Rich Hill: “A Role Model for Failure”

The Dodgers and Rich Hill announced their agreement at a ballroom podium in a sprawling Marriott hotel property in National Harbor, Maryland, in December. Hill fought back emotion through the press conference after signing a three-year, $48 million agreement at the winter meetings.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to do this… There’s a lot of emotion up here,” said Hill to reporters, explaining the reason for his pauses. “It’s been an incredible journey to get to this point.”

This was a player who had been through much professionally (nearly losing a career) and personally (losing an infant son in 2014), the latter event placing life and the game in perspective.

Hill’s unlikely and unusual success story has multiple layers. There’s the work he did to strengthen his body and arm. There was the counsel of Red Sox pitching guru Brian Bannister, who helped him with his pitch mix and philosophy. There’s the bet he made on himself, believing he could return to a rotation despite having not started a major-league game since 2009, showcasing himself starter with the independent Long Island Ducks in the summer of ’15 to prove it.

But another compelling aspect of Hill’s reclamation story is the process of sorting through what’s effective and what isn’t in the midst of failure. What’s so interesting is the process Hill took in climbing from the nadir of a career to become one of the most effective pitchers per inning last season. In a sport that deals so much with failure, Hill’s story is perhaps an instructional one.

Hill described himself as “a role model for failure” in an excellent L.A. Times feature by Andy McCullough.

Hill is indeed a model to follow — for how he employed all the tools available to him and for the curiosity and purpose he exhibited along the way.

Consider what Hill told Tim Britton in a Q & A piece for Baseball Prospectus last year:

I go back to the year when I was with Cleveland (in 2013). I didn’t have a very good year, but I went back and looked at xFIP, FIP, DRA, and all those numbers were very good for me. What does that say? It says you’re pitching above average; however, your ERA wasn’t showing that. And again, ERA is ERA at the end of the day. You’re giving up runs. It just kind of reinforced to me that I was pitching a lot better than what the actual numbers showed. So when you dive in a little bit more and find out some of the deeper numbers, it just reinforced that you were throwing the ball well out of the bullpen. Just continue to stay on that same path and don’t change.

Hill was, in essence, learning to judge himself by a personal standard of performance, independent of other factors.

If making outcome-based judgments of performance, a pitcher who records a poor outing or elevated ERA early in the season might make mechanical or pitch-selection changes that are not only unnecessary but detrimental. If the underlying skills and approach are productive, but the batted balls have simply evaded teammates’ gloves, any changes a pitcher makes might actually represent a step back. Without employing the available pitch-tracking technologies and new-age measurements, pitchers can be stumbling in the dark in a search for answers.

Now the pitch-tracking tools exist to allow pitchers to better trust the process and be less influenced by the results of an inning, game, or even a stretch of games. Pitchers should be better able to understand personal and league standards and how they are improving or regressing.

When Hill was with the Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate in 2015, the stadium was equipped with TrackMan Doppler radar pitch tracking, which gave Hill the spin rates of his pitches. He became interested in spin rate for the first time. He spoke in the Baseball Prospectus piece about his desire for his spin axis on his fastball and curveball to “mirror” each other.

In a piece on how no one spins curveballs like Hill, our old friend August Fagerstrom noted last summer that you don’t hear many pitchers discuss spin “axis” or perceived velocity. But we should hear more pitchers articulate such concepts. There’s a way to present helpful data in digestible ways. While the stigma concerning data and quantitative analysis has eroded to some degree among major leaguers, there’s still room to grow with regard to the acceptance and adoption of data in clubhouses. It’s still up to individual players in how much they’re willing to employ all the information available. Hill is an example of a player embracing data and science to his great benefit, as he explained in his chat last May with Baseball Prospectus:

I think you can do paralysis by analysis. But if you can say one thing will help this guy realize that, ‘Hey, your curveball is your best pitch. If you throw that at a higher percentage, you’re going to be more successful,’ why wouldn’t that be something the player wants to hear? It benefits the player, benefits the team, benefits the organization.

Perhaps more teams should’ve bought into the Statcast readings last offseason. Those numbers allowed the Hill believers to see through the cloud of uncertainty surrounding his small sample of success at the close of 2015 and to understand its underpinnings.

Hill’s story is also one about the benefits of moving away from convention. It requires one to become less afraid of failure.

When the industry still saw Hill as a situational reliever, he went against convention and bet on himself as a starting pitcher. He changed his arm slot and trusted his signature curveball to an even greater extent. From the L.A. Times piece cited above:

The curve is Hill’s best pitch. Always was. But for most of his career he kept it holstered. Reliance on it violated the sport’s orthodoxy. Pitchers were supposed to lean on the fastball. So Hill abided, even when he couldn’t command the pitch. …. During an hour-long talk, Bannister lobbied Hill to use the curve as his primary pitch. … “It was like this ‘Ohhhh’ moment,” Hill said. “I was just fascinated, because it was a totally different way of looking at pitching than I was used to. But I had always wanted to hear that.”

Hill not only altered the shape and release point of his curveball, essentially turning one pitch into multiple offerings, but he began to trust the pitch in unorthodox situations like when batters are ahead in counts.

Consider the pitch tendencies of the Old Rich Hill vs. the New Rich Hill via Brooks Baseball:

First, Hill’s pitch mix from 2007 to -13:

Now those same numbers, except for 2015 and -16:

Note, for example, Hill’s use of the curveball against right-handed batters who were ahead in the count. In the earlier stage of his career, Hill threw the curve only 19% of the time in those situations. Over the past two years, however, he’s thrown it at a 45% rate — basically as often as his fastball. It’s likely no coincidence that, among left-handed starters, Hill recorded the highest strikeout rate of right-handed batters.

Hill has demonstrated to baseball how to fail — or rather, how to move through and beyond failure. Part of his story is the value of human perseverance. But Hill has shown players what to search for when struggling, what can help reduce the depth of slumps, he has demonstrated a process that can reveal powerful answers and solutions in this information age.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

May just be my computer or my eyes, but the graphs you used area really blurry and hard to read.

5 years ago
Reply to  Travis Sawchik

Blurry for me too. It looks clear, but small, when I zoom out on the webpage. My monitor resolution didn’t seem to affect it too much. Checked between 1280 x 1024 up to 1920 x 1080.