The Dodgers will have a different pitcher start a game for the 14th time this season. This one might be the second-best pitcher of the bunch.
When Rich Hill finally takes the mound for the Dodgers, he will be the 14th different starting pitcher used by the Dodgers. Hill, as you probably remember, was acquired at the trade deadline along with Josh Reddick for three good pitching prospects, led by Grant Holmes.
Hill and Reddick are both free agents after the season, so it confused some (myself included) to see the Dodgers move such a solid prospect package for them. Reddick was arguably the best bat moved at the deadline, and Hill was the best pitcher to switch teams. Obviously, a Chris Archer/Chris Sale would have been nice, but if you look at the players that were moved, the Dodgers got two of the best.
Hill’s Dodger debut was delayed a bit, as he was nursing a blister on the middle finger of his left hand, the hand he uses to throw baseballs. Hill was scheduled to start two weeks ago against the Red Sox, but he was pushed back with a new blister forming.
Unsurprisingly, fans have been antsy to see what Hill can do. The Dodgers rotation is being held together by duct tape and superglue. Clayton Kershaw is inching closer, but Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir are all on the DL. Julio Urias has been good, but is getting up there in terms of innings and limiting his starts moving forward is probably for the best. The Dodgers traded for Hill to help them this year, and he hasn’t done that so far.
He’ll finally make his Dodger debut today, and I get a sense many Dodger fans haven’t seen a lot of Hill. Hill has bounced around on many different teams and was pitching for the Long Island Ducks in July 2015. A few weeks later, the Red Sox signed him and he allowed five runs in four starts in September. That was enough for the A’s to take a flier on him, and he ended up starting on Opening Day for them as Sonny Gray was sidelined with food poisoning. Hill had been dominant for the A’s, with a 2.25 ERA/2.53 FIP in 14 starts and a 28.9 percent K rate.
So, how did a 36-year-old turn into arguably the best pitcher in the American League? That’s barely hyperbole. If you don’t believe me, here’s FanGraphs calling Hill the best starting pitcher in the American League.
First thought when looking at Hill’s numbers is thinking he’s getting lucky. Mat Latos had six very good starts to begin this season, Jake Arrieta had a stretch where he pitched over his head. Any pitcher can go out and dominate for a short time, right?
There’s not a lot to suggest Hill is just getting lucky. His ERA/FIP difference isn’t anything alarming. Opposing batters have a .290 BABIP against him, which is pretty normal. His xFIP is a tad higher at 3.54, and moving out of the O.CO could inflate his home run rate a bit. FanGraphs pins average LOB% around 70 percent, and Hill’s is 78 percent. So that could drop a little, but 78 isn’t a crazy unsustainable number.
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If you look at batted ball profiles, Hill might actually be better than Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw is obviously the king at limiting contact, but when hitters do make contact, it tends to be better against Kershaw than against Hill. Looking at batted balls against, them, FanGraphs categorizes 23.8 percent of contact against Hill as “soft”, 50.3 percent as “medium” and 25.9 percent as “hard”. For Kershaw, those numbers are 18.9 as “soft”, 51.9 as “medium” and 29.1 as “hard”.
Hill also has a 16.3 percent line drive rate against him. Line drives are the worst type of contact a pitcher can give up, as FanGraphs explains here. In their chart from 2014, hitters had a .685 batting average on line drives, .239 on ground balls and .207 on fly balls, although fly balls obviously provided better power numbers than grounders. Basically if a hitter hits a line drive, that is bad. Fly balls are better, ground balls are ideal. 16.3 percent of balls put in play against Hill are line drives, with 33.7 percent fly balls and 50 percent ground balls this season. To compare again to Kershaw, batted balls are hit on a line 21.1 percent of the time against Kershaw, 29 percent of the time he forces a fly ball and 49.8 percent of the time he gets a ground ball.
I’m surely not arguing that Hill is in any way a better pitcher than Kershaw. Kershaw has been putting up filthy numbers for six years, and Hill has found a career renaissance at age 36. But when we think of the elite starting pitchers in baseball, Hill isn’t often mentioned when he probably should be.
Earlier this month, Padres reliever Ryan Buchter talked about the Dodgers and their emphasis on spin rate with Eno Saris of FanGraphs. Per usual, I sorta ignored the main part of the article when I saw a chart detailing non-competitive pitch rate. Two Dodgers were on top of the list, Pedro Baez and Hill.
Non-competitive pitches are categorized as a pitch that’s 2.5 feet from the center of the strike zone or more and called a ball 97 percent of the time. Buchter pointed to his own low non-competitive pitch rate as proof that when he’s behind in the count, he won’t just lob one in there, but he also won’t unintentionally intentionally walk anyone. Baez leads the league in non-competitive pitch rate, as only eight of his 820 pitches thrown upon publication of that graph were more than 2.5 feet from the center of the strike zone. Hill was second on the list, as only 15 of his 1300 pitches were non-competitive.
Hill is a rare pitcher that doesn’t throw a fastball a majority of the time. This season, 49.4 percent of his pitches have been curveballs, 44.8 percent fastballs and he mixes a slider and changeup every so often. The Pitcher List does an incredible job with analysis and gifs, and they have gifs of his fastball/change/curve on Hill’s page. You can see a fairly standard delivery and the type of action Hill gets on his pitches.
His batted ball profile, willingness to throw competitive pitches and overall stuff should give Dodger fans hope. The Dodgers desperately need healthy pitching, to the point where they traded some top prospects for it. If Hill can work around his blisters, he is a very good pitcher despite not having the reputation of other pitchers.