MESA, Ariz. – At an age when many Major League pitchers begin pondering their life after baseball, 35-year-old Rich Hill is embarking on a new beginning in the game.
Actually, there have been many new beginnings.
The A’s are the ninth organization for the left-hander, or 10th if you count last summer’s stint with the independent-league Long Island Ducks.
Hill’s transaction history runs the gamut. He’s been released, non-tendered, traded and designated for assignment. But this winter brought a new twist in the form of a one-year, $6 million contract from Oakland, which was looking to add some veteran leadership to a rotation that is very green beyond All-Star ace Sonny Gray.
Hill’s track record suggests it’s a dicey proposition, being that the New England native has worked almost exclusively as a reliever since 2009. His lifetime record: 26-23 with a 4.54 ERA.
Yet those who know Hill best point to his perseverance as a reason to believe the twilight years of his career might be his finest.
“I think the most impressive thing is he’s never given up,” said Yankees scout Matt Hyde, a longtime friend who recruited Hill to the University of Michigan 17 years ago. “He has such conviction in what he can do on the field.”
That was on display last fall after he signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox. Hill earned a promotion to Boston and posted a 1.55 ERA over four September starts, including his first big league shutout in nine years. He became the first American League pitcher in the last 100 years to record 10-plus strikeouts in his first three starts with a team.
It speaks to what, at times, can be dominant stuff from the 6-foot-5 lefty.
“He’s got a breaking ball from hell,” said Ace Adams, a pitching coach in Detroit’s minor league system and Hill’s longtime offseason pitching tutor. “His ball moves so much that you don’t see it. He’s all arms. Every team has it -- one of those guys that no one wants to play catch with. They’ll probably have to get a clubhouse kid to throw with him.”
The curve has come natural for Hill ever since his oldest brother, Lloyd, taught it to him when Hill was 16. That pitch served him well as he broke into the majors with the Cubs. Hill went 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA in 32 starts with Chicago in 2007.
But commanding the strike zone became a problem, setting in motion a game of career ping-pong as Hill bounced from organization to organization. He’s spent three separate stints with the Red Sox as part of his numerous transactions. He was released by the Angels in 2014 and released by the Nationals in June 2015.
That’s when Hill, after years of working out of the bullpen, decided he wanted to start again.
“I thought he was nuts to be honest with you,” Hyde said. “At age 35, to do that, that’s a real risky move. But again, it was what he wanted to do, and he believed he could do it.”
And, just as former A’s lefty Scott Kazmir did, Hill was willing to go to the independent leagues to get his career back on track. Hill signed on with the Long Island Ducks, playing alongside many others dreaming of a big league future.
Unlike most of the others, Hill had a big league past. Not that he played up that angle.
“It’s baseball,” said Hill, who turns 36 this month. “If you shave down everything in Major League Baseball, that’s what it is. Ninety feet … 60 feet, 6 inches. All the dimensions are the same. Guys love to play the game, and they all want the same opportunity. They want to get here.”
Some crucial adjustments on the mound helped his cause. He got back to the more over-the-top delivery that he used early in his career. He slid to the very right side of the rubber to start his windup, which kept his pitches in the strike zone when he did drop down to the side to give hitters a different look.
Hill has averaged 4.2 walks per nine innings over his career, but in the four starts with the Red Sox, he struck out 36 and walked just five in 29 innings.
“Last year, he found a way to throw strikes earlier in the count,” said a Major League scout that watched him. “He had better location than I think he ever had before.”
But can Hill transfer that success to the A’s and extend it over a full season? He’ll make his Oakland debut Saturday in a Cactus League game against the Milwaukee Brewers. Hill isn’t looking any farther down the road.
“When you stay in the moment you can focus on pitch to pitch,” he said. “You don’t go into a game thinking about the end result because you’ll never get there. You have to think about how you’re gonna get to that point.”