Rich Hill Fits the Athletics Perfectly

When Dave Cameron wrote up the Athletics’ signing of Rich Hill yesterday, he titled it “A’s Sign Rich Hill, Because Of Course They Do.” He focused more on the fact that Hill was a resurgent pitcher that represented a low-risk, high-reward, low-money signing — a bit like Scott Kazmir before the 2014 season. That makes a lot of sense, given Oakland’s budget constraints and past practices.

There’s another way Hill is the perfect major league acquisition for the Athletics, though. He’s a fastball/curve guy with an iffy changeup. He’ll fit right in.

The team’s ace is Sonny Gray, who has a lifetime whiff rate on his changeup that is 30% worse than league average. And it’s the team who employed Brett Anderson (whose change is 60% worse than average) and then traded him for Drew Pomeranz (65% worse) in 2013. It’s the club that picked up Josh Lindblom (30% worse) in the Michael Choice trade. That claimed Joe Savery (45% worse) before the 2014 season. And even whose big in-season pickup in 2014 — Jon Lester — was using his above-average change less when they got him.

When they traded Josh Donaldson following the 2014 season, they got a lefty (Sean Nolin) whose change has so far gotten a little more than half the whiffs of an average changeup. Even Kendall Graveman, who was also in that deal, has a change has been almost 20% worse than average. They traded Derek Norris for Jesse Hahn (30% worse). In the Jeff Samardzija deal, they received Chris Bassitt among other pieces, and his changeup gets 65% fewer whiffs than league average. The biggest prospect they picked up last year — Sean Manaea — might not have a great change, even while featuring excellent velocity and a wicked slider.

There’s a little bit of cherry-picking here. Obviously this team had Scott Kazmir and his changepiece. They acquired Aaron Brooks, who might only have a changeup. But where there’s smoke there’s fire, and this team actually signed their patron saint for a swan song last year when they picked up Barry Zito.

Much like Zito never had a great change (10% worse than league average in whiffs), the A’s have followed suit as a team. Take a look at how Oakland’s changeups ranked in baseball last year by two key rates.

2015 Changeup Outcomes by Team
Team Count Swinging Strike Rate Ground-Ball Rate
Cubs 1844 18.1% 47.5%
Indians 2334 18.0% 52.7%
Brewers 1964 17.8% 47.2%
Padres 2497 17.1% 45.4%
Royals 3304 16.9% 47.2%
Red Sox 3063 16.9% 46.8%
Pirates 2559 16.9% 51.1%
Nationals 1901 16.6% 52.1%
Diamondbacks 3638 16.6% 47.9%
Astros 2943 16.4% 52.5%
Rays 2069 16.4% 49.6%
Rockies 3022 16.2% 48.6%
White Sox 2952 16.2% 46.1%
Yankees 2112 16.1% 51.4%
Dodgers 2242 15.7% 55.8%
Rangers 2820 15.6% 46.3%
Cardinals 2540 15.5% 50.1%
Twins 2138 15.4% 50.4%
Blue Jays 3260 15.4% 44.5%
Mets 2761 15.2% 48.8%
Marlins 1576 15.2% 48.6%
Mariners 2524 14.6% 49.9%
Angels 3616 14.1% 43.3%
Reds 1689 13.9% 43.1%
Tigers 1868 12.9% 42.4%
Orioles 1493 12.7% 48.6%
Braves 1482 12.3% 44.4%
Phillies 2173 12.1% 46.1%
Athletics 2197 11.9% 53.5%
Giants 1942 11.1% 46.5%

Only the Giants had a worse whiff rate on their changeups last season. Which is what might happen when you acquire a bunch of players with bad changeups. Funny how that works.

But this isn’t an organization that hates the changeup. Dan Straily once talked about how the organization preached the pitch to him — his pitching coordinator helped him try out 17 different grips on the way to finding the right one. The Athletics actually threatened small fines if he didn’t throw 15 in a game in the minor leagues. They want their young pitchers working on the changeup.

There could be a philosophical thing going on with the change. You can use the pitch as a super-sinker for ground balls, too. Re-sort that list above for ground-ball rate and the A’s zoom to second in baseball. It could be that they want their pitchers using the change for the grounder. Rich Hill, unsurprisingly, has a change that has gotten above-average grounders for his career and 50% more grounders than the league last season.

This approach with the change doesn’t seem to have hurt their results in the past season. The Athletics had the most neutral platoon split in baseball last season when it comes to FIP. By ERA, they were still in the middle third, though their ERA against righties was a little bit worse than it was against lefties. That isn’t a team that you would say is suffering platoon problems because they’ve got bad changeups.

And that’s because not every pitcher needs a changeup, or at least not a changeup that can get tons of whiffs. The big curve has reverse platoon splits, and we’ve seen tons of big curves from the Athletics.

2015 Curveball Outcomes by Team
Team Count avg(Pfx_z) Velocity swSTR GB%
Astros 2554 -7.4 75.6 13.3% 51.2%
Dodgers 2513 -7.3 77.1 11.9% 48.2%
Athletics 2003 -7.1 76.1 12.9% 48.1%
Brewers 2006 -6.9 76.3 11.8% 48.3%
Nationals 2193 -6.1 79.0 12.5% 54.3%
Pirates 1291 -6.0 78.6 13.7% 48.9%
Mariners 2252 -6.0 77.9 12.6% 52.5%
Phillies 1247 -5.6 76.7 13.7% 39.9%
Twins 1588 -5.5 77.3 10.6% 50.2%
Red Sox 2353 -5.4 76.3 9.0% 48.5%
Cubs 2412 -5.3 79.1 14.8% 42.2%
Blue Jays 1333 -5.2 77.8 11.9% 56.7%
Diamondbacks 1584 -5.2 77.5 11.9% 48.2%
Padres 902 -5.1 78.3 10.5% 52.0%
Yankees 1689 -5.1 78.8 9.3% 50.4%
Reds 1217 -5.0 77.8 12.2% 42.9%
Angels 1561 -4.9 73.3 13.5% 42.4%
Rangers 2627 -4.9 78.4 12.2% 50.6%
Braves 1560 -4.8 76.5 10.4% 43.0%
Tigers 1985 -4.8 77.2 8.9% 52.3%
Royals 2039 -4.6 80.4 12.7% 48.9%
Orioles 853 -4.5 76.2 5.9% 47.8%
Indians 1838 -4.0 80.4 18.3% 49.0%
Giants 2990 -3.9 76.6 14.6% 43.2%
Mets 2217 -3.7 79.4 13.8% 45.6%
Cardinals 2198 -3.5 79.3 11.1% 46.4%
Rockies 1686 -3.2 78.3 13.5% 43.2%
Rays 1102 -3.2 78.7 13.7% 53.8%
Marlins 1122 -2.8 80.6 14.7% 44.4%
White Sox 1726 -2.2 78.4 13.2% 47.3%
Pfx_z = drop, in inches
swSTR = swinging strike rate

The Athletics’ curveballs had the third-biggest drop in baseball, on average. They also got above-average whiffs on the pitch while getting fewer ground balls than average. And they did well with the curve despite having the third-slowest curves in baseball — and velocity is good for curves.

By throwing the big round-house curve, the Athletics have avoided bad platoon splits despite featuring changeups incapable of garnering whiffs. Use the change as a super-sinker, develop a second breaking pitch, and then your curveball-throwing undervalued acquisition suddenly looks like a complete pitcher. This describes the process Sonny Gray went through this year, at least. It could be the road map for their new pitchers in the coming years, too.

This approach to pitcher acquisition looks like more zigging when the rest of baseball is zagging. Maybe trading away Tyson Ross in 2012 opened their eyes to the fact that bad changeup pitchers were undervalued. Because it really looks like they’ve spent the last few years picking up bad changeup pitchers with good, big curveballs. And Rich Hill fits that description as much as the rest of the green and gold.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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8 years ago

BB is a terrible GM who in the span of several months traded away Addison Russell and Josh Donaldson (Dave wrote something basically given BB the benefit of the doubt for this historically terrible trade) and signed Country Breakfast to a 3 year deal at 10 million per. Rich Hill doesn’t make up for that. BB should’ve been fired this year, in all honesty.

8 years ago

“BB should’ve been fired this year, in all honesty.”

You, sir, are a moron.

8 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

He traded away a star, team controlled player for next to nothing and, right after that, sign a below-replacement level DH to a 3 year/$30 million contract. If that sequence of transactions is not a fireable offense, I don’t know what is.

I also see you have no analysis to offer to back up your point, so you just called me a moron. sounds like something an actual moron would do.

Dr. Internet
8 years ago

Donaldson calling Beane “Billy Boy” was the fireable offense. Duh.

8 years ago

“I also see you have no analysis to offer to back up your point”

I must have missed your analysis. Was it that list of three transactions you repeated twice or the conclusory statement that followed?

Antonio Bananas
8 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

I’d think that only having one 90 loss season in 17 years gives him a little bit of breathing room.

Baseball Guy
8 years ago

This is a pretty dumb comment but it is true that Beane is on a pretty nasty stretch of bad decisions, bad enough that many GM’s would indeed have been fired by now. He won’t — and shouldn’t be — of course.

8 years ago

While i don’t disagree with everything you say, how does any of this relate in any way to the content of the article?

8 years ago

They missed one subtle point. Rich Hill sucks. At age 35, he is not likely to improve on his rather pedestrian career. But fire away and over analyze it like you always do. Who was it that said the Royals would be less than .500 in 2015>

8 years ago
Reply to  Bob

What is your subtle point, pointing out Hill sucks and is not going to improve?

You should research before you comment as Hill was 2-1 w/ 1.35 era with complete game shutout in 4 late season appearances with Red Sox after an independent leaque signing. Hill struck out 35 with only 4 walks and was sparkling in this short stint. He is 35 yo with numerous injuries and I would not have offered $6M guaranteed but an incentive laden contract.