It was one of the feel-good stories of 2015.
Rich Hill, age 35, had his baseball career reborn after making four magnificent starts in September for the Red Sox that earned him a one-year, $6 million free agent deal with the Oakland Athletics.
"It really kind of feels that way," said Hill about being reborn. "It couldn't have gone any better at the end. It was a good finish and it really reinforced that I could do it; that I could start in the big leagues after not doing it for five years."
The story doesn't start or end there. He had been released in February by the Washington Nationals from their Triple A Syracuse affiliate, where he had served as a reliever. Hill went home to Milton and worked out with the Milton Legion team until he took a flyer with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League.
After throwing five hitless innings in his first game with Long Island, Hill still wasn't convinced he was a starter until he took the four days between starts and found that he had recovered nicely. He went out in his next start and struck out 14 batters. The Red Sox signed him to a Triple A contract, and he continued to shine.
The feel-good aspect of Hill's story is amplified by how much he has had to overcome, and not only the shoulder and elbow problems that had derailed his career. Two years ago, he and his wife, Caitlin, lost their infant son, Brooks, who had been born with several health issues.
Baseball, at the time, seemed irrelevant. But his faith and the healing nature of time enabled Rich and Caitlin to get through the darkest time of their lives.
On the field, Hill's experience as a starter and a reliever has helped him to really learn how to pitch.
Two people who would be proud of him would be Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, who became 300-game winners by always evolving. That is why they never needed to throw 100 miles per hour to beat hitters. They relied on their smarts, their execution of each and every pitch. They found the hitters' weak spot, and like a boxer who found his opponent's blind spot, pounded away at it.
Hill has learned to do that. Scouts and baseball executives talk about September being a hard time to evaluate any player, and to a great degree that's true. But Hill sees it differently.
"I'm not sure I completely agree with that," said Hill, who produced a 1.55 ERA and 0.655 WHIP with 36 strikeouts and five walks over 29 innings for the Red Sox. "I was pitching against American League opponents like the Blue Jays and Yankees, who both had great lineups and were ramping it up a notch as a result. I was facing a good Tampa Bay team and the Orioles had a tough lineup. So I think I was going up against really tough hitters. So I feel good about being able to beat those good lineups and I think the teams that were interested in me felt the same way."
Hill would have loved to have come back to the Red Sox, but the Sox had bigger fish to fry. They had their minds set on acquiring David Price, which they did with a seven-year, $217 million contract. They had excess starting pitching as it was, so other teams took a bigger interest.
"Oakland showed immediate interest and they kept that interest up," Hill said. "They're giving me a chance to make those 32 starts and they seem to be building a decent team as the months go by. Obviously it's a good ballpark for a pitcher, a lot of foul territory. It was an opportunity I thought suited me perfectly. And I'm reunited with [pitching coach] Curt Young, who I had in Boston and we really clicked."
Hill has great confidence in his repertoire since coming up with a changeup, which he says "gets hitters off my curveball." And what a curveball it is. It may be one of the best in the game.
"I just want to show [the changeup] so the hitters can't sit on the curveball," Hill said. "I'm learning to throw it to lefthanded hitters. And I thought it was very effective. I threw quite a few against the Yankees and I was really intrigued by the swings I was getting off it."
Hill now throws a cutter, a curve, a changeup, and a fastball that's sneaky fast. The radar gun says 92 most of the time, but hitters have told Hill "it looks like 96." That's because Hill's fastball has that 10-15 feet of late life that bears down on the hitter, leaving him little time to react.
Hill gave hitters different looks with his three-quarter delivery, and also came in sidearm, a delivery he used with effectiveness when he was a reliever for the Red Sox.
"It's all about disrupting the hitters' rhythm," Hill explained. "If you can do that just a little it makes quite a difference."
Hill always understood that being a good pitcher meant learning how to pitch rather than trying to blow it by the hitter.
"It's a game inside the game," Hill said. "Changing speeds, changing the shape of a pitch, changing arm angles . . ."
For four starts in September, Hill threw some of the best games by a Red Sox pitcher in 2015.
A's general manager Billy Beane, always looking for good value, feels he has it in Hill and believes the feel-good story can continue in Oakland.
In Hall voting, no one is ignored
The biggest decision in voting for the Hall of Fame is whether to vote for players who have been known or suspected of using steroids. In my conversations with the players of the steroid era who actually took them, the consensus is that a majority of players dabbled in them or took them for years. Based on that information the playing field was level. I have chosen not to ignore the era. It's baseball's fault for not having the testing and penalties they do now. So rather than guess about who did or didn't use, I judge players on their merits on the field.
I voted for the maximum 10 players. I regret not voting for Alan Trammell, after having done so for many years, as well as Tim Raines, Fred McGriff, Larry Walker, and Edgar Martinez.
1. Ken Griffey Jr. — He should be unanimous, but he won't be. Griffey was one of the most graceful players ever. Five tools. He did everything so well and had all the necessary numbers — 630 homers, 1,836 RBIs, 10 Gold Gloves, and a career .907 OPS.
2. Barry Bonds — In his younger days in Pittsburgh he was a gazelle in the outfield. He won eight Gold Gloves (four with the Giants), seven MVPs, hit 762 home runs, and drove in 1,996 runs and had a career 1.051 OPS.
3. Roger Clemens — Seven Cy Youngs; 354 wins. He pitched two 20-strikeout games; the first one vs. Seattle in 1986 was the most dominating pitching performance I ever saw.
4. Mike Piazza — Greatest offensive catcher of all time: 427 homers, .922 OPS. I'm not sure any hitter of his generation hit the ball harder.
5. Jeff Bagwell — What an incredibly steady career that featured big home run/RBI numbers. His .948 OPS is 21st all time. National League MVP in 1994.
6. Jeff Kent — Bonds's teammate and adversary, of his 377 homers, 351 came at second base, a record for that position. He also won the 2000 National League MVP. Giants GM Brian Sabean called him the best player he ever had on the field.
7. Curt Schilling — Excellent postseason numbers (11-2, 2.23 ERA). Dominated in both leagues (.607 winning percentage in AL, .593 in NL). Only 711 walks in 3,261 innings. The guy you wanted on the mound in the biggest game.
8. Mike Mussina — Love the fact that he spent his entire career pitching against the toughest lineups in the AL East. Won 20 games for the first time in his final season. Won 270 games, seven Gold Gloves.
9. Trevor Hoffman — So many are skeptical of Hoffman's career, but 601 saves, his consistency, and the fact he did it all with a changeup being his signature pitch, is impressive.
10. Gary Sheffield — A vicious hitter who, like Piazza, didn't hit anything softly. He hit 509 homers (25th all time) and knocked in 1,676 runs (27th). He ended his career with a .907 OPS (same as Griffey's) and a 79.9 offensive WAR (35th).
Apropos of nothing
1. Retiring Wade Boggs's number, as I wrote earlier , was long overdue. But it brings up the issue of who should be eligible to have their number retired. The Red Sox' policy had been the player needed to be in the Hall of Fame and had to have finished his career with the Red Sox. Well, that criteria has been bypassed in a few cases. The Yankees seem to have the process correct. They pick the best players of the era and retire their numbers. You can argue the Yankees retire too many numbers, but they've also won 27 championships. Under my criteria, the names to be considered would be Dwight Evans (24), Roger Clemens (21), Tim Wakefield (49), Jason Varitek (33), and Luis Tiant (23). Going back further, Jimmie Foxx (3). There's always sentiment for Tony Conigliaro (25), my childhood favorite given the tragedy of his short career and what might have been. You can make cases for Dom DiMaggio (7) and Frank Malzone (11).
2. I could never understand the charge that Boggs was selfish. In the course of hitting .328 in 18 major league seasons, of amassing 3,010 hits, hitting .324 with runners in scoring position and .331 with men on base, I get the funny feeling he also helped his team win some games.
3. One of baseball's unsung heroes, a guy who does so much behind the scenes, is Dennis Gilbert, the former super agent who has a run a successful insurance business in Beverly Hills and is a special adviser to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Gilbert founded the Pro Baseball Scouts Foundation, which has a huge dinner event every January. Gilbert has raised so much money for scouts in need as well as kids' programs promoting baseball. So it's only fitting he will receive the Dave Winfield Humanitarian Award at the Jan. 16 dinner at the Beverly Hills Hilton.
4. Speaking of Reinsdorf, the idea he and Tony La Russa have promoted for years really needs to come to fruition — create a Hall of Fame wing for coaches. There have been so many great ones over the years who never received proper recognition for the tireless work they put in and the effect they have had on players. Reinsdorf said he hasn't given up on it, but it hasn't received traction.
5. The one guy I'd bet on out there is Cliff Lee. He's completely recovered from his flexor tendon tear and has been cleared to throw. Lee is a fierce competitor and we know when he has his health he's an ace. He's 37 years old. He's a great gamble for a lot of teams, including the Orioles, Royals, Rangers, and Astros. He could also go back to Philadelphia for the year and see where that takes him.
Updates on nine
1. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, free agent — The market has been slow and limited on Cespedes, who is seeking a contract of at least six years in the $150 million range. It doesn't appear most teams are willing to go to that extent on him, but it only takes one. While the Giants have interest and are often mentioned as a candidate, they have already spent about $220 million on pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto. The Giants are also expected to be in on Alex Gordon, whose demands seem to be less than those of Cespedes.
2. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies — Gonzalez, who hit 40 homers last season, is a very attractive choice to teams such as the Giants, Orioles, and Royals, but the outlay of prospects to get a deal done will limit interest. Gonzalez's contract calls for a $17 million salary in 2016 and $20 million for 2017, and that's better than long-term deals for the big free agent hitters.
3. Alex Gordon, OF, free agent — Gordon is still drawing a lot of interest and prefers to stay in Kansas City, though that dream may be fading. Don't be surprised if the aggressive White Sox rush to the front. The White Sox have already traded for Todd Frazier and would like one more significant hitter.
4. Justin Upton, OF, free agent — The market has been slow on Upton, but in terms of all-around ability, Upton may be the best of the free agent outfielders. The White Sox again pop up as a possible destination and certainly the aforementioned teams interested in Gordon also have some interest in Upton. The one negative on Upton is the consistency of his effort. Teams would like to see more passion for what it will cost to sign him.
5. Bronson Arroyo, RHP, free agent — Arroyo, coming off Tommy John surgery, is going to be a tack-on to a staff. Arroyo, 39, had never missed a start until he got to the Diamondbacks. It's expected that Arroyo will be a late sign.
6. Yovani Gallardo, RHP, free agent — Teams are in, but not all-in on Gallardo. Agent Alan Nero said there have been conversations, but nothing had moved forward during this holiday week. The Orioles and Royals have dipped their toes into the Gallardo market, but it appears teams hope the market comes down after Mike Leake signed a five-year, $80 million deal with St. Louis. The market for Scott Kazmir also appears to be tied into Gallardo.
7. Mike Dunn, LHP, Marlins — The Marlins have received some interest in the hard-throwing reliever and it's looking as if he'll eventually get moved. But one thing that has scared off some teams is concern about his control. He walked 29 in 54 innings last season and has made 70 or more appearances the last three years and four of the last five.
8. Kenta Maeda, RHP, free agent — Maeda, 27, won the equivalent of the Japanese Cy Young this year. Getting him will require a $20 million posting fee and then negotiating the salary, which will be far less than the one of countryman Masahiro Tanaka. A Leake-like five-year, $80 million deal has been bandied about. The scouts feel he's close to Hiroki Kuroda in style. Right now the Dodgers are seen as the front-runners given their needs. The Dodgers are also likely in pursuit of Kazmir and former Orioles lefthander Wei-Yin Chen, who is reportedly asking for a five-year, $100 million deal. And they have their eyes on the Rays' Alex Cobb and/or Jake Odorizzi.
9. Zach Kapstein, OF, Orioles — The Red Sox never had proper playing time available for the righthanded-hitting outfielder from Tiverton, R.I. A superb athlete, Kapstein, 23, was traded to the Orioles for cash and will finally get a chance to show his ability.
From the Bill Chuck files — "Over the last three seasons, among batters with at least 1,800 PA, no one walked fewer times than Alcides Escobar and Adam Jones with just 68 each." Also, "Through his age-25 season, Starlin Castro has 991 hits and 62 homers. Through his age-25 season, Carl Crawford had 990 hits and 62 homers." . . . Happy birthday, Rick Porcello (27), David Aardsma (34), Jim Leyritz (52), and Phil Gagliano (74).
Baseball lost two of its most beloved players in 2015, Yankees great Yogi Berra and Cubs legend Ernie Banks. But the game also lost some figures, who, while less celebrated, left their marks as well.