The loss of Josh Reddick is no doubt the saddest part of this trade deadline for most A’s fans (or at least, the most bittersweet for those that revel in trades). Me personally, though - I’m nearly as sad to lose Rich Hill. I’ve been an A’s fan for several years now, but I didn’t become diehard until after the 2012 season, meaning I missed Reddick’s presence in the most amazing comeback season our team has ever witnessed. Reddick has always been special to me, but I was missing that core memory that helped make him so many people’s favorite player. On the other hand, I’ve been closely observing the Rich Hill saga since day one, and while he wasn’t with the team long he quickly became one of my favorite A’s.
It’s important to remember years from now how much Hill redeemed an otherwise forgettable season. Hill’s starts became events, moments we tuned in to watch even as the team floundered and other things in life competed for our attention. It was a common sentiment on AN and Hill went as far as earning himself a nickname here, "The Bishop," due to the extreme diagonal movement on his curveball.
So I guess I just wanted to take a few paragraphs to look at the season Hill had, what we got for him at the deadline, and how his whole A’s saga looks with the benefit of hindsight.
Rich Hill’s origin story must be nearly as well known and iconic as Batman’s at this point, at least amongst diehard A’s fans. To briefly recap: Hill came up to the major leagues with the Cubs way back in 2005, and after a couple of so-so seasons as a starting pitcher, spent the better part of a decade bouncing between the rotation, the bullpen, and the disabled list. Hill has played on over half a dozen different teams and was a perennial trade chip until he required Tommy John Surgery in 2011. Hill made an unlikely comeback with the Indians in 2013 before suffering the tragic loss of his son Brooks in 2014 and eventually found himself out of the MLB playing independent ball with the Long Island Ducks. Late in 2015, Hill re-signed with the Red Sox and pitched four fantastic starts for Boston in September. It was arguably the best 4 consecutive starts any pitcher would put together all year, and many teams had to ask themselves after the season ended: could he do it again?
Oakland was betting he could. He was acquired on a 1-year, $6 million contract by the A’s with a guaranteed spot in the starting rotation. Fans were intrigued by the potential of the deal, as it offered a low-risk, high-reward approach on a bounce back candidate with a heroic backstory and a hallucinogenic curveball.
But Spring Training came on like a fever dream. Hill couldn’t find the strike zone to save his life or the life of the batters he plunked so regularly. He was walking seemingly half the batters he faced and was hitting the rest with pitches to the point that it felt almost vindictive. Hill assured us that he was always rusty in Spring Training and that he just had to find his release point, but some fans were already girding their loins for a season's worth of starts from a pitcher with a heat-seeking curveball.
Hill’s first start of the season did nothing to dissuade those fears. Heck, his first pitch of the season was as inauspicious as I can imagine. After Sonny Gray was scratched from Opening Day of 2016 with a stomach bug, Hill was called upon to pitch the critical game on just a few hours’ notice. Hill opened the game by immediately plunking Adam Eaton with his first pitch, and walked/hit a couple more batters in the mere 2 2/3 innings he lasted. Hill was pitching under incredibly non-ideal circumstances, but even I was feeling like the A’s had made a mistake with the rotation guarantee.
But that was it. That start was the lone fluke in an otherwise brilliant, if sparse, body of work this season. Hill would only have two more starts where he failed to go a full 6 innings, and he has not had a single start since opening day where he has given up more than 3 runs, earned or otherwise - and that’s with our defense! He has simply been dominant. If he qualified by throwing more innings, Hill would be 8th in MLB in K/9 and 4th in FIP. He has thrown 3 games this season with 10 strikeouts. Even as essentially a 2-pitch pitcher, he has been almost unhittable when he is on. His curveball has so much movement that even when batters are sitting on it, it always gets hit into the ground. And if they are sitting curveball, Hill will throw a fastball right by them. He may not have velocity, but Rich Hill can play mind games with a batter like few other pitchers I have seen.
Of course, it wasn’t all good. At the end of May, Hill went down with a groin strain, then a few weeks after coming back from the DL he developed this accursed blister that has haunted us the last few weeks and drove down his trade value.
Speaking of trade value, Hill had quite a bit as the best available pitching rental on the market, blister notwithstanding. While Hill was part of a 2-man trade, it seems safe to say that he was worth at least Grant Holmes on his own.
The Rich Hill signing may go down as one of the most astute moves Beane/Forst have made for this organization. It took considerable foresight and considerable cojones to take on a pitcher as risky and volatile as Hill, but if there was ever an organization with success in developing and revamping pitchers, it would be Oakland. For a $6 million investment based on 4 starts, Oakland got 3 months of one of the best, most entertaining pitchers in baseball, then converted him into a top pitching prospect to sustain the organization for 6+ years into the future.
Can we just appreciate how amazingly good Rich Hill was while he was here and how great his acquisition was for this club? He is pretty much the definition of a journeyman, a player that has bounced from club to club and rotation to bullpen without ever finding a home. He fell from top draft pick to out of MLB, suffered incredible personal loss, then came rocketing back as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball in what would normally be a player’s twilight years. If this were the plot to a movie, it would be written off as cliché, as hackneyed. But it isn’t. Because sometimes real life is more poetic than even the most carefully constructed of fictions. Josh Reddick was representative of one of those "This can’t be real" moments with the 2012 comeback, and Hill had that all on his own. We’re incredibly lucky to have witnessed both of these incredible comebacks here in Oakland.