Rich Hill Continues Tour of MLB, Signs With Pittsburgh

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Long, successful baseball careers usually have a predictable shape to them. A young, highly-regarded prospect gets his first cup of coffee, then becomes a full-time starter over the next few years, possibly ascending to star level. Then he slowly ages and declines, riding off into the sunset in his late 30s. Some choose not to follow that trend. Jamie Moyer pitched twice as many innings in his 40s as he did in his 20s, finally retiring at the absurd age of 49. In 1965, a 59-year-old Satchel Paige returned to the majors for one more game, and despite his signing being a largely ceremonial move, he still tossed three scoreless innings.

Then there’s Rich Hill. First drafted out of high school in a different millennium, Hill debuted with the Cubs in 2005 at age 25. Over the next decade, he bounced around the league, often struggling with elbow injuries and poor command. At the end of 2014, Hill was a 34-year-old who had played for six different teams, only completing 100 frames in a season once. After opting out of a minor league deal with the Nationals in the middle of the 2015 season, Hill ran out of offers with affiliated clubs. He signed with the independent Long Island Ducks and laid waste to his Atlantic League competition… for two starts. Hill was then tendered a big league contract with his hometown team, the Red Sox, had four excellent starts to close out the season, and has held down a big league roster spot ever since. Hill will begin the upcoming spring training by celebrating his 43rd birthday, making him the oldest major league player since the then 45-year-old Ichiro Suzuki last suited up in 2019. The Pirates will be his 12th team, making him one of just six players to appear for a dozen or more clubs.

When a slightly younger Hill signed with the Red Sox (for the seventh time in his career), Ben Clemens used the prophetic projection system RiPS (Rich is Pitching Superlatively) to forecast a 4.15 ERA and 1.7 WAR for his 2022 season. Hill’s actual numbers? A 4.27 ERA (but a 4.13 SIERA), and 1.8 WAR. Not bad, RiPS. But it gets even better. Ben wrote, “If he pitches to this line, he’ll earn $8 million next year and be well worth it for Boston.” In 2023, the Pirates will be paying Hill (checks notes) $8 million on the dot. Can we get some RiPS projected standings for the season? They might even turn out to be more accurate than the baseball Reddit’s marble race simulations.

While Hill is still an effective pitcher, he’s not the same arm he was on the other side of 40. While his fastball still averaged a very solid 18.5 inches of induced vertical break in 2022, the pitch’s generic vertical release height made it simply a decent whiff pitch rather than a great one. He’s also lost a bit of velocity, averaging around 88 mph on the gun when he used to sit in the low 90s. Of the pitchers with at least 100 innings last season, only Paolo Espino had a lower average fastball velocity, and he posted negative WAR for the year. While Hill did throw harder in 2022 than in ’20 or ’21, his fastball whiff numbers and results on contact have significantly declined from his “prime” (a period spanning his age-35 to 39 seasons). Both Statcast’s and our own run value metrics rated Hill’s fastball as below average this year, the first time that’s been true since he returned to the majors from the Atlantic League:

Rich Hill Fastball Metrics
Year Velocity xwOBA Whiff% Pitch Value/100
2016 90.9 .253 35.7 1.52
2017 89.2 .269 32 1.4
2018 89.4 .325 27.2 .58
2019 90.3 .278 28.9 1.18
2020 87.8 .418 17.4 .63
2021 88.1 .340 22 .02
2022 88.5 .361 24.3 -1.31
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Fastball decline is an inevitability for older pitchers, and unlike with many other aspects of his career, Hill is no exception here. Starting in 2020 (his age-40 season), his strikeout rates fell from elite to average, and he consequently posted the highest barrel rates of his career, as fastballs that hitters previously swung under were now getting hit, oftentimes whacked.

So if pitchers lose zip on their fastballs as they age, how do some remain effective into their later years? Well, you could be Justin Verlander and still average 95 mph in your age-39 season, but few can do that. Instead, older pitchers often rely on their secondary stuff, especially their breaking balls. While velocity tends to decline as pitchers gain mileage on their arms, a pitcher’s inherent feel for spin largely remains throughout their career. Hill has consistently averaged over 2,700 rpm in every Statcast-tracked season, and even in 2022 post-sticky stuff crackdown, his 2,636 rpm average was still excellent. In fact, almost every starting pitcher aged 37 or older can still snap off an excellent breaking ball:

Starting Pitchers 37 and Over
Player Curveball Spin Rate Curve Spin Percentile ERA-
Adam Wainwright 2,776 86 96
Justin Verlander 2,643 75 45
Charlie Morton 3,068 98 105
Max Scherzer 2,764 86 61
Zack Greinke 2,433 41 92
Rich Hill 2,636 74 104
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
min. 100 innings

This list has some really solid names, including fellow soft-tosser Wainwright, whose 88.6 mph average sinker velocity just barely edged out Hill’s four-seamer. They are all still effective pitchers, despite not throwing as hard as they did a decade ago. Much of this is a result of adaptation – five of these six pitchers throw fastballs less than half the time, while three (Hill, Wainwright, Morton) threw more curveballs than fastballs last year. That trio demonstrated mastery leveraging their gift for spin into throwing curveballs with elite two-planed break. Of the pitchers who threw at least 500 curveballs in 2022, only Hill, Wainwright, and Morton averaged at least 15 inches of horizontal sweep and at least nine inches of induced vertical drop. Hill also combines his curveball with a slider that generates even more sweep by dropping his arm slot against left-handed hitters. Combined, he threw those two pitches about half the time.

Hill doesn’t get a ton of whiffs with his curveball — few pitches in the low 70s do. However, its outlier amounts of movement make it difficult for batters to square up, as hitters facing Hill pop out more and hit fewer line drives than the league average. In the Statcast era, his curveball has never allowed a wOBA above .300. While this pitch gets good results on contact, what might be more impressive is what happens when batters don’t swing. Most pitchers use their curveballs low and below the zone, hoping that hitters will chase a bad pitch. On the other hand, Hill challenges hitters in the zone with his curve, with an average pitch height of 2.41 feet compared to the league average of 1.86. Over half of his curveballs landed in the strike zone and the pitch had a called strike rate of 20.7% — both metrics are among the highest in baseball. In fact, of all starting pitchers since 2016, Hill is tied for the highest called strike rate and is sixth in CSW%, using his stuff to earn far more strikes than the average hurler.

Hill joins the Pirates as the elder statesman and possible ace of their rotation. JT Brubaker, Mitch Keller, and Vince Velasquez have been well below average while 23-year-old sophomore Roansy Contreras has fewer than 100 big league innings under his belt. Compared to the rest of Pittsburgh’s staff, the only knock on Hill is his relatively low innings total – he averaged just 4.8 innings per start last year with the Red Sox. However, this could also open up chances for other, less tenured members of their staff to excel in a long relief or swingman role. Zack Thompson made 22 starts last year, while Wil Crowe and Chase De Jong frequently made two- to three-inning relief appearances. While the 2023 Pirates likely won’t compete for anything more than draft lottery placement, Hill fills a solid veteran role in their pitching staff on another stop in his wild ride of a career.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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1 year ago

I think you need to look at Mitch Keller’s final 22 starts last year. He turned a corner and was decidedly above average. Rich Hill will be the #3 behind Roansy and Keller.