Rich Hill is, probably, the most fascinating free agent in recent memory.
On the one hand, he’s a frontline pitcher in a market starved for pitching, the only guy available you can really imagine handing the ball to in a playoff game and liking your chances of winning that day. Since the start of the 2015 season, Clayton Kershaw (.221) is the only pitcher alive to allow a lower wOBA than Hill (.231). During the last two years, his 23.3% K%-BB% puts him right between Noah Syndergaard (22.9%) and Chris Sale (23.8%), while at the same time, no starting pitcher has allowed home runs at a lower rate than Hill’s 0.4 HR/9.
On the other hand, saying things like “since the start of the 2015 season” makes it sound like Hill’s dominance extends back further than it actually does. In reality, the stretch we’re talking about includes just 139 regular season innings pitched. It covers 545 batters faced, 1,120 fewer batters than Jake Arrieta has faced over the last two years. Do you think of Junior Guerra as an ace? He’s thrown 122 innings and faced 492 Major League batters over the last two years, allowing the same wOBA as Jon Lester and a lower wOBA than Corey Kluber. Rich Hill has been great for about the same length of time that Guerra has been good, and people remain quite skeptical of Guerra, after all.
And those are just the performance questions. Hill also comes with a lot of health questions, given all the arm problems he’s faced over the years. Last year, he spent two months on the DL, but then again, that was a blister problem. Is that a reason to think Hill’s body is made of glass? Or is every pitcher susceptible to blisters, and we wouldn’t care about that issue if Hill hadn’t struggled through a bunch of unrelated problems?
Then there’s the age. Rich Hill will turn 37 in March. Even beyond the issue with the short track record, Hill’s abilities are going to erode soon enough. If the command slips at all as he gets older, Hill could very well go back to being what he was a couple of years ago, and back then, no one wanted to roster a left-handed Carlos Marmol. More than any free agent in this class, and perhaps any coveted free agent in recent memory, it’s just very easy to imagine a scenario where Hill is a complete waste of money for whoever signs him.
So, with reports that Hill is on the verge of re-signing with the Dodgers for around $48 million over three years, it feels like the easy story is to talk about the gamble LA is taking here. There’s a natural inclination to call Hill a lottery ticket, or something similar, and just throw our hands up in the air and say we have no idea what Hill is going to do in 2017, much less in 2018 or 2019. And more than any other player in the game, that’s probably true; projecting Rich Hill’s future value is really quite difficult.
But while the Rich Hill story can’t be told without mentioning how much risk comes with acquiring him, it should also be told in the context of what else $50 million buys you in free agency these days. And the reality is that, in that price range, there are no safe bets.
The other free agents that have, or are expected to, sign for about $50 million this winter? Josh Reddick, Ivan Nova, Ian Desmond, Mark Trumbo all ended up around there on our Top 50 free agent list, and I’m not sure any of them are that much safer bets than Hill, quite honestly. If you have a problem with how long Hill’s been good for, Nova’s selling himself based on 11 good starts after moving to the NL in the second half of last year. You can be more confident that these guys are going to play more regularly than Hill next year, but how well they’ll play? That remains an open question.
Realistically, if Rich Hill were younger, healthier, and had sustained this level of performance for a bit longer, he’d be asking for $200 million, not $50 million. Rich Hill is basically an older and more breakable version of Jake Arrieta, and you can imagine what Arrieta would get as a free agent right now. And it’s not like even younger pitchers, or previously healthy pitchers, come risk free.
Yes, Rich Hill is about as high-risk as a player gets. But rather than focus on the fact that the Dodgers aren’t going to get 200 innings out of him, or that they can’t really be sure that he’ll be able to pitch for them in October again, Hill is a great object lesson in the balance of risk and reward. Last year, after just four great starts, the market only was willing to pay $6 million for Hill’s upside, but after 20 more outings at an elite level, MLB teams are up to around $50 million, because last year, Hill gave teams plenty more reasons to believe that, when healthy, he’s one of the best pitchers in the game. The performance risk has gone down quite a bit from a year ago, and so the price has gone up a lot.
The health and age risks remain very high, and of course, there’s still performance risk here. But at around $50 million, you’re not buying sure things in MLB anymore. And there aren’t very many other guys in this price tier that offer the kind of upside potential Hill brings.
Even with just a 138 inning projection for 2017, Steamer is still forecasting Hill to be worth +3 WAR next year. The variance around that projection is wildly high, but it’s not just downside variance; he could have another +4 WAR season and be worth most of the entire contract just with his 2017 performance.
So, yeah, you can’t count on Hill, but the Dodgers are pricing in the reality that he’ll likely spend a few months not pitching next year. There’s actual upside here if he stays healthy. There’s downside too, of course, and the Dodgers continual bets on talent over health are one of the reasons they set the league record for starting pitchers used in 2016.
But with Hill, the story isn’t just about risk. That’s part of the story, certainly, and that part helps explain why one of the game’s best starting pitchers is apparently going to sign effectively the same deal Scott Kazmir got a year ago. But there’s upside here too, and at this price, the risk is priced into the deal.
Hill might not pitch well for the Dodgers next year. He might not pitch much at all. But for roughly $50 million, the Dodgers are getting a guy who could also be the most productive free agent in this class, and are betting on a guy whose health problem last year was a blister, not an elbow or a shoulder. When talking about this signing, you have to acknowledge what Rich Hill isn’t, but just because he’s not a 200 inning workhose doesn’t mean he’s not worth $50 million. Given what he can do when he is on the mound, this seems like the right balance of risk and reward.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.