Well, well, well. If isn’t our old friend, Rich Hill.
Although Kenta Maeda and Clayton Kershaw got things started on the mound for the Dodgers in Chicago, it’ll be Rich Hill who takes the ball in Game 3 of the NLCS in Los Angeles.
I say “our old friend, Rich Hill,” of course, because in another life, Hill came up through the Cubs’ system and was a starter for the playoff bound 2007 and 2008 Chicago Cubs (though injuries and command problems scuttled his 2008 season).
Hill has since bounced around between the Orioles, Red Sox, Indians, Yankees, and Nationals organizations, before making an impressive comeback late last year by returning to the Red Sox, and then an even more impressive comeback with the Oakland A’s (as a 36-year-old pitcher) here in 2016. But before you could say, “I loved Brad Pitt in Moneyball,” Billy Beane traded Hill to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the August 1 deadline, and here he stands directly in the Cubs’ path.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that I’ve been previewing the Cubs’ opposing starters since the NLDS, to discern what makes the tick and how the Cubs can beat them. And while it hasn’t always worked out (Kershaw, Moore), sometimes it does (Maeda) and it’s usually pretty fun. So, let’s turn our attention to Rich Hill and see what we can find.
First and foremost, you should know that although Hill has made an almost impossibly awesome comeback here in 2016, he hasn’t been completely healthy throughout the season. But unlike the struggles of most pitchers, Hill’s injuries – a groin issue, and then a series of increasingly worsening blisters – are probably a bit more frustrating than most. Because of these issues, Hill made just 20 starts during the regular season, totaling just 110.1 innings pitched. Then he started twice in the NLDS – on extremely short rest, before his scheduled start tonight against the Cubs.
But before we get into his postseason starts, let’s check out his numbers during the regular season. In case you were unaware, Hill made just one start from July 18 – September 3, so let’s break his season into two halves, and see if anything changed from his time with the A’s to his time with the Dodgers.
Rich Hill: Oakland Athletics, 2016
- 14 starts, 76.0 innings pitched
- 2.25 ERA, 2.54 FIP, 3.56 xFIP
- 28.9% strikeout rate, 9.0% walk rate
- .290 BABIP, 78.2% strand rate, 50.0% ground ball rate, 3.2% HR/FB ratio
- .200 AVG
Rich Hill: Los Angeles Dodgers, 2016
- 6 starts, 34.1 innings pitched
- 1.83 ERA, 2.07 FIP, 2.91 xFIP
- 30.5% strikeout rate, 3.9% walk rate
- .297 BABIP, 71.8% strand rate, 41.9% ground ball rate, 7.1% HR/FB ratio
- .179 AVG
So that’s obviously not the best news, as Hill improved upon just about all of his overall numbers, despite regressing to a bit more sustainable BABIP, strand rate, and home run to fly ball ratio. In short, Hill was dominant with the A’s and even more dominant with the Dodgers. It was a small sample, but he very clearly looked good and helped them overcome the Giants to clinch the NL West.
[Brett: One additional stray “for what it’s worth”: Hill does not have dramatic lefty-righty splits this year, so the Cubs starting an extra lefty bat in Miguel Montero – he catches Jake Arrieta starts now – should not be an issue.]
But it isn’t all bad news. As we know, Hill has not only dealt with lingering blister issues, but he also made two starts (on very short rest) in the NLDS – pitching Game 2 and Game 5. And, it seems, the season may finally be catching up to him. Check out his box score stats from those two games against the Nationals:
- NLDS Game 2: 4.1 IP, 4 earned runs, 6 hits, 2 BBs, 7 Ks, 2 HBP
- NLDS Game 5: 2.2 IP, 1 earned runs, 3 hits, 2 BBs, 6 Ks
Well then, that’s a bit more doable. Although he’s struck out a ridiculous 37% of the batters he’s faced in the playoffs, he’s also walked 11.4% of them (plus two more free passes on a HBP). That’s six free bases against 35 hitters. Combined with the number of strikeouts, too, and it’s not difficult to see why he was pulled early in either game. If the Cubs can manage to do some damage or get him out early, I like their chances against the Dodgers’ pen. In sum, that’s a 6.43 ERA in the postseason on the strength of a .310/.429/.414 slash line.
Now, that’s something the Cubs can work with.
And although they are just the two most recent starts (of a season in which he otherwise dominated), I’d argue that they are actually quite a bit more important for a guy like Hill – an older pitcher riding a comeback, who has dealt with injuries this season, and doesn’t have a long track record of success.
But those were in the past, so let’s focus on what he might throw the Cubs tonight.
Rich Hill’s Pitch Mix/Value 2016:
- Fastball (65.7%): 12.8
- Curveball (28.9%): 16.0
- Cutter (2.4%): 0.00
- Change-up (2.0%): 1.2
- Slider (1.1%): -1.0
Like most pitchers without a ton of velocity, Hill wants to make use of a very wide-repertoire, using as many as five pitches during the regular season. That said, it’s pretty much either the fastball (at 89.6 MPH) or the curveball (at 72.4 MPH) 95% of the time. Those two pitches alone have carried him through this career renaissance and he’ll have to use them both a lot if he hopes to find holes in the Cubs’ lineup.
For what it’s worth, Hill threw exclusively fastballs and curveballs (besides one single slider) in Game 2 of the NLDS and exclusively fastballs and curveballs (besides one single change-up) in Game 5 of the NLDS.
So, yeah. Rich Hill is what he is: a veteran, left-handed starting pitcher experiencing a bit of performance spike late in his career, who relies primarily on just two pitches and not much velocity. If the Cubs can track that curveball well (which won’t be easy), they should be able to hit Hill fine. If not, he can take himself out of a game with too many deep counts and walks (like he did in Games 2 and 5 of the NLDS). Overall, like I’ve said at least three times before, this starter is beatable, and the Cubs need to beat him.