Rich Hill’s 10-year-old son, Brice, recently asked an innocent question.
“He’s like, ‘You’re gonna play for like, another 5-10 years, right?’ ” said Hill with a chuckle.
The question had a fascinating echo. In early 2011, Hill was a nonroster invitee in Red Sox camp. At the team’s encouragement, he committed to changing to a sidearm delivery with the idea of emerging as a curveball-flipping, left-on-left relief specialist.
Hill bought in, insisting the new approach would allow him to pitch another 10 years in the big leagues — something that seemed far-fetched given that he was about to turn 31.
Brice Hill’s question 11 seasons later spoke to a remarkable development in those years that continued into 2021. While most big league pitchers hit a wall adjusting from the compressed 2020 schedule back to a 162-game season, Hill swam upstream.
The 41-year-old Milton resident was one of 41 pitchers who made at least 30 regular-season starts. He logged 158⅔ innings.
While Hill had navigated a succession of injuries in the pitching rebirth that started with his return to the Red Sox (this time as a starter) in late 2015, he enjoyed his healthiest season since 2007, when he was an up-and-coming 27-year-old starter for the Cubs.
Hill, a free agent, became one of 12 pitchers this century to make 30 starts at the age of 41 or older, joining a list of luminaries that includes Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Roger Clemens.
He went 7-8 with a 3.86 ERA — below the 4.34 average ERA for starters in 2021 — for the Rays and Mets, with a roughly league-average strikeout rate (22.7 percent) and walk rate (8.3 percent). Yet beyond those numbers, there was satisfaction in taking the ball every five or six days.
“I loved it,” Hill said, crediting adjustments to the volume of between-starts work he did. “I was a little bit more efficient on some things and listened to my body a little bit more.
“Things add up over the years. As the years go on, so does the wisdom. You really have a solid game plan, outing after outing, as far as being able to peak and be your best every fifth day. And that’s what I was able to accomplish last year.”
So what does that mean moving forward? Hill said he’s “100 percent” certain that he’ll pitch in 2022, though he wasn’t prepared to reassure his son of another half-decade or more of work.
“Let’s go one year at a time,” Hill recalled telling his son.
Even so, Hill’s desire to pitch remains undiminished. If anything, it’s been amplified over a professional career that has now extended over 20 seasons since the Milton High School alum was selected out of the University of Michigan in the fourth round of the 2002 draft.
“You continue to fall in love more and more with the game,” said Hill. “I feel extremely fortunate to be able to be still putting on a uniform.”
That said, Hill’s appreciation for his opportunity is framed by an awareness that it is finite. As such, he stated that his highest priority in selecting his next destination is a chance to pitch for a contender, as he covets a ring. He was with the Dodgers in 2017 and 2018, when they lost the World Series to the Astros and Red Sox, then left prior to the championship season of 2020.
While Hill is open to pitching on the West Coast again, there’s also interest in living closer to home if possible. Along those lines, Hill suggested that he’s been in touch with members of the Red Sox this offseason, just as he was as a free agent last offseason.
Many of the exchanges have been social, as Hill has bonds throughout an organization with which he’s signed six times as a free agent (June 2010, December 2010, December 2011, February 2014, March 2014, August 2015). Nonetheless, the ongoing correspondence speaks to mutual openness to the possibility of a reunion.
The Red Sox, said Hill, ”do things right. I’ve been around 14 organizations. If I tell you that they’re in the upper echelon, they’re doing pretty good.
“There is an interest, without a doubt. There’s a need on the other end. [But] the need for starting pitching is very apparent throughout the league — not just in Boston. It’s also many other clubs that need it.”
With that need comes the expectation of an 18th big-league season for Hill. A remarkable accomplishment in its own right, but particularly for a pitcher who has reinvented himself repeatedly to achieve that longevity.
“If somebody is willing to wait 10-15 years for their opportunity,” said Hill, “it will come.”