Rich Hill is 36 and likely to be the most sought-after pitcher on the trade market, but he claims he doesn’t see it that way. The transformation from journeyman to a pitcher with electric stuff has been stunning at his age.
First, he got to Pawtucket and encountered Brian Bannister, who has recently been called up to the Red Sox to help with their pitching woes. Bannister presented a whole new world to Hill, who took the information and was able to apply it to his repertoire and become a solid lefthanded starter.
Why the Red Sox didn’t go all out to keep him after last season is anyone’s guess, though at the time the feeling was the Sox had nine potential starters for 2016 and didn’t have room for Hill, despite his four stellar starts for Boston last September. Then in the offseason, some were scratching their heads when Oakland gave Hill a one-year, $6 million contract. But now we’re seeing why. His continued success will now result in the Athletics receiving good prospects for Hill at the trade deadline.
Hill is being watched closely by teams. Every time he pitches, he draws a crowd. In a 3-1 win over the Astros Thursday in which Hill went six innings, allowed one run, and struck out 10, he drew scouts from the Red Sox, Royals, Orioles, and Blue Jays.
It’s now a question of which team will offer the most. Coming back to Boston would likely be Hill’s No. 1 choice, but he’s not saying that publicly.
“I’ve finally reached the point in my career where I’ve learned to focus completely on the mound, where you don’t let in outside distractions, where you don’t let the pitches you’ve already thrown or the pitches you’re going to throw in a few batters enter into your mind,” said Hill. “I focus on each pitch, and that’s easier said than done. I’ve finally gotten there. So when people talk to me about trades, I really have no idea because I honestly don’t pay attention to any of it.”
Hill said that while he likes Oakland, he enjoys the East Coast lifestyle because that’s where he grew up and lives in the offseason. He has no hard feelings toward the Red Sox for not re-signing him. He has what most experts call the best curveball in baseball, and that’s what Bannister talked to him about in Pawtucket.
“Brian took two pitchers that we studied because of the consistent success they’ve had over the years. We studied the elite of the elite — Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke,” said Hill. “Brian pointed out that Kershaw threw his curveball 45 percent of the time. He basically emphasized that, take what you think are your best pitches and use them correctly. So with me, it was not only throwing the curveball but throwing it at different speeds, changing the shape of it as well as manipulating the spin on the fastball. I’ve been trying to do that consistently. And the other traits of Kershaw and Greinke, put the pedal to the metal from pitch one to pitch 100 and give it all you can for as long as you can.”
Hill pointed out that before he went on the disabled list with a groin strain in early June, he had the highest swing-and-miss percentage in baseball on his fastball.
“Perceptually it’s 95-97 miles per hour, but the reality is 92-93, but when you add in the spin rate and the deception, that can cause it to look much faster to the hitter,” Hill explained.
So, is this not a match made in heaven? Hill returning to the Red Sox to work with Bannister, who is now with the major league staff?
“It’s great that Brian is up there,” said Hill. “He’s really going to help their pitchers understand how to maximize what they have.”
Hill is 9-3 with a 2.25 ERA in 13 starts this season, after going 2-1 with a 1.55 ERA in four starts last September with Boston. He has struck out 90 in 76 innings this season with only 28 walks. He missed approximately a month with the groin injury.
“It was the first time I’d gone through an injury like that,” Hill said. “I thought it was going to be two weeks and I’d be back, but it turned out to be longer to get it completely right. I’m 100 percent now. I don’t feel a thing. It’s not a concern at all. I feel I picked up where I left off. I’m throwing my pitches with conviction. I’m sticking to the same plan I’ve had the last couple of years and refined for me by Brian. I’ve enjoyed being in Oakland. We’ve had our ups and downs, but it’s a good group of guys and coaching staff. We have good players here and I’m sure that teams will be asking for a lot of our guys.”
Hill is scheduled to make his next start on Friday. And you can bet there will be an army of scouts on hand to watch. The competition for him will be steep. Hill will more than double his salary in free agency because he may be one of the top pitchers available. Even at 36, he’s found himself. He knows how to pitch. His shoulder and elbow feel good, and more importantly, “I’m really enjoying the game. It’s been so much fun when you’re having success. It’s so fulfilling when you know you have a game plan that you can execute and that it works. It’s taken so long to get here.”
DOING THE SPLITS
Players must keep up the good work
Some players will continue to excel after the All-Star break, some will fall off the map, their first-half performances a distant memory. It’s so important for players to continue their All-Star ways or even get better. The ones who don’t will impact their teams negatively.
David Ortiz, for instance, isn’t your typical 40-year-old. He still carries the Red Sox and one could argue that he has been the best hitter in baseball over the first half, entering the weekend leading the majors with a 1.106 OPS. So any type of dip from Ortiz or problems with his feet or Achilles’ could be fatal for the Sox.
Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. also can’t suffer second-half fades if the Red Sox are to contend.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski doesn’t ignore the possibility of players fading in the second half, but he said, “We try to look at everything, but normally we don’t put much weight on that statistic.”
The Orioles have a bunch of guys who have to avoid fatigue. Mark Trumbo has been superb for half a season, but can he keep up the pace? His career numbers say he can’t. He’s got a .264 average with an .826 OPS in the first half for his career, and a .242 average with a .709 OPS in the second half. Manny Machado is having an MVP-type season and must be the guy who carries the Orioles’ offense, yet he’s faded from an .854 OPS in the first half to a .751 OPS in the second half over his career. Adam Jones has had his ups and downs, but traditionally he’s been able to sustain a good second half (.750, after .799 in the first half).
David Price has better second-half statistics. His line is 3.35 ERA/1.177 WHIP/.524 winning percentage in the first half over his career compared with .3.05/1.091 WHIP/.671 winning percentage in the second half. Texas’s Cole Hamels is also better in the second half — 3.01/1.100 WHIP/.618 winning percentage compared with .3.50 ERA/1.193 WHIP/.560 winning percentage.
Madison Bumgarner traditionally has been better in the second half than the first. But first-year Giants Johnny Cueto (2.93 ERA first half/3.73 ERA second half) and Jeff Samardzija (3.94 first half/4.29 second half) have gotten worse down the stretch.
Which of the hitters likely available at the trade deadline could help the most? Ryan Braun is certainly the most consistent, with career OPSs of .905 in the first half and .921 in the second. Matt Kemp is .810/.851, Jay Bruce .801/.765, and Josh Reddick .781/.716.
Apropos of nothing
1. Would you trade Hanley Ramirez for Prince Fielder?
2. Max Scherzer is the pitcher I most like to watch.
3. The Mets’ brass really doesn’t think they’ll make a deal to bolster their pitching with Matt Harvey having season-ending surgery.
4. As Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com wrote, Theo Epstein had a hand in developing and acquiring 11 players on the two All-Star teams.
5. Yoan Moncada and Anderson Espinoza would be my only untouchables in the Red Sox farm system if I’m acquiring a front-line pitcher. Yes, it would be great to pick off an outfielder such as Jay Bruce or Josh Reddick, but the Red Sox have only a few premium prospects and you need to save those for a starting pitcher, whether it be now or in the offseason when you might give up something big for Atlanta’s Julio Teheran or Oakland’s Sonny Gray.
6. Doesn’t sound as if there’s a jaw-dropping site for a new Rays stadium in Tampa.
7. As time goes on it’s harder to imagine how the Red Sox can replace David Ortiz. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista will be a free agents, so there’s two guys who could fit the spot. Ortiz feels Encarnacion would be better suited for DH since he’s done it.
8. It will be interesting to see whether Pablo Sandoval gets to compete for the third base job next spring training. With the Red Sox bringing in Aaron Hill because Travis Shaw is hitting .211 against lefties, it doesn’t appear Shaw will have the job outright. Of course, Sandoval’s weak side is righthanded, so there wouldn’t be a Shaw/Sandoval platoon. Sandoval could also be the DH.
9. I asked a few baseball people which team could use Bruce the most. It was virtually unanimous, the Indians. They need offense, but few are expecting the Tribe to get him.
10. Either players are delusional or there’s a real problem with how players are tested for steroids. The latest comes from former Cardinals catcher Cody Stanley, who has been suspended twice for testing positive. “I will never apologize for something I didn’t do,” he said. “We will not stop searching for why all of this has happened.”
11. Before acquiring Hill, the feeling was the Red Sox were considering Jed Lowrie as a possible fit. Hill’s relationship with infield coach Brian Butterfield was clearly a big reason why the Red Sox went in that direction.
12. The Athletics and Padres will get raided at the trade deadline. The A’s have John Axford, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle (when he returns from injury), Danny Valencia, Lowrie, Rich Hill, and perhaps even Coco Crisp who would draw interest, while the Padres have Matt Kemp, Melvin Upton Jr., Wil Myer s, Drew Pomeranz, and Andrew Cashner.
Updates on nine
1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Phillies — The Red Sox have been linked to him in trade talks, and while he has experience pitching in the tough American League East, he’s also shown signs he may not be suited for that anymore and that he needs to stay in the National League, where his stuff plays better. The Phillies have been scouting the Boston farm system. Hellickson, who can become a free agent after the season, does have a respectable 3.39 ERA over his last 11 starts. Stay tuned on this one.
2. Jake Odorizzi, RHP, Rays — The Red Sox’ top talent evaluator, Frank Wren, recently traveled to St. Petersburg, Fla., specifically to watch Odorizzi. The Sox will get to see him live on Sunday. Odorizzi would likely not cost as much in return as would Chris Archer or Matt Moore.
3. Alex Gordon, OF, Royals — Gordon is right there with Prince Fielder as the most disappointing hitter in baseball this season, hovering around .200. Even before he missed a month after breaking the scaphoid bone in his right hand in May, he was hitting .211. This comes in the first year of a multiyear contract that has been a stinker to say the least. Team officials do expect Gordon to improve the further he gets away from the injury.
4. Joe Smith, RHP, Angels — Many teams are identifying Smith as a possible setup man for their bullpens. He would really suit the Red Sox, Mariners, or Rangers. Smith’s arm angle (sidearm) would be akin to what the Red Sox were trying for when they acquired Carson Smith. The Angels will want something of value given they have very few trade chips.
5. Josh Reddick, OF, Athletics — The Royals and Dodgers are interested in Reddick, who the A’s are expected to trade. Contract extension talks haven’t gone very far with the A’s, so Reddick could be gone ahead of the deadline.
6. Ervin Santana, RHP, Twins — Twins GM Terry Ryan said he’s open to trading anyone and would consider helping pay for a contract if he got the right return in terms of quality prospects. Santana, 33, is a PED offender, so there’s always that risk, but major league executives rank him as one of the best mid-rotation starters out there. He’s made four straight quality starts and pitched a two-hit shutout in his last start, Wednesday vs. Oakland. He’s signed through 2018 at $13.5 million a year.
7. Julio Teheran, RHP, Braves — There’s growing sentiment in the Atlanta organization that Teheran won’t be traded this season. The talented righthander could be the pitcher the Braves build around. Anyway, it would take an enormous package to get him, with any team needing to give up their best or second-best prospect, and then some. “The Braves don’t want anyone’s B- list,” said a major league source. “It’s got to be at the top of anyone’s prospect list, and it just looks complicated.”
8. Jeff Francouer, OF, Braves — He still makes a case as a good extra player on a contending team, with a .301 average and .787 OPS against lefthanders. Francouer still has a very good arm and would be a good platoon player with a lefthanded hitter. He’s one of the veterans on the Braves who could move by the trade deadline.
9. Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Yankees — The Yankees got a huge bargain when they traded for him, not having to give up many of their front-line prospects to the Reds. It was at a time when other teams, such as the Red Sox, stayed away because of his domestic violence incident. But the Yankees would want a far better package if they’re going to deal him. There’s always the chance they’ll re-sign him
From Bill Arnold’s goodie bag: “With the season just a bit past the halfway point, pitcher Andrew Triggs of the A’s seems to have racked up enough travel miles for several seasons already. Through Wednesday, the A’s had called up Triggs from their Triple A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds, seven times (on April 25, April 29, May 7, May 10, June 18, June 30, and July 4) and had sent him down six (on April 27, April 30, May 7, June 4, June 19, and July 2).” . . . Happy birthday, Andre Dawson (62).