Most people thought Rich Hill was done as a professional baseball player…but not Rich Hill.
After being left out as a free agent following the 2014 season, being stuck with a minor league contract with the pitching-rich Washington Nationals and getting released from his contract in June, it looked like Hill’s major league career would come to an end with a non-descript 5.1 big league innings for two bad Red Sox and Yankee teams that did not make the playoffs.
Hill was an accomplished starting pitcher at the University of Michigan who dominated with one of the best curveballs in the country. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and almost immediately became one of their top prospects (again on the strength of his curveball, rated one of the best breaking balls in the minor leagues per a Baseball America survey). Hill was one of those prospects that the prospect experts said was “can’t miss.”
Until he did…
Hill received a few chances in the majors in the late 2000s but never had great success, mostly struggling with his fastball command and walking too many batters. He also suffered a few injuries including major shoulder surgery in 2008 and Tommy John surgery in 2011. After bouncing between the starting rotation and the bullpen he was moved to the bullpen full time by the Red Sox in 2010, his third organization.
To become a more effective lefty specialist Hill worked hard with the team coaches and changed his delivery to more of a side arm motion, despite his motion being a more natural over the top angle. This angle would make him much more difficult for left-handed hitters to pick up and thus make him tougher to hit by same side hitters. But it also limited his ability to throw his off-speed pitches and made him easier to hit against right-handed hitters, who take up the majority of most major league lineups.
Let me put that into perspective:
To make himself better for the team, in a role that he did not prefer, Hill said he always preferred the rotation, and overhauled his mechanics to better fit that role (something that is not an easy thing to do).
In this situation many players would have chosen to leave the organization to pursue a starting role. Instead he stayed and put in MORE work than the other pitchers to make a tremendous change to his motion.
It is not easy to change your mechanics. Pitching expert Lantz Wheeler said it is difficult for players to change their arm angle as it is part of their baseball identity. But he did it anyway as it was what the coaches asked him to do. And it kept him in the majors for a few more years.
But, when Hill’s career as a situational reliever appeared over after 2014, he had only one choice to make: Yet again overhaul his mechanics and fix himself back to the overhand pitcher he used to be and make a comeback as a starting pitcher.
After just 2 starts with his new mechanics he caught the Red Sox attention and they signed him to a minor league contract. And, most importantly, they allowed him to stay in the rotation, which was his goal all along. After five strong starts at AAA Pawtucket, including 61 strikeouts in 54 innings pitches and a 2.83 ERA, Hill got the call up to Boston to start on Sunday September 13th.
In his first Major League start since 2009, Hill fired seven shutout innings allowing one hit and striking out ten Rays hitters. An amazing feat for anyone who had been released during the season, but Hill also had redone his arm angle, something that Wheeler said was “next to impossible” for pitchers to do, especially mid-season.
Hill has since made two more starts and in both struck out at least 10 batters (the second one ending with one of the best catches you’ll ever see by Mookie Betts…seriously, watch this video). There is a good chance that Hill will be a part of the Red Sox rotation next year.
What does this mean for you?
Hill’s success brings about three key points that young players learn from for use in their young careers.
1) Be Coachable
Hill took the advice of his coaches to completely change his delivery for the good of the team despite being an established big leaguer. He made over 30 starts for the Cubs during his career, including game 3 of the National League Division Series in 2007. And, as noted above, it is not easy to change your arm angle. Yet Hill was willing to make any adjustments to keep him in the big leagues.
Sometimes, someone who is that established can be stubborn and unwilling to make the necessary changes. They know what they know, it got them this far and they want to stay that way.
Hill did not do that.
Instead he took the coaching suggestions that would make him a more effective pitcher and tirelessly worked at it to master the new delivery and continue to deliver the results necessary to stay in the major leagues for a few more seasons (there’s no question it took significant hours of practice and preparation to make the change stick).
When you have coaches that you trust, and they are giving you advice, LISTEN to what they are telling you. They are trying to help you become a better ballplayer and to become a bigger contributor to the ball club.
Even if it is something that may seem uncomfortable to you at first. If you trust that your coach knows the game, give it an honest chance to see what kind of improvement it can make for your game. You may be surprised with the results.
2) Be Willing to Work
Hill’s transformation was one of the most difficult one’s a player can go through. This was not something he was able to roll out of bed and change. He was starting from almost square one, altering his mechanics and arm angle. It required him to get a new feel for controlling his pitches, especially his beloved curveball (it is much harder to get on top of your curveball from a lower arm angle like Hill now had).
That work that Hill put in was above and beyond what most players are willing to do. Many players never make it in the big leagues (or even get to the big leagues for that matter) because they are unwilling to put in the work and make the necessary mechanical adjustments to improve their game.
For me, I learned to change my swing over one summer. Even as a youngster I had noticed that the swings from guys like Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds did not look like the swing that I was being taught. So finally, the summer after my freshman season, I went to a coach to learn the right swing.
He gave me hours of drills to do as homework over this 7 day crash course, and then after that a drill plan over the rest of the summer to really get the swing ingrained and generate the necessary muscle memory for it to be my natural swing.
While many players my age were home partying and goofing off, I was hitting it hard, mastering this swing. So that when I got my chance, when I finally got healthy…I could do major damage.
3) Be Humble
Despite his background as a starting pitcher and the ability for starters to command a higher salary, Hill was willing to make that personal sacrifice for the team when he could have easily left the organization and likely found a team that would have let him start if he really wanted to.
But instead Hill swallowed his pride and made the move, and helped the Red Sox where they needed him most and made their recommended adjustments to better fit the role of lefty specialist.
It was not until Hill had his back against the wall and his only playing options were the independent leagues did he finally revert back to his over the top arm action (again, because it was more conducive to a starting pitcher than his old sidearm motion).
If your coach asks you to make a change in your role with the team, understand that your role is not bigger than the team or the game, embrace it. In high school my coach moved me around the batting order during two separate hot streaks (moving me first from 4th to 3rd and then 3rd to 2nd, one was far more conventional than the other). Other players looked at me and asked why the coach was moving me around.
I just shrugged my shoulders and got back into my pre-game routine. Because the routine and getting ready to help the team was far more important than the honor of hitting 3rd, or 4th, or starting or closing, or whatever role you think you should have on the team.
Another example you see is pitchers at the College World Series. The most common example is pitchers who normally start closing games, and closers starting games or at least throwing longer than they typically have all season.
But they embrace the role at the time because that is what’s best for the team. Emulate them. Focus on whatever task is at hand and getting the best results possible. Maybe you’ll find a new role to thrive in…like Rich Hill.
Edit: This past offseason, Rich Hill signed a contract with the Oakland Athletics for $6 million.