Rich Hill: Leader of the Movementarians

The leader is good, the leader is great. We surrender our will as of this date.

Rich Hill’s renaissance has been remarkable in so many ways. Despite justified skepticism entering 2016, he finished the season as the 14th most valuable starting pitcher, according to our auction calculator. And he did so tossing just 110 innings over 20 starts. He made contributions in ERA, WHIP, and when he pitched, strikeouts, that were so substantial, that he ranked among the back end of #1 or the very best of #2 fantasy starters. And no intractable three-eyed blister with its own Instagram account could stand in his way.

One could argue that the most significant takeaway from this season was that his arm stayed healthy (for those interested in arguing semantics, let’s define an arm as one of two appendages starting at the clavicle and ending at the wrist and leave it at that). However, Hill strained his groin and subsequently suffered a setback while rehabbing, keeping him on the disabled list for the better part of June. So, while he avoided further elbow and shoulder maladies that had previously derailed his career, the rest of his 37-year old body didn’t hold up quite as well. Hill spent twice the minimum duration on the DL for his groin injury and missed a month due to the aforementioned radioactive blister.

But let’s ignore injury risk for the time being. Or at least acknowledge that it exists, particularly in Hill’s case, but agree to table the discussion for the end. I’d rather appreciate Rich Hill’s season and determine if, body willing, he can repeat his notable performance in 2017, even if only on a per inning basis.

Hill finished 2016 with a sterling 2.12 ERA and the indicators to match. While he appeared fortunate with respect to his HR/FB rate, his xFIP still sat at 3.36 which, had he amassed the innings to qualify, would have ranked 4th in the majors ahead of Max Scherzer (yet, sadly behind Michael Pineda). Hill also proved that the dominating strikeout abilities we saw glimpses of in 2015 were for real, striking out 29.4% of the batters he faced in 2016. While his walk rate jumped by almost three points, his control improved over the course of the season. As a result, Hill finished  with a 21.9% K-BB%, placing him in some truly elite company.

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-1-22-20-pm

The 36-year old lefty also maintained the highest fastball velocity of his career, no doubt helping him lead the league in 4-seam whiffs per swing. But there’s more to his fastball than cheddar. After all, among the top 10 starters in fastball whiffs per swing, Hill’s 91.2 mph ranks next to last. His fastball induces more swings and misses than any other not because he blows people away but because he combines the 8th most fade in the league with above average rise, giving him one of, if not, the most serpentine fastball in the Majors.

MLB’s Best Fastballs by Whiffs per Swing
Rk Player Velo H Mov Percentile V Mov Percentile Whf/Sw
1 Rich Hill 91.21 8.61 96% 9.68 65% 34.58%
2 Chad Green 95.16 3.3 20% 10.45 85% 32.28%
3 Tim Adleman 91.53 4.75 45% 9.75 67% 29.23%
4 David Price 93.77 7.39 87% 9.39 56% 28.17%
5 Justin Verlander 94.33 7.46 88% 10.21 80% 27.62%
6 Vincent Velasquez 94.65 3.9 29% 9.79 69% 27.45%
7 Yu Darvish 94.85 2.22 9% 10.24 81% 27.04%
8 Alex Reyes 96.7 4.38 38% 9.81 69% 26.88%
9 Steven Matz 93.87 9.1 97% 6.85 2% 26.79%
10 Kyle Hendricks 88.9 2.16 9% 8.73 34% 26.53%
Source: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/pitchfx/leaderboards/

Wow. What a list.

And the curveball? You know, the pitch he’s actually known for? It may not be as effective by whiffs but it’s still pretty damned efficient. Given that he ranked 81st in whiffs per swing out of 99 starters who threw their curve at least 200 times, it’s not surprising that hitters offered at the pitch frequently; its 44.5% swing rate ranked within the top 20 in the league. But Hill’s curve also finished 22nd in called strike-per-ball ratio, so when hitters didn’t swing, umpires frequently called it for a strike. When hitters put it in play, they did so meekly. The .058 isolated slugging against Hill’s curveball ranked 11th in the league, within the vicinity of Lance McCullers‘ and Clayton Kershaw’s renowned yackers. Again, Hill’s insane movement, 95th percentile in horizontal and 81st percentile in drop, makes the pitch extremely difficult to square up.

The Statcast data support this. Among pitchers with at least 200 balls-in-play, only the venerable Blaine Boyer was more difficult to barrel up. Here’s a slightly less impressive but still brow-raising compilation of pitchers, prominently featuring our titular hero.

StatCast Studs
Player Avg EV (mph) Avg DST (ft) Avg HR-DST (ft) Brls/BBE Brls/PA
Blaine Boyer 86.2 200 396 1.00% 0.70%
Rich Hill 87.7 202 411 2.60% 1.40%
Blake Snell 88.2 222 336 2.70% 1.50%
Jose Fernandez 89.9 221 389 3.60% 1.60%
Noah Syndergaard 87.9 204 389 3.30% 1.90%
Steven Wright 87.4 206 401 3.20% 2.00%
Gerrit Cole 88.5 209 400 3.40% 2.00%
Tyler Anderson 85.1 199 400 3.20% 2.10%
Kyle Hendricks 87.2 208 401 3.80% 2.10%
Source: https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/

That’s the incredible thing about Hill. Despite essentially being a two-pitch pitcher, he misses bats at elite rates and, as his batted ball data elucidate, he effectively manages contact as well. His average exit velocity ranked in the league’s 79th percentile, his average fly ball and line drive exit velocity in the 70th percentile, and average distance in the 96th percentile. Given how difficult it was to square him up last year, is it possible that Rich Hill’s movement actually earned his microscopic HR/FB%?

My guess is that we should expect his home run rate to regress to some degree next year. Yes, his batted ball distance was elite and of the four homers he allowed, ESPN’s Home Run Tracker classified only one as “just enough,” suggesting he wasn’t extraordinarily lucky. But despite Dodger Stadium’s pitcher-friendly reputation, it’s actually a good park to go yard in.

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-9-05-06-pm
Source: https://rotogrinders.com/pages/ballpark-factors-49556

 

However, Hill pitches in a stadium that overall suppresses runs for a team that should provide adequate run support and that ranked towards the top of the league in team defense last year. So, even anticipating an increase in homers, there’s really nothing not to like about Hill’s situation. Except for his health.

And what can we say about that? While not arm-related, groin strains and blisters still take time to heal and, as we saw, can lead to DL stints. Perhaps, the injuries Hill battled through helped keep his arm fresh and had he pitched another 60-80 innings, we’d be having a much different conversation. Hill will be 37 on Opening Day, meaning that even if his arm, groin, and hand remain healthy, he’s still a risk for other lower body, core, or back injuries in the future. But I’m just speculating and we’ll have plenty of time in the coming months to speculate further. For now, let’s recognize that as far as “stuff” goes, Rich Hill has proven himself Leader of Baseball’s Movementarians.

 

the-leader





Rylan writes for Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Look for his weekly Deep League Waiver Wire and The Chacon Zone columns this season.

8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
MustBuniquemember
5 years ago

Dude, loved this. I had no idea that Hill’s 4FB was so good. I thought his success was all from being able to command the curve. Careful with the Movementarians stuff, if you get too funny they disappear you.

Looking at that table showing horizontal and vertical movement got me thinking that someone might be able to look at a combo of those two, like adding vectors for total movement. Has that been done?