Playoff Prospect Retro: Rich Hill
Rich Hill was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the fourth round of the 2002 draft, out of the University of Michigan. He was erratic in college, dominating at times with his big-breaking curveball, but struggling to locate his average fastball. He struggled badly in his pro debut, posting an 8.36 ERA with a 12/14 K/BB in 14 innings for Boise in the Northwest League. I'd have rated him a Grade C at the time. He had a live arm but was very erratic and didn't have as much polish as most college pitchers, especially with his mechanics.
Hill started 2003 with Lansing in the Midwest League, posting a 2.76 ERA and a 50/36 K/BB in 29 innings. . .his command was terrible. Despite the low ERA, he was sent back to Boise when the Northwest League opened up in June. He posted a 4.35 ERA but a 99/32 K/BB in 68 innings. . . outstanding K/IP ratio but still erratic. I gave him a Grade C, but noted that Hill "could develop suddenly, or languish indefinitely."
The Cubs moved Hill to Daytona in the Florida State League in 2004. Again, he was erratic, posting a 4.03 ERA and a 136/72 K/BB in 109 innings. . .again, outstanding strikeout rate, but too many walks, his command harmed by sloppy mechanics. He was also 24 years old, not exactly young for the Florida State League. I gave him another Grade C, but noted that "he's a guy with great potential, but can he harness it?"
2005 was a strange season for Hill. He ended up pitching at four levels: Peoria in the Midwest League, West Tennessee in Double-A, Iowa in Triple-A, and with the Cubs. He made huge improvement with his mechanics in spring training, and also got a lot more aggressive about using his fastball to go with the nasty curve. His strikeout rate was incredible: 194/35 K/BB in 131 minor league innings. Note the much improved command. But his K/BB in the majors was 21/17 in 24 innings, with an ERA of 9.13. I gave him a Grade B-, noting that Hill was difficult to predict, but that he was a very interesting prospect and could turn out to be "quite good." I also noted that he was 26, and that players who take bit steps forward like that often take big steps backward just as quickly.
But Hill had a great year in 2006, solidifying his progress and posting a 135/21 K/BB in 100 innings in Triple-A, then a 90/39 K/BB and 4.17 ERA in 99 innings in the majors. This year he went 11-8, 3.92 (ERA+ 116) with a 183/63 K/BB in 195 innings. Now 27, Hill likely has several strong seasons ahead of him provided his command stays where it is now.
In terms of prospecting, Hill is a case study of the importance of K/IP, sort of the flip side of Fausto Carmona.