Aaron Hill and the Quietly Great Season

If you hit 26 homers and lead your league in basically every offensive stat from your position, but no one notices, does it still make a sound? That twist on the classic thought problem seems to apply to Arizona’s Aaron Hill, who bounced back from two consecutive disappointing seasons to become the second-best second baseman in baseball in 2012, both by WAR and Zach Sanders’ end-of-season fantasy rankings. The hype, however, including an All-Star snub, never seemed to follow.

It’s not overstating things to say that Hill was a complete afterthought headed into 2012, and for good reason. He’d followed his 2009 breakout with a terrible 2010 (dig that .271 OBP, the second-lowest of any qualified player that year) and then a 2011 that was actually slightly worse by wOBA, since his mild OBP improvement was more than canceled out by a total power outage. Traded to Arizona in August in something of a challenge trade for Kelly Johnson, Hill was suddenly great in the desert for the remainder of 2011, though it was understandably difficult to place a lot of confidence in 142 BABIP-fueled plate appearances after nearly two full seasons of ineptitude.

So when Hill wasn’t very well-regarded on draft day this year, being taken in only 74 percent of Yahoo! leagues and outdrafted by 20 other second basemen in ESPN circuits, it was hardly surprising. By the end of the year, Hill had more than repaid Arizona’s faith in him by outperforming every second baseman in the game other than Robinson Cano – and proved himself particularly helpful to fantasy league playoff pushes by hitting .304/.363/ .576 with 13 homers after August 1. Though he didn’t quite match the 36 homers or 108 RBI he had in 2009, it was  a career season in most other ways, as he set career highs in all three of the slash stats as well as wOBA. He also stole 14 bases, making him one of just three second basemen (along with Rickie Weeks & Ben Zobrist) with at least 20 homers and double-digit steals.

With longtime stars at the position like Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Phillips, Dan Uggla, Chase Utley, & Rickie Weeks all having down seasons and younger players like Dustin Ackley & Jemile Weeks failing to progress, Hill’s good year suddenly made him incredibly valuable. The real question is, can he put together two consecutive solid seasons for the first time in his career? Hill had a nice 2007 and was very good in 2009, yet in both cases he was unable to repeat that productivity the following season.

I lean towards “yes”. It’s a bit much to expect him to repeat one of his best years and I certainly wouldn’t expect him to be the #2 second baseman again, but there’s reason to believe he can still be very valuable in 2013. For one, we were somewhat unfair above by saying that he was unable to sustain his 2007 success into 2008, given that he missed four months of the later season with a concussion. He’s also now had more than a full season of playing time in Arizona, where in over 800 plate appearances he’s managed a .517 SLG%, more than 100 points higher than it was in Toronto. Say what you will about the benefits of Chase Field as a home park–though his splits aren’t that drastic–but in fantasy, the home run counts the same regardless where you hit it.

Hill’s only going to be 31 in 2013, so he hasn’t exited his peak years just yet, and he’ll do so with an increasing track record of productivity in his new home.  If he doesn’t have another 2010-style disaster (and that year is increasingly looking like the outlier if a pass can be given for 2008), Hill’s probably at least a top-10 second baseman. That’s valuable in just about any league.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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