What to do with Rich Hill?
Everyone wants a Carlos Correa. In dynasty leagues, twenty two-year-old superstars aren’t easy to come by. At the extreme other end of the spectrum sits Rich Hill, a soon to be 37-year-old starting pitcher. Yes, Hill is as injury prone as Wile E. Coyote. No, he hasn’t tossed enough innings to qualify for the ERA title since 2007. On the other hand, he has been really, really good. So what the hell should we do with Rich Hill?
At this point, everyone is more or less familiar with Hill’s comeback story. After failing to receive an offer from a major league team, Hill signed with the independent league Long Island Ducks in July 2015. Eleven innings and 21 strikeouts later, the Red Sox came calling with a minor league deal. By September 2015, Hill was back in the big leagues. He finished the season tossing 29 innings and striking out 36 batters with a 1.55 ERA and 0.66 WHIP.
Oakland scooped Hill up in the offseason, offering a one-year, “Prove It” deal for the southpaw. He proved it. In 110.3 innings (in Oakland and then in Los Angeles after the Dodgers dealt for Hill at the deadline), he struck out 129 hitters, en route to a tidy 2.12 ERA. In addition to posting spectacular strikeout totals for a starting pitcher, Hill also continued to develop his control, walking only 2.7 batters per nine innings, a number above league average. Hill post silly contact numbers in 2016, limiting the opposition to 6.3 hits (tied for second best with Jake Arrieta) per nine innings and a stingy 0.3 homers (best in baseball) per nine innings.
Still not convinced of how good Rich Hill was in 2016? His 2.12 ERA ranked second out of all pitchers with at least 100 innings. His 1.00 WHIP ranked fifth. Hill posted a 2.56 Deserved Run Average, good for fourth best in all of baseball, and his cFIP of 75 ranked sixth, ahead of nobodies such as Chris Sale and Corey Kluber. At this point, it’s pretty foolish to doubt Rich Hill’s skills.
That said, there are still valid questions about Hill moving forward. For one thing, saying Rich Hill might be injury prone would be akin to saying Justin Timberlake might be the most successful member of N’Sync (Bet you weren’t expecting boy band jokes in this here sports article, huh?). Hill has dealt with a litany of injuries in his career, including Tommy John Surgery in 2011. Most recently, he suffered from the World’s Most Vengeful Blister, which cost him much of the 2016 second half.
If you like your glasses half full, it’s good that Hill’s most recent bout of injury wasn’t elbow or shoulder related. However, we’re still dealing with a 36-year-old pitcher that before 2015 only topped 75 innings in a season once since 2007.
So that brings us back to square one. How should we value Hill moving forward?
In part, it’s hard to value Hill because he’s doing something that starters typically don’t do. He’s throwing is curveball more than his fastball. His fastball definitely won’t be mistaken for Randy Johnson’s heater, as Hill hovers around 90 MPH with his four-seamer. However that pitch appears to have a little more giddyup (technical term) when a hitter is sitting on the breaking ball. In 2016, Hill threw 900 curveballs, good for third most in the entire league. Jose Fernandez led the majors, throwing 984 curves, but did so with over 1,000 more pitches. Of Hill’s 900 offerings, 21.2 percent were called strikes, and 10.4 percent of the pitches drew whiffs. Add in 17 percent of Hill’s curves that were fouled off, and you’re looking at a pitch that was a strike 48.6 percent of the time. Of the 17.7 percent of pitches that were put in play against Hill’s curveball, batters hit .185 and slugged .248.
So we’ve established that Rich Hill is not your prototypical starter. Removing the names from the numbers, Hill would likely be a slam-dunk, top-tier starter. However those are not the circumstances surrounding Hill. Not too many dynasty owners are rushing out to pay a premium for an injury prone 37-year-old hurler. It probably goes without saying, but if you’re rebuilding, Rich Hill is probably not for you (unless you’re looking to flip him, which the A’s showed can bring back a useful return).
Even still, Hill’s skill set is exactly one that owners covet when making a push for a title. If you have a contending team in the hunt for 2017, now would be the time to see if you could pry Hill away. In real life, Hill is going to get paid. As the shining star of the 2016 free agent pitching class, he is going to benefit much more than his age and injury history would otherwise suggest. At this stage, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a team give Hill a three-year deal, which is probably matches his expected usefulness as a fantasy asset as well.
Since it will be hard to rely on Hill for a full starter’s workload, his fantasy value might be more similar to that of an ace reliever. According to BP’s Mike Gianella, Hill earned $22 ($14 in AL only and $8 in NL only) in 2016. This stacks up quite similarly to Andrew Miller ($24 in AL only) or Dellin Betances ($14). Miller is an especially close approximation, partly because he’s not a full time closer. Miller might pick up a save on occasion, but his value is mostly tied to rate stats and strikeouts. Similarly, it would be foolish to project wins for a starter (mostly because they’re unpredictable, fleeting, and stupid), but as long as Hill pitches he will produce solid ERA, WHIP, and strikeout totals, with a smattering of wins as well. By valuing Hill as an ace, non-closer reliever, you insulate yourself from paying ace prices while an ace return is still possible.
The bottom line: Rich Hill has been very good this season. Will it last? Who knows, but there’s enough uncertainty surrounding the lefty that you might be able to leverage it to create a good buying opportunity to keep your team’s window of contention open for the next couple years. Even so, as a wise man (and dangerous, mostly sociopathic, former science teacher turned meth cook) once said: Tread Lightly.
Follow Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie