Rich Hill, the once promising middle of the rotation starter as recently as the Fall of 2007, is likely on the verge of being traded to the Cubs’ primary trading partner the Baltimore Orioles, according to the Baltimore Sun for the ever popular “Player to be Named Later” (PTBNL).
Blessed with one of the best curveballs in baseball, as well as one of the most deceptive fastballs, the rise and fall of Rich Hill has been sudden and brings back images of Steve Blass, Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel. In this article, I will dicuss why I donâ€™t think it is a mental flaw, but more mechanical at this stage.
Drafted by the Cubs in the 4th round of the 2002 draft, Rich Hill was considered a raw LHâ€™er with a developing curve who had hot and cold streaks with untapped potential. After signing with the Cubs, he was sent to Short-Season Boise and struggled with his command and his overall numbers, posting an ERA of 8.36 in 6 games (5 starts) in only 14.1IP with 14BBs, 12Ks, and 4 wild pitches. The following year he returned to Boise and improved, throwing 68IP while walking 32 and striking out 99, before finishing at Lansing where he struggled with his command again walking 36 in 29IP but only allowing 14 hits and striking out 50. He improved his control at Daytona in 2004 while still striking out over 11 per 9IP and holding opponents to around .200. The questions still lingered as far as how outstanding could he be if he had better command and control. Finally, that question was about to be answered.
2005 was Hillâ€™s breakout season as far as his prospect status. He was about to face AA, which usually consist of every organizationâ€™s top prospects, as well as the more advanced at AAA later on in the year. Finally able to improve his command and control to where it needed to be to advance to the majors, Hill dominated AA and AAA, throwing a combined 123IP allowing 97 hits while only allowing 35BBs and striking out 182 hitters. In September, Hill received his first taste of the majors and, as expected with most rookie pitchers, he was fatigued and a bit shell shocked.
2006 was Hillâ€™s 1st legit chance at cracking the major league rotation, but that delayed after a poor showing at Mesa. Undeterred by the slow start, Hill was the best pitcher in all of the minors going 7-1 with a 1.80 ERA while throwing 100IP only allowing 62 hits and walking 21 with 135 strikeouts. In July of â€™06, he was called up again as injuries ravaged the Cubs starting rotation and the team collapsed to 90+ losses, allowing the Cubs to call-up Hill. He struggled at first again posting a 1-3 record with a 9+ ERA before being send down to Iowa again and being called up in Sept. after a solid run again at Iowa, it finally clicked in the majors as he went 3-1 with an ERA under 4 that final month.
Hill was a favorite in 2007 to earn a rotation spot given the continuing health problems of Kerry Wood, as well as Hillâ€™s strong showing the previous eptember. He did not disappoint in 2007, while likely being the teamâ€™s 2nd most productive starter behind Zambrano and looking like one of baseballâ€™s better young pitchers.
The following year it took a turn for the worse as mechanical issues began to take place. Hill was quickly sent to Iowa where he continued to not throw strikes, and he was shuttled between Iowa, Rookie Ball, and High-A. He was sent down to the Dominican Republic to work out his issues and had not shown any improvement and regressed as the year went on.
As to why I think Hillâ€™s struggles so much with his command, I think it is mainly mechanical and NOT MENTAL as many tend to believe.
Mechanically, he has severe shoulder tilt with his glove arm (right arm) severely higher than his throwing shoulder. The reason why he does this to get on top of his 12-6 curve which is why he it is one of the best in the game when it is on. Also, it makes it much more difficult to pick up his FB coming out his hand. One of the side effects on having this throwing mention is that it is very difficult to repeat your delivery, which is the key to throwing strikes since your balance and center of gravity often changes each pitch.
To further illustrate that shoulder tilt, compare him to Greg Maddux who is likely the most mechanically sound pitcher of our generation:
With Maddux you can see a slight shoulder tilt, but he still has the same balance point and his center of gravity is still over his midsection. Not only has his throwing motion kept his healthy all these years, it has allowed to be one of the best control pitchers in MLB history.
Back to Hill and some more illustrations, here is Hill in July of 2006 at Iowa, where he was pitching very well and on one of his hot streaks.
As you can see there is still a shoulder tilt, but given how well he was pitching during this stretch and game, it didnâ€™t throw him off mechanically.
This next picture is a picture from Spring Training of 2008 where he didnâ€™t last long and ended up walking 6 in this short outing.
As you can see, there is a much more pronounced shoulder tilt in the second picture as his pitching hand is well below the knee, compared to the 1st picture where it is well above the knee. I do believe that these mechanical flaws are partially and likely the most important reason why he has struggled so greatly recently.
It is worth noting that Baltimore’s pitching coach is Rick Kranitz, who is outstanding at analyzing pitchersâ€™ mechanics and has spent time in the Cubs organization as a pitching coach. I donâ€™t think it is ironic that Kranitz was the pitching coach at Iowa in 2004 and 2005, which is right when Hill was at his best mechanically, as well as the best he has been as far as his command and control. While this is the worst case scenario, having to unload such a gifted pitcher for so cheap, it is probably the best for RIch Hill to go to Baltimore and work with Kranitz again.