Rich Hill faced a recognizable but invisible opponent.
“Juan Soto, 1-and-2,” Hill announced.
Hill’s breaking ball fell off the plate outside. Soto, the pitcher’s imagined adversary in this roughly 60-pitch bullpen session at Champion Physical Therapy and Performance in Waltham, took the pitch. The count went to 2-and-2 against the lefthanded slugger of the Nationals.
Hill, wearing shorts and sneakers while throwing off a portable mound that had a sizable hole in front of the rubber, received the ball from catcher Thomas Joyce, a Merrimack alumnus who plays professionally in Germany. The lefthander quick-pitched a slow sidearm curveball that dropped over the inside corner of the plate.
After a quick nod of affirmation, Hill returned to the rubber to face the next imaginary hitter.
Out of the ordinary
This session took place March 10, one day before Hill turned 42. Starting pitchers such as Hill, who signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Red Sox in December, typically are making their second or third spring training start by now.
But Hill wasn’t in Fort Myers, Fla. While negotiations continued between league officials and the players union — resulting in a new collective bargaining agreement just hours later — the owner-imposed lockout remained in place, leaving players on their own.
So Hill remained at home in the Boston area. Tuesdays and Thursdays meant workouts at the facility in Waltham. Mondays and Fridays meant throwing into a net in his garage, where Hill keeps the door closed to spare his Milton neighbors the grunts and expletives that accompany many of his pitches.
He wasn’t bothered by the alteration to his preparation, but the lockout hardened his feelings about the business of the game.
“MLB lies as easy as they breathe,” he said. “They don’t care [about players]. They don’t care at all. But that doesn’t deter me from loving the game. I love the game. But when I see the business side, it’s like that tinted window. You just don’t really want to look through it.”
On this morning, Hill arrived for his workout at 9:30 and trudged through the slushy remnants of the previous day’s snowfall, committed to his routine yet uncertain about how much longer he’d have to wait before heading to Florida.
Early in his career, Hill might have panicked about the disruption. He might have felt compelled to follow the few other New Englanders in the big leagues who had already departed for Arizona or Florida to continue their preparations. He certainly would have been wherever he thought a team wanted him to be, whenever it thought he should be there.
But not now. Hill took comfort in his knowledge of himself, knowledge about what he needs to do to prepare for a season regardless of the environment. The point crystallized while he prepared at home in 2020 after the pandemic shut down his sport. Work, Hill realized more clearly, can fall into the rhythms of his family life rather than frame them.
“I wish I had that mind-set when I was younger,” said Hill. “I always thought, ‘All right, they want us down there, I’ve got to get down there because you’re the good soldier,’ as opposed to understanding, ‘They don’t give a [expletive] about you,’ as we’re seeing now throughout this [negotiation].”
Hill had no doubt that he’d be able to stay ready through his work at home. He planned to use his decades of experience to ensure he’d be ready to throw two innings whenever he might be summoned.
Staying in shape
Hill’s first stop at Champion PT was in the training room, where he was greeted by owner Mike Reinold, the former Red Sox head trainer and current White Sox medical adviser.
Reinold and Hill met in 2010, when Hill came to the Red Sox at a career nadir, roughly a year removed from shoulder surgery. He’d been released by the Cubs, Orioles, and Cardinals in a two-year span. While working through injuries, Hill lost confidence and pitched with anxiety rather than conviction.
Under Reinold, who was the Red Sox trainer when Hill pitched for the team from 2010-12, Hill rebuilt strength in his shoulder, only to tear his ulnar collateral ligament early in 2011. He worked his way back with Reinold and has now pitched for more than a decade since his arrival in Boston.
“[Reinold] has kept my shoulder in incredible shape,” said Hill. “If it wasn’t for him and his shoulder program, to be quite honest, I don’t know if I’d still be still be pitching.”
Reinold’s first inquiry was about the pitcher’s lower back, where he’d felt a twinge about three weeks earlier while lifting weights.
“The little tweaks here and there, you’re always questioning, especially for me now at 42,” said Hill. “You tweak your back, you’re like, ‘Is that going to be something that’s only going to be two days or is this going to be two months?’ ”
This back issue occurred in the former camp. Still, Reinold and Hill wanted to prevent any recurrences.
Reinold applied steaming-hot pads to Hill’s back, then inserted small pins into the pitcher’s back for dry needling and electrode stimulation. As Hill lay on his stomach on a training table, he and Reinold exchanged notes about the few players who’d been in New England in the winter but had recently left for warmer climates.
A jersey signed for Reinold by Jon Lester was above Hill’s table, prompting appreciation for the recently retired Sox and Cubs pitcher’s longevity.
“Most people end up retiring because it’s too much work,” said Reinold, noting a distinguishing trait of Lester’s. “They could probably still pitch, but it’s a lot of work.”
Is that a thought for Hill?
“I do enjoy the work,” he said. “I think the one thing that changes a lot as you get older is family. That does change a lot of things, the dynamic that it’s not just about you.
“Have I given [retiring] any thought? I haven’t really, because when you do it, it’s permanent.”
The fact that Hill regained his career footing as a reliever with the Red Sox from 2010-12 when he was in his early 30s was remarkable in its own right. He then pitched for Cleveland in 2013, pinballed from the Red Sox (minor leagues) to the Angels to the Yankees in 2014, and spent the first half of 2015 with the Nationals’ Triple A team before getting released.
At 35, most assumed that would be the end. Hill bristled when acquaintances asked if he’d decided what he’d do next.
“‘I’m not going to do anything else,” Hill recalled thinking. “This is what I was meant to do.”
That summer, Hill spent the better part of two months out of organized baseball. He didn’t merely try to hold on. He reinvented himself.
He had spent most of the previous five years as a journeyman sidearm reliever. While working on his own after the Nationals released him, Hill returned to throwing over the top, building up his pitch count with the idea that he could start again. Two starts with the independent league Long Island Ducks — 11 scoreless innings with 21 strikeouts — underscored the notion, leading the Red Sox to sign the lefty to a minor league deal.
He connected with Brian Bannister, who was about to transition to a role as Red Sox director of pitcher development, and mental skills coach Bob Tewksbury. Bannister gave Hill what the pitcher calls the freedom to be creative, encouraging him not to stick to a fixed notion of how often to throw a fastball and instead let his instincts and feel for his incredible curveball guide how he attacked hitters.
Tewskbury helped Hill attain a new level of competitive relentlessness. With nothing to lose, Hill suddenly understood that he had much to gain.
“Now you have the analytics and the conviction,” said Hill. “When you have those two coming together, wow, that’s a superpower.”
Called up for four big league starts as a 35-year-old in 2015, Hill submitted a performance with the Sox (1.55 ERA, 36 strikeouts in 29 innings) that started a third career act as a starter. The 2022 season will be the fourth straight in which Hill is the oldest starting pitcher in the majors. The first time he takes the mound for the Sox, he’ll become the oldest pitcher in the team’s uniform since Tim Wakefield retired after the 2011 season.
Variety is the key
Hill contemplated that path as he went through the roughly one hour in the training room and then in the gym leading up to his bullpen session.
This was not a live batting practice session. There were no big league-caliber hitters around, and most local college programs were on the road.
Hill doesn’t believe he needs hitters in the box, however. He has sufficiently honed his understanding of what the ball feels like coming out of his hand that he can simulate a live batting practice. He mentioned a study that compared basketball players who practiced shooting free throws with others who merely visualized doing so; both groups improved at roughly the same rate.
Hill dragged the portable mound into position, and after warming for several minutes — first with two baseballs that were heavier than regulation, then with a standard ball — he climbed the slope.
While he threw almost all fastballs and curveballs (a changeup did make an appearance), Hill created tremendous variety in how he attacked the session.
He varied the pace of his delivery, altering his stride into a quick pitch, exaggerating and then minimizing his leg kick, and alternately throwing over the top and sidearm. Though he mostly set up on the third base side of the rubber, he sometimes moved to the first base side, particularly against imagined lefthanded opponents.
“It’s all about angles,” Hill said, noting the array of possibilities that opens when moving 17 inches from one side of the rubber to another.
After he dropped down with a sidearm pitch, Hill recalled a conversation with Ichiro Suzuki when the two were teammates with the Yankees in 2014. Hill asked Suzuki whether he preferred to face lefties who threw over the top or from the side. No contest, Suzuki informed Hill. Sidearm was more difficult.
“You’re literally throwing from behind,” said Hill. “That’s pretty damn difficult to hit.”
Over the session, Hill outlined different scenarios — a 3-and-2 pitch to a righty, a 1-and-2 pitch to a lefty, the at-bat with Soto. Each came with a different range of possibilities, Hill adjusting enough variables to turn his two primary pitches into more than a dozen looks.
“All that stuff — leg kick, slow down, speed up, get the ball and go — that’s why I don’t like the pitch clock,” said Hill. “It screws up all the artistry of a pitcher — and a hitter. There’s no competition. It’s robotic.
“Let’s say it’s a 2-and-2 count, we’re in a big part of the game, and I have the ball. I’m in control of everything right now. But if a stupid clock is ticking down, the crowd is going crazy, you’re playing to the crowd, you step up, ready to pitch, now he steps out. It’s just great theater. We’re losing that. We’re losing that because of a [expletive] pitch clock. I think it’s stupid.”
Despite the absence of a spotlight, Hill expressed satisfaction that each pitch came with purpose and meaning. He believed he’d taken another key step in preparing himself for the season.
The bullpen session was followed by another hour of work, with Hill going through a checklist of strength training exercises. As he awaited updates about whether the lockout might be nearing its end, Hill took satisfaction in the effort he’d put into being prepared whenever a baseball season might beckon.
“You do have to enjoy the work,” he said. “You’ve got to love it — because it’s easy to start sitting back. Cake tastes pretty good.”
For now, there is more work. Cake can wait.