Thrown a Curve

Yogi Berra once said the game of baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical…. unfortunately that describes Rich Hill. The very talented southpaw possesses all of the talent needed to succeed at the big league level, he proved that a year ago. And after a solid, to very good, first full season in the majors, Hill has regressed….but why?

Before the season started, most would agree that in order for the Cubs to return to the post season they needed Rich Hill to take his game to the next level. Lou Piniella mentioned Hill’s importance to the Cubs after his demotion to Iowa and said it would be difficult to replace his 200 innings and they hoped Hill would get it together and return soon.

Hill started 4 games in Arizona this past spring and pitched in 2 others out of the pen with similar results as his 5 starts in the regular season before being optioned to Iowa. Piniella stressed the importance of a fast start to the season, and for the most part, the majority of the roster responded with a solid start, with the exception of Rich Hill.

The final straw came on a Friday night in St. Louis when Hill walked in a run in the 1st inning after walking 4 of the 6 batters he faced in just 2/3 of an inning. Hill was sent down the next day in favor of Sean Gallagher.

Hill was effective in his first start at Iowa (2 runs on 7 hits in 5 innings with 5 strikeouts, a walk and a home run) and picked up a win on a Sunday in the first game of a twin bill between the I-Cubs and Portland Beavers. Hill allowed only 3 hits in 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball. struck out 8 but walked 4 more batters. In 25 1/3 innings (6 starts) at Iowa, Hill has given up 19 hits, struck out 31 and walked 24.

It would be easy to dismiss Rich Hill as another failed prospect or a AAAA pitcher, but the Cubs, and especially Lou Piniella, see more than that in him.

Rich Hill began making waves in the Cubs system back in 2004. Hill and his tremendous 12-6 curveball put up solid numbers in the Florida State League (7-6 with a 4.03 ERA in 28 games, 19 starts, with 136 strikeouts and 72 walks in 109 1/3 innings with a 1.46 WHIP) and showed more improvement in three different stops in 2005 (11-4 with a 3.31 ERA in 21 starts, 22 games, with 194 strikeouts and 35 walks in 130 2/3 innings for Peoria, West Tenn and Iowa). Hill made his less than stellar big league debut on June 15, 2005 in an inning of relief against the Marlins at Wrigley. Hill gave up 2 runs on 3 hits with 2 strikeouts.

Hill made his first Major League start on July 25th against the Giants and was effective in 5 innings of work. He allowed 2 runs on 5 hits with 5 strikeouts and 2 walks in a 3-2 Cubs’ win and followed up with a good start against the Diamondbacks on July 30th. Hill spent September of 2005 watching from the pen (0-0 in 2 games, allowed 4 runs on a hit with 4 walks and no strikeouts in 2 1/3 innings) and started 2006 back in Iowa.

Hill once again put up big numbers in Triple-A and was given the uncreative title of a ‘4-A Pitcher‘. Hill was recalled on May 1st to take Glendon Rusch’s spot in the rotation and made his first start on May 4th in Arizona. Hill did not show any improvement and was shelled in his first 4 outings (0-4 with a 9.31 ERA and a 1.97 WHIP with 11 strikeouts and 15 walks in 19 1/3 innings).

After a loss on the South Side against the Sox on May 20th (7 runs on 5 hits in 4 innings with 5 walks and 2 strikeouts), he made comments that were not too well received following The Barrett-Pierzynski Game and was once again sent back down to Triple-A.

Hill’s numbers remained impressive at Iowa (7-1 in 15 starts with a 1.80 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP with 135 strikeouts and 21 walks in 100 innings) and was once again recalled on July 27th. Hill turned in a decent start on the same day against the Cardinals at Wrigley. He allowed 4 runs on 6 hits in 3 1/3 innings but showed more confidence and poise than in his previous outings. The Cubs won the game and Hill earned another start.

On August 1, 2006, Hill appeared to put it all together. He turned in a tremendous start against the Diamondbacks at Wrigley and allowed on 3 runs on 6 hits in 8 innings with 6 strikeouts and 1 walk. The Cubs won the game 9-3 and Hill earned his first big league victory. He followed up his start against Arizona with a 7 inning, 9-strikeout performance against the Pirates.

Hill excelled as a starter for the remainder of the lost season (6-3 in 12 starts, 13 games, with a 2.93 and a 1.05 WHIP with 79 strikeouts and 24 walks in 80 innings) and gave the Cubs’ brass, as well as the Faithful, reasons to believe he would fulfill his promise.

Hill was solid in the spring of 2007, did not walk a batter and earned a spot in Lou Piniella’s rotation. He started off last season like he pitched in Arizona (3-1 in 5 starts with a 1.77 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP with 29 strikeouts and 11 walks in 35 2/3 innings) and had many suggesting he would soon replace the struggling Carlos Zambrano as the Cubs’ number one pitcher. But something changed on May 22nd against Greg Maddux and the Padres in San Diego….and he has not been the same since.

Hill posted consecutive losses to Mets and Phillies in the horrible East Coast swing last May. The entire team did not play well, just not Rich Hill. But despite his struggles he was still 4-3 with a 2.91 ERA entering his start against the Padres. Hill struck out 8 batters on that Tuesday night and gave up just 6 hits but 4 of them were home runs….two each by Mike Cameron and Adrian Gonzalez. Hill’s numbers steadily declined throughout June and was rocked again by the Padres at Wrigley on June 17th.

Hill gave up 3 more home runs, two more to Mike Cameron and another one to Adrian Gonzalez. He left after the 3rd inning of an 11-3 Cubs’ loss to….Greg Maddux.

Hill received little to no run support for the remainder of the season but never seemed to pitch the same as he did since his start on August 1st of 2006. The confidence was gone and so was his consistency. One start would be great, the next horrible….and so on. Hill still finished the year with an 11-8 record, an ERA under four at 3.92 with a 1.19 WHIP to go along with a great strikeout to walk ratio….183 strikeouts to just 63 walks in 195 innings.

Hill was greeted by Chris Young with a home run to start the third game of the NLDS and managed to complete only 3 innings of work in what would be the last game of the year for the Cubs.

Once again this spring Hill struggled with his command and did not make much improvement when the regular season started. In 19 2/3 innings he walked 18 batters to just 15 strikeouts. His win-loss record did not punch his ticket back to Iowa, his strikeout to walk ratio and average innings per start did (just under 4 innings).

Many have suggested Rich Hill’s biggest problem is that he thinks too much on the mound….instead of just pitching. While Hill’s inconsistency proves that point, could Hill’s success in the minors be his downfall in the majors?

Hill put up tremendous strikeout numbers in a short time. He sat down 626 batters in only 451 2/3 innings while walking only 210 batters in 4 1/2 seasons in the minors. He dominated those hitters and, his inconsistency proves, he is trying to do the same in the majors. Hill appears to be trying to throw the perfect pitch every time he takes the mound and has yet to figure out, in his own head, that he cannot be perfect every time out.

Big league hitters are going to get their hits, it is up to big league pitchers to limit the damage and pick up the win. Once Rich Hill realizes a successful pitcher does not have to be a strikeout pitcher, like Greg Maddux did a long time ago, he will be a winning pitcher for many years in the Major Leagues…. and those numbers he appears to be striving for will come as well. But until that day comes, he will continue to frustrate himself, his coaches and his team.

Quote of the Day

"People who write about Spring Training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball." – Sandy Koufax