Red Sox Starter Rich Hill Can Still Pitch

The rest of the Boston Red Sox season is about figuring out what they have with the players on their roster. Most of those players are youngsters who need to prove themselves, but there is one veteran trying to prove something. Ian York takes a look at Red Sox starter Rich Hill to see how the 36-year-old is proving he still belongs in the big leagues.

A summary of Rich Hill’s 11-year career in Major League Baseball goes something like this: decent starter, injured, injured, injured, injured, good reliever, terrible reliever, injured, injured, injured, injured. He is now 35-years-old and has spent far more time injured than healthy.

But on the rare occasions that he has been healthy, he has shown flashes of being a very good pitcher. He has started two games this season for the Red Sox, and both have been quite impressive: both went 7 innings, and he struck out 10 batters in each.

Hill throws the usual collection of pitches: four-seam fastball, curve, slider and change. (The automated PITCHf/x classification seems to have significant trouble with his pitches, so for the charts here I have manually corrected obvious errors. In particular, PITCHf/x claims he throws a two-seam fastball, which is probably not the case, and underestimates the number of sliders by blending them in with his curve.)

Rich Hill IMG 1

His changeup is interesting in that he threw none in his first game, against Tampa Bay, and 17 a week later vs Toronto. He threw the change only to right-handed batters, but the Tampa Bay lineup is predominately right-handed, so that does not explain why he didn’t throw any in the Tampa game.

Hill’s fastball has average speed (average velocity this year 90.6 mph, according to PITCHf/x), but exceptional movement both horizontally and vertically. PITCHf/x suggests that he mainly throws a four-seam fastball, which matches up with the considerable rise he generates on these pitches, but there is also a lot of two-seamer-like horizontal movement that comes from his three-quarters arm angle. Interestingly, in the two games he threw so far, his fastballs have moved in somewhat different directions, with more horizontal movement in the first game and more vertical movement in the second.

RH_3D (1)

His signature pitch this year, as it has been throughout his career, is his curve. He has thrown it over 40% of the time this year. It has extreme movement both vertically and horizontally, and he can change the direction of the break dramatically. We can compare the average horizontal and vertical movement of Hill’s curves (the red dot) to that of all other left-handed pitchers this year:

Rich Hill IMG 3

A few pitchers have more vertical movement than Hill, but none have more horizontal movement on average.

Unlike most pitchers, many of his curves are in the strike zone: Fewer than 30% are balls, with over 35% of them being called strikes. He does this by throwing the pitch high and letting it drop into the strike zone, rather than trying to draw swinging strikes by dropping the curve out of the bottom of the zone. He creates more deception with his changeup, which he often threw high. Unlike his curve, his changeups don’t drop into the zone, which must force batters to hesitate at least briefly before deciding whether to swing.

Rich Hill IMG 4

An animation comparing his fastball and his curve highlights the movement on each. These pitches are close to his average in terms of speed, break and location. The curve was thrown to Logan Forsythe at Tampa Bay on Sept 13, for a called strike; the fastball was to Edwin Encarnacion, in Toronto on Sept. 20, and was fouled off.

Rich Hill IMG 5

The lines in these charts show the path the pitch would take in the absence of any spin on the ball — that is, under the influence of gravity only. Without any spin, these pitches would have ended up several feet apart, but the strong rise and arm-side movement on the fastball, and the sink and glove-side movement on the curve, causes them to end up in virtually the same spot in the strike zone, albeit over a tenth of a second apart, and with the curve only dropping into the strike zone in the last few hundredths of a second.

Hill has shown great results in his first two major-league starts, but he is no 22-year-old rookie phenom: He is a 35-year-old pitcher with a long, long history of injuries who has made just two good starts in the past 6 years. Still, he has been an effective pitcher at times in the past, and this look at his pitches suggests he may have some more good years left in his arm.


Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

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