Rich Hill is an interesting case. He was arguably the best pitcher in baseball last season for a grand total of four starts. His efforts were rewarded with a one year, six million dollar contract and a guaranteed rotation spot for an A's team that doesn't have any rotational depth. It's high risk and high reward at its best, although the A's did mitigate Hill's risk some by signing Henderson Alvarez.
Hill was supposed to be the A's number two starter, but circumstances likely known as Chipotle forced him to start the first game of the season. His Opening Day start was pretty much as Rich Hilly as you can get - he showed the stuff, striking out three and making a few hitters look utterly lost in spite of his complete inability to control the ball. That inability to control the ball manifested itself in the form of two hits batsmen and a walk in only 2.2 innings pitched. Hill was obviously far from right.
So what's wrong?
Release points are key, just ask 50 Cent. If a lefty like Hill releases the ball a split second too late to a lefty, it's low and away, possibly past your catcher. Throw it a bit too early and you've hit Adam Eaton on the first pitch of the season while simultaneously giving your whole fan base an aneurysm.
Let's look at those release points. The charts below show where he released the ball from the catcher's perspective. The first is from his 2015 season, the second is from his Opening Day start Monday against the White Sox.
On Monday, Hill's release point was significantly lower than it was last season and presumably, he wants to get back to the release point he had before. Arm slot is dictated and affected by pitching mechanics as a whole, so it's not the easiest fix in the world. Presuming Hill and the A's do indeed want his 2015 repertoire, he'll have to find the same mechanics he had last season so he can get to regain his release point and therefore his command. As of now, he's often below the ball, causing pitches to sail up above the zone or end up in the lefty batters box.
Release points also affect movement which again in turn affect command. Fixing his release point will help him stabilize his movement and therefore find the zone. Plus, movement is obviously a huge part of pitching. Let's look at how much Hill's pitches moved last season:
Compared to Monday.
These are movement charts. The X axis represent horizontal movement while the Y axis represent vertical movement. Pitches above the center line rise (compared to a pitch with no spin), pitches below it drop. Pitches to the left of the center line break away from left handed hitters, pitches to the right break towards them.
Last season, Hill's pitches were fairly well clustered by type. When he threw a curveball, you could be reasonably certain it would drop around eight inches and break about nine inches towards the right handed batters box.
On Monday, Hill threw 16 curveballs and a fourth of them were complete duds, barely breaking at all. He still dropped in some beauties and flashed the brilliance he showed in Boston last year, but even his best curveballs didn't have the movement they did last season. And of course, he wasn't accurate with it, throwing it for a called ball 44% of the time, up from 29.52% last season.
Overall, Hill's movement was much less consistent Monday than it was last season. His curveball was a hanger a good portion of the time and his slider and changeup were ineffective, too. On the chart above, his pitches don't cluster like they did in 2015 meaning less movement with less consistency and a subsequent inability to find the strike zone.
An important reminder
This is, of course, an analysis of a single game. It seems like it could be a quick fix and there's a chance Hill's on top of the ball tomorrow in his 7 inning, 12 strikeout performance against the Mariners. The small sample caveat is a little less important for something like release point, an issue Hill himself has acknowledged, but it's still a tiny sample.
Plus, Hill had a lot of factors going against him Monday.
-It was a spot start meaning less prep time, one less day of rest, and just a funky way to start the year.
-Billy Burns read on Adam Eaton's flyball was just atrocious
-Mark Canha/Marcus Semien combined for a pathetic error that truly caused Hill's exit.
-The A's are required by baseball law to lose the first game of the season if they wish to be successful, so really Hill did us all a favor.
The A's don't need Hill to be the Cy Young worthy pitcher he was for four starts last year, they need someone who can throw strikes and hold down a spot in the rotation. Dominance would be nice, but I don't think anyone is really expecting that.
Hill seems to have a major mechanical flaw right now, one that's causing him to miss spots by multiple feet while simultaneously hanging pitches. Even with that flaw, he still showed flashes of amazing stuff. His curveball can be dominant even if it moves a little less than it did last year, provided he can command it. His fastball is still moving like it did last season when it was one of the best in the league. Hill's upside is still very, very real.
So back to the drawing board for Hill and Curt Young. There are adjustments to be made and Hill's ceiling is still nearly limitless. But the clock is starting to tick and the we'll need to see results, soon. Let's hope the A's can do what they've done with oh so many pitchers before and fix Rich Hill. It shouldn't be a big fix, it's only been six months since he was right. But it's a fix that needs to be made.