Get Rich Quick: Cubs May Need to Strike Early to Climb Dodgers’ Hill in Game 3

One is a pitcher who showed promise with his first team before injuries and inconsistent performance dictated a change of scenery, which eventually led to a rebirth and realization of his potential. The other is, well, the same thing. Painted with such crude brushstrokes, the career paths of both Rich Hill and Jake Arrieta might be said to present mirror images of one another. And really, despite some of the stylistic differences, their results have been pretty similar.

If I gave you a career line of a 4.10 ERA; 9.08 K/9; 3.91 BB/9; and 9.2% home runs/fly ball and then one of 3.58 ERA; 8.22 K/9; 3.16 BB/9; and 10.3% HR/FB, would you be able to tell me which pitcher had authored each? If you guessed Hill and Arrieta, respectively, you’re right. It is interesting, though, to note the higher strikeout and lower home run rates for Hill, numbers that are actually much better of late. Yet you never hear his name brought up in the conversation of the best pitchers in the game.

Since reemerging with the Red Sox late last season, the southpaw has posted 10.66 K/9 and 2.45 BB/9 to go along with a 2.00 ERA and measly 5.1% HR/FB rate. It’s important to note that those results have come over only 139.1 innings and 24 starts, so we’re not talking about even a full season’s worth of data. But it’s still enough to provide a very good idea of who Rich Hill is. And who Rich Hill is, is a very good pitcher, though that might also depend on what the definition of the word “is” is.

So how does a really good pitcher get from Chicago to LA without ever catching on anywhere in between? It’s really a pretty remarkable journey.

If you can recall back to his rookie year in 2005, you probably conjure an image of a relatively unremarkable young man who was memorable mainly because he brought his Uncle Charlie to the ballpark. Though he showed flashes of brilliance (his two complete games in 2006 were the only ones from the Cubs rotation that season), control problems and injuries limited his Cubs career and ensured that he had only one season (2007) in which he threw more than 110.1 major league innings.

You might now be getting a flashback to Game 3 of the NLDS in which Hill, the Cubs’ starting pitcher, allowed a leadoff homer to the Diamondbacks’ Chris Young. Lou Piniella gave Hill the hook after giving up 3 runs on 6 hits and a pair of walks in only 3 innings. Thus began a frustrating journey.

A back injury and various muscle strains severely hampered Hill’s 2008 campaign, after which he was traded to Baltimore. He suffered an elbow injury in spring training and was later lost for the season after having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Hill then bounced from St. Louis to Boston in a relief role before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010, after which he ping-ponged across several levels before coming back up and suffering a strained flexor muscle.

Hill caught on with the Indians prior to the 2013 season and was pretty good in 63 relief appearances, though not quite good enough for Cleveland to bring him back. With no big league offers in sight, Hill returned to the Red Sox on a minor-league deal but failed to make the opening day roster. After being assigned to AAA Pawtucket, he was traded to the Angels and made two appearances before being DFA’ed and released. Hill then caught on with the Yankees and made a few appearances for them in 2014.

A free agent once again, Hill signed a minor-league deal with the Nationals prior the 2015 season, but joined the team well after the start of spring training and failed to make the MLB roster. He was released in June, signed with the Long Island Ducks in late July, and got another minor-league deal with the Red Sox in mid-August of 2015. They called him up in September and he was nothing short of a revelation.

In his first major league start in roughly six years, Hill went 7 innings and allowed only one hit and no runs while striking out 10 men. He followed that up by allowing 3 runs and striking out 10 more over 7 innings in his next start. After that came a complete-game two-hitter during which he struck out, you guessed it, 10 batters. Hill parlayed that success into a one-year, $6 million deal with the A’s prior to the start of this season, which he began as the opening day starter.

An August 1 trade sent Hill and Josh Reddick to the Dodgers, which brings us to Tuesday’s start against the Cubs. Why did I bother giving you the Cliff’s Notes version of a baseball odyssey that spanned 11 years and, by my count, 26 different teams? First, I find the man’s journey fascinating. More than that, though, I find it amazing that Hill has been overlooked for so long. All he did when healthy was pitch well, yet he could never catch on anywhere for more than a season.

Between his last season with the Cubs and end of the 2015 stint with the Red Sox, Hill logged exactly 182 major league innings. That’s 13 fewer than he pitched for Chicago in 2007, his only “full” season as a starter. Injuries have certainly played a role, but there seems to be this pervasive sense that this guy is something other than a very good pitcher. With the way he’s been demoted, released, and unsigned, the perception is more that he’s actually bad. Maybe it’s the control issues that dogged him early on or maybe it’s that his velocity is in the Kyle Hendricks range. Whatever the case, it’s crazy to me that all Hill could find until this season were minor league offers.

That’s all behind him now as he readies to take the bump with a chance to put the Dodgers up 2-1 over his former team, though he’s still being somewhat overlooked. Some of that’s because anyone is hard to notice when they’re standing in Clayton Kershaw’s shadow, but I don’t think Cubs fans understand who their team is about to go up against. In my initial evaluation of Hill, I said I believed the Cubs would be able to work him over. To be fair, I thought they’d get to Kershaw too.

While I do think the Cubs have the advantage with Jake Arrieta opposing the Dodgers, climbing this Hill is no easy task. His curveball is one of the best around and ranks second in baseball (min. 100 IP) with 16 runs saved. What’s more, his 90 mph fastball is effective enough to put him fourth with 1.49 runs saved per 100 pitches. Just ahead of him on that list: Jake Arrieta (1.58). Despite working mainly in the heart of strike zone — but, like, a real zone instead of the Rorschach inkblot Eric Cooper was using Sunday night — and not lighting up radar guns, Hill has been able to miss a lot of bats while not walking many batters. His 10.52 K/9 ranks fifth among starters this season and his 2.69 BB/9 is pretty nice, even if it’s not necessarily outstanding.

There’s something else about Hill that can’t be overlooked, and it goes well beyond metrics. You don’t go through the amount of professional disappointment he has without having an inordinate amount of desire, determination, and confidence. Skill, too, lots of skill. I just wonder how many other pitchers would have given up rather than go through that many rounds of rehab and all those cuts and the shuttling back and forth between different minor league levels. This dude’s an absolute bulldog, which is fitting given that he’s pitching for the Dodgers in the playoffs.

Now that I’ve made a mountain out of a Rich Hill, let’s talk about how the Cubs can beat him. Despite a fly-ball rate of 35.8% that ranks 86th lowest among starters, Hill’s 4.2% home run/fly ball rate stands second to Christopher Devensky (3.5%). The longball keyed a Game 1 win and the Cubs may need to overcome Hill’s stinginess in giving them up if they want to take back the upper hand in the series. Even if they can’t hammer him, the right approach could force him from the game earlier than usual. Contrary to those long outings in Boston last season, Hill has averaged only 5.5 innings/start this season.

With a total of 18.1 innings pitched in the 6th inning or beyond, only 4.1 of which came in the 7th or 8th, it’s highly unlikely the Cubs will face Hill very deep into the game. But that doesn’t mean they should be overly patient with him, as he’s the kind of pitcher who seems to get better as he warms up. It’s almost like his performance arc in games traces that of his career. To wit, his ERA by inning in 2016 looks like this: 3.76; 1.89; 2.89; 1.00; 1.04. Hill has allowed 12 earned runs in the first two innings of games while giving up only 10 over the next three.

So I guess that means it comes down to patient aggressiveness. Rich Hill is going to throw strikes, but they’re going to be his strikes. In order to beat him, Cubs hitters will need to go up there looking for a mistake and they’re going to need to make those few hiccups count. As trite and obvious as it is to say they need to get on the board early, it’s no less true. This could be one of those games that’s decided within the first six outs. Hanging a couple quick runs could throw Hill off and force Dave Roberts to go to his bullpen before he wants to.

My big takeaways in looking more closely at this matchup is that Hill is way better than most casual observers understand and give him credit for. Never a power pitcher, he hasn’t had to deal with the diminution of his velocity and he’s got much better stuff and control at 36 than he did when we saw him nearly a decade ago in a Cubs uniform. And he doesn’t have nearly the tread wear you’d expect in a pitcher his age, which may help him land a decent deal this offseason. Maybe even another major league one, at that.

I still have the utmost confidence in the Cubs to be able to win this game, though I don’t believe it’ll be an easy task by any means. Prediction: Anthony Rizzo’s going to break out of his postseason slump in a big way, setting the tone for the game and putting the Cubs up.

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