The Return of Rich Hill

Orioles starter Rich Hill made his long-awaited return to the Major League mound on Saturday. Hill was last seen in the majors early last May when he was walking approximately everybody who came to the plate. OK, so maybe it was 20.2% of batters (8.24/9IP), but that’s still obviously unacceptable. This came as a surprise to everybody, as he had walked under 3 per 9 innings just one season before, and 3.53 per 9 in 2006.

There seemed to be two possible explanations. One line of thinking was that Hill had reverted to his pre-2006 walk-happy tendencies. In the minor leagues he had some problems throwing strikes, but seemed to solve them over time. The other theory was that he simply had contracted Steve Blass disease. So Hill was sent all the way down to the Arizona Rookie League at one point, but also spent time in the Single-A Florida State league, making 3 starts, and the Pacific Coast League (AAA), throwing 26 innings over 7 starts.

Regardless of where he went, though, he couldn’t find the plate, walking 28 in 26 innings in AAA, and 44 in 47.2 combined minor league innings. Rich Hill has had success so far this season after being traded to the Orioles and working in AAA. His control wasn’t spot on like it was in 2007 with the Cubs, but it was improving while he maintained his strong strikeout rate. When Hill returned to the major leagues on Saturday, he walked just two batters in 5.2 innings. So it would seem that Hill has improved somewhere. Usually, this is attributed to some kind of mechanical adjustment, either “staying closed,” or finding a consistent release point. I’ve been looking at his release points through pitch f/x to see if the latter is true. Take a look at the following two plots. One is his release point plot from his start on Saturday, the other is from his final MLB start in 2008 where he walked 4 batters in just two thirds of an inning.
release2.jpgrelease.jpgThe dots on graph on the bottom are pretty spread out compared to the graph on top. These are release points, remember, so it looks like his release point for that game was all over the place. That would seem to explain his control problems, right? Wrong. The graph on the bottom, which has the points plotted all over the place, is his game from this May 16th, in which he has just two walks and threw 61% of his pitches for strikes.

So what’s going on here? Has Rich Hill solved his control problems, or hasn’t he? This is where FanGraphs Plate Discipline comes in handy. Hill threw just 40% of his pitches in the strike zone, compared to 56% in the 2007 season. That’s just atrocious. His release point issues haven’t been fixed, and while that didn’t manifest itself in this start, I wouldn’t bet on him having sustained success this year unless he fixes it. Here’s his release point plot from a start against the Brewers in 2007 where he had 9 strikeouts, no walks, and threw 74% of his pitches for strikes:

release07.jpg
See how dense that plot looks around the center of his release point? There are a few outside the center of course, that will happen even with Greg Maddux pitching, but the vast majority fit inside a little 4×4 box in the center. He was extremely consistent that game and it obviously paid off with a dominant performance. I would be wary about picking him up in fantasy leagues until he shows improved consistency with his release points. And Orioles fans should reserve judgment for the time being–I’m just not sold that he’s back to being the very good and occasionally dominant Rich Hill that we saw two and three years ago.

Release point plots courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

Note: I put this up around 12:30 a.m. tonight (morning I guess). Within 90 minutes of me posting this, Harry Pavlidis of The Hardball Times (and Beyond the Box Score and Cubs f/x) posted an article with the same exact title. Great minds think alike. Harry focused on his stuff, while I focused on his control and release point. His article can be found here, I suggest reading that as well.

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7 Responses to The Return of Rich Hill

  1. Millsy says:

    Really cool stuff, Nick. I wish I could have had this stuff to analyze myself when I played.
    Just an additional observation: The ‘centroid’ of the release point in his Saturday and his 2007 Brewers start look to be in similar places (just shy of 1 on the horizontal, or more ‘over the top’), with the 4 BB start a little bit beyond 1 on the horizontal axis. Though it’s very slight (and I’m just eyeballing it). However, the height of the release point doesn’t seem to vary, it looks like the horizontal area of the release point changes in the 4 BB in 2/3 IP outing.
    Maybe his problems stem from ‘dropping down’ more than an inconsistent release point. Since the height doesn’t change, maybe he’s releasing further outside his body, but could be keeping from bending at the waist, and is throwing from a more straight up and down position. Without using his body, he could be trying to control the pitches more with his arm strength, rather than his back/leg strength.
    However…that observation is EXTREMELY slight and the varying release point is the more likely problem. Maybe he just got lucky this weekend…we’ll have to wait and see some more data. REALLY interesting stuff though!

  2. Millsy says:

    Addendum to above, DAN…sorry about the ‘nick’ typo!

  3. Dan Novick says:

    Don’t worry about it

  4. Dan Novick says:

    Rich Hill pitched tonight for the Orioles. His line:
    5.2 IP / 3 H / 2 R / 4 BB / 6 K / 53 of 98 pitches for strikes (54%)
    Let’s see if I remember to track his next start.

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  6. Dan Novick says:

    Rich Hill on 5/27 versus the Blue Jays
    3.1 IP/6H/7R (6ER)/3K/3BB 43 of 73 pitches for strikes (58%)

  7. Dan Novick says:

    I forgot to update this for one of Hill’s previous starts, so I’ll do it now. In his start on June 1, he pitched well, shutting out Seattle for 7 innings while striking out seven and walking 3 batters. He threw 64 of 106 pitches for strikes (60.4%)
    His most recent start was an absolute disaster. Hill recorded only two outs before being pulled, and gave up 3 runs on 4 walks and and no strikeouts. Just 15 of his 39 pitches were strikes (38.5%).
    His next start should be very interesting.

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