As he spins one dominant start after another, Rich Hill further justifies a gutsy career move to convert from relieving back to starting.
Lots of pitchers shift from relieving to starting, or vice versa, because their teams want them to try something different. Hill’s effort to work his way back to a major league rotation was self-motivated, and he was willing to sign on with the independent-league Long Island Ducks last summer to make it happen. The lefty hadn’t been a regular starter in the bigs since 2009 with the Baltimore Orioles.
The A’s are now reaping the payoff of all that determination. Hill is emerging as one of the American League’s best individual stories of 2016, the latest proof being a 5-0 victory Monday over the first-place Seattle Mariners. Hill blanked the Mariners over eight innings, allowing a base runner to advance as far as third base in just two of those innings. He struck out six, walked none and lowered his ERA to 2.18, third best in the American League behind the White Sox’s Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.
After Hill dazzled in a four-start audition with the Red Sox last September, the A’s gave him the full-time opportunity he craved, signing him to a one-year, $6 million contract to be the No. 2 starter behind Sonny Gray. With Gray having struggled, and now on the disabled list, the 36-year-old Hill has emerged as the A’s stopper. With him on the mound Monday, you knew chances were solid that Oakland could snap a four-game losing streak.
The opportunity to start has been a late-career rejuvenation for Hill. Some adjustments he hit on last year — moving to the third-base side of the rubber, finding a more over-the-top arm slot — also helped. But those who know him best say Hill has hit on something between the ears as well.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Hill dominates Mariners, A's win 5-0 to end skid]
Ace Adams, the Single-A pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers who has worked with Hill in the offseason for years, discussed Hill’s progression in an interview with CSN California during spring training.
“To me, the thing that’s setting him apart now is his confidence in his stuff, and that wasn’t the case for a long time,” Adams said.
As Hill bounced from organization to organization — the A’s are his ninth big league team — Adams said teams tried to incorporate too many changes into his pitching style.
“There were certain people in the game that tried to change him as far as his tilt, his arm path,” Adams said. “He just got too much information and it kind of clogged up his mind. Where now, he knows exactly what he has to do. He’s not clogged up and he knows exactly what he has to do to perform.”
Few in the American League have performed better this season. Once again Monday, Hill (7-3) displayed the excellent rainbow curve that perplexes hitters even when they know it’s coming. With that pitch working so well, Hill’s low-90’s fastball becomes such a weapon as he moves it around the strike zone. He got strikeouts with both pitches Monday, and his 65 strikeouts total (10.14 per nine innings) are tied for third in the American League.
Among the other positive developments for the A’s in Monday’s victory:
Their middle-of-the-order bats played a central role in the late-inning rallies that powered the win. Stephen Vogt, batting third with Josh Reddick sidelined by a fractured thumb, hit a homer in the seventh off Taijuan Walker to snap a scoreless tie. It was Vogt’s first homer since April 28 and it came a day after he had three RBI against the Yankees.
Cleanup man Danny Valencia, who had a relatively quiet four-game series against the Yankees, had a two-run double in the eighth. He now has 15 RBI in 14 games since returning from the disabled list. As the A’s compensate for the absence of Reddick, they need their heart-of-the-order hitters to get some good vibes going.
A pair of players on minor league rehab assignments took part in Triple-A Nashville’s 7-4 victory over Las Vegas. Jed Lowrie (shin contusion) played second base and went 1-for-4 with a run and a walk. Catcher Josh Phegley (knee strain), serving as DH, went 1-for-3 with two walks. Both could return to the A’s by the middle of the week.