Rich Hill Can Go Home Again

You already basically know how these free agent pieces go. Team signs player! The player makes sense for the team, because, well, that’s why they signed him. If you look on the bright side, it could be a great fit. If you inject a little realism, there’s certainly a chance it doesn’t end up in smiles all around. Throw in some analysis and projections, and bam, you’ve got an article going.

As is probably clear from that introduction, I’m not doing that today. Baseball is a real bummer right now. I might spend the next week trying to understand the phrase “defensive lockout,” which makes about as much sense as the Rockies’ personnel decisions. There won’t be much news at all, and what news there is will feature headlines like “League accuses MLBPA of witchcraft.”

Forget all that. Before the curtains closed, the Red Sox signed Rich Hill to a one-year deal for $5 million plus incentives. Good God, does Rich Hill love the Red Sox. This is already his seventh time signing with them (2010, 2010 again, 2011, 2014, 2014 again, 2015, and now 2021). He’s from Milton, 10 miles (or 45 minutes in miserable traffic on the 93) from Fenway Park. He attended the 2004 championship parade with his dad, for crying out loud.

As much as Rich Hill loves signing with the Red Sox, the Red Sox love Rich Hill. Again, they’ve signed him seven times. Many of those times were as a reclamation project, sure, but come on, how could you not love him? He’s Boston’s grumpy everyman. He chooses hilarious nicknames for Players Weekend. He barks at his managers if he disagrees with them, wears his emotions on his sleeve, and generally looks like he’s leaving it all on the field every time out. Off the field, he and his wife get arrested trying to bring oversized bags into Patriots games. How has Hill not always been on the Sox?

Will Hill be a good fit for the team? Of course he will! He’s 42, and throws in the 80s, and is still great. Last year, he looked completely washed … on his way to 158 innings of 3.86 ERA (4.34 FIP) baseball. He was a league-average starter, in other words, which makes seven straight years since his miraculous Boston-based comeback (when the team signed him out of indy ball) with an ERA below four.

Steamer doesn’t buy it, projecting him for a 5.12 ERA this year. Personally, Steamer, I’d watch your back; Hill might have a word or two for you if you met him in person. I don’t need that projection system, though, because I have my own. ZiPS, you might ask? Nope, I didn’t feel like we needed that here. Instead, I’ve gotten projections from RiPS, which stands for Rich is Pitching Superlatively:

RiPS Projection – Rich Hill
2022 30 28 165 4.15 23 57 148 1.8 983 3 1.7

If he pitches to this line, he’ll earn $8 million next year and be well worth it for Boston. But hey, you’re probably less interested in that and more interested in why you don’t know three of the statistics my new system spits out. Let’s go through them.

This is the times, per nine innings, that Rich Hill yells “Do you like apples??” Interestingly, the model projects that out of the 33 times Hill yells it, 17 will come in a single start against the Rays, when over six clean innings, Hill screams at Kevin Cash after every out save the last one, when he instead switches to “How do you like them apples?” It’s a very specific model, in case you can’t tell.

That’s “beautiful curveballs,” and the model thinks Hill will throw a ton of them. He threw 1,101 curves in 2021 per Pitch Info, the most he’s thrown in a single season in his entire career, and an impartial observer would call most of them beautiful. Hill’s curveball has gotten meaningfully slower over the years. It averaged 71.6 mph last year, his lowest career mark. That slower velocity led to more time for the ball to break — nearly a foot of sideways movement, to be precise. Boy, this pitch is hilarious:

Victor Robles is going to need some help extricating his cleats from the ground after that windmill swing. Hill threw it directly down the middle, at 71 miles an hour, in a count where Robles was likely to swing. Didn’t matter! Maybe the model’s BC reading is too low.

That’s “Players Weekend jerseys rejected,” naturally. The model thinks the league will look askance at a repeat “D. Mountain” performance, and that Hill’s next two suggestions won’t pass muster either. It didn’t give a prediction for what the name would end up being, but I’m reasonably sure the crowd will eat it up.

Am I giving Hill short shrift by playing his signing for laughs? That’s certainly not my intention. I think this is a great signing for Boston. They need rotation depth, and for the cost, a guy who will likely pitch 100 solid innings and might be good for more is an incredible find. It’s my opinion that every team should have seven capable starters, and having one of those be a Boston local with giffable stuff and a wonderful backstory is even better.

If I were a rival team, I would have been tempted to offer Hill more. Those Steamer numbers aren’t kidding — there’s a real chance he doesn’t amount to much next year. He’s almost always good for an IL stint or two, and his fingers blister like so much skin in the summer sun after a cold New England winter. The decline in strikeout rate over the past two seasons should scare the Red Sox. But it’s $5 million, and innings are valuable, whether they’re thrown by a 42-year-old throwing 88 mph or a 24-year-old throwing 97.

Maybe Hill just wasn’t interested in more, though. Again, he’s signed with the Red Sox seven times. When I’m not sure what to do, I like to shuffle poker chips, or any random coin-shaped objects I have on hand. It clears my mind. When Hill isn’t sure what to do, maybe he just signs with the Red Sox. Hey, it’s worked before: since that most recent signing in 2015, he’s made roughly $60 million dollars. He’s not getting paid for nothing, either: his 3.15 ERA over that time period is seventh-best among pitchers who have thrown at least 600 innings, wedged between Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. He’s been amazing, and this might be his swan song. Can you blame him for wanting to do it somewhere familiar?

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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11 months ago

Thank you for the light hearted article Ben. I think you have read the room perfectly. I also love that Rich is coming back home and I think this is a great signing no matter how it all pans out for him and the team next year.