strikeouts. Two Boston scouts saw him. In mid-August, Porter signed him for Pawtucket, where he threw 32 innings and was moved up to Boston to the last place Red Sox. He started four games with a 29 14 5  5 5 36 line.

The Red Sox wanted him back, but as a reliever. Several teams inquired, and when the Pirates offered $6M and the opportunity to start, Oakland jumped in AT $6.5 and Hill signed. There was a 4 ½ layoff due to a hamstring pull. Ten days off because of a blister that looked like a hole in his finger. He got traded for three prospects at the deadline, recovered from the blister and now is a huge factor for the Dodger run to and into October, presuming Kershaw comes back healthy.

It is ironic that Hill is with Kershaw and struck a friendship. When Hill was preparing for Pawtucket last August, he spent a lot of time with Red Sox pitching adviser Brian Bannister. “The first thing Brian emphasized was that I didn’t have to pitch off my fastball, because my curveball is my best pitch and that I could throw it a number of ways for strikes. He told me Kershaw often throws only 45 percent fastballs. And on the third side of the rubber pitching off his curveball, his numbers since getting back to Boston last September are 19 starts, 12 wins, 4 losses, 1.95 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 27 walks, 105 strikeouts.

“This has been a great experience being with the Dodgers,” Hill says. “The attitude is really good.” He marvels at the professionals’ professional, Chase Utley, and, natural Kershaw, with whom he can discuss the shape of different pitches. The team is now in first place, and should be when his curveball gets its ultimate test in Colorado Tuesday.

If he pitches well, a bunch of his friends over this winding road—starting with Yankee scout Matt Hyde, his pitching coach at Michigan—will Hvde exchanged texts before 7 am news headlines on Morning Joe. His father Lloyd, now in his late Eighties but a onetime All-East defensive tackle (and Joe Paterno’s roommate) at Brown before a long, distinguished career as a high school principle will have heard from friends and relatives.

Rich Hill may be 36, but he is man who knows no adversity too great, someone anyone who has ever known him roots for. Maybe it happens that Jose DeLeon comes up in September and pitches well, and Kershaw again is Kershaw and Hill is standing there in the first Dodger World Series since Rich and Jared Porter were playing in the Cranberry League.

Comments

  1. Binyamin Koretz says:

    Dave Dombrowski’s biggest off-season mistake by far was not re-signing Hill.

  2. Not to nitpick, but he beat Johnny Cueto 1-0, not MadBum. And, yes, not signing him in the offseason was a mistake, but, honestly, who could have foreseen his end-of-2015 as a sure harbinger for this season.

  3. GhostOfFenway says:

    From 2010 to the end of 2015 Rich Hill pitched 108 innings. He is on pace to pass that in 2016. Incredible transformation so late in a career. Out there proving he is worth the contract. Great to see, even if its not for the Sox.

  4. i screamed up and down for the redsox to resign rich hill
    what he did in September last year was not a mistake
    and now they pay the price for it
    but who knows the way john Farrell handles pitchers rich hill probably would of broken his arm pnch hitting in a game