The Case For Sam Hilliard, Everyday Left Fielder

Sam Hilliard
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves are the team of stability. At six of nine offensive positions, they have locked an above-average-to-star-level player down to a contract that will keep him under club control for at least the next five seasons. We could probably get away with literally not writing any Braves roster construction thinkpieces until 2026 or so. Nevertheless, I want to pick at the one imperfection in Atlanta’s cavalcade of cost-controlled stars: the whole left field/DH situation. Specifically, I want to propose an idea that isn’t a joke, or a bit, or a troll… but it’s also not not a joke, or a bit, or a troll: Make Sam Hilliard the starting left fielder.

Here’s what the Braves have going on out there: First, Marcell Ozuna, who’s coming off two straight sub-replacement-level seasons. He still has two years at $18 million per, plus a club option, left on a deal he signed after a scalding 2020 season. Since then, he not only has failed to live up to that deal on the field but has also been suspended for a domestic violence incident and arrested for DUI. Given that history, his contract, and his performance, Ozuna is probably untradeable, but the Braves would probably prefer not to give another 507 plate appearances’ worth of playing time to him if he posts another sub-90 wRC+.

Vaughn Grissom is currently penciled in at shortstop, and given his age and offensive upside, he should get a lot of rope at that position. But if he can’t stick there defensively, he should receive plenty of playing time in left field. The nominal incumbent there is Eddie Rosario, who parlayed his 2021 postseason heroics into a two-year extension, then hit .212/.259/.328 in 2022 with below-average defense. He’s set up for a platoon with newcomer Jordan Luplow, who was terrible in 2022 (.176/.274/.361) but usually hits for power and posts a bonkers walk rate. The Braves should call him Operation Gladio, because he’s been brought in to crush lefties. It’s going to take me until mid-June, probably, to remember that he’s not Robbie Grossman.

Finally, Travis d’Arnaud will probably get some playing time at DH. Brian Snitker wasn’t shy about using last year’s backup catcher, William Contreras, in that spot. Plus, it’d be a huge waste to spend $8 million on a player who posted a 120 wRC+ last season and only start him in day games that come after a night game.

So that’s two positions to be split among a backup catcher, an exciting youngster who’ll only move off shortstop if things don’t go according to plan, a platoon guy, and two over-30 hitters who were both sub-replacement level last season and would probably not be on the team right now if not for their contracts. The Braves won 101 games and the NL East last season with basically this roster, only in 2023 they’ll have (presumably) full seasons of Grissom, Raisel Iglesias, Ozzie Albies, Mike Soroka, and Ian Anderson, plus Sean Murphy. It’s hard to fault the roster construction overall.

With that said, it’s fair to ask why the Braves didn’t go out and get a left field upgrade as the Phillies and Mets went berserk in free agency. Hoping Ozuna and Rosario figure it out is a plan, just not the one I would’ve chosen.

Of course, they did go out and get a left fielder: Hilliard. You probably don’t remember that trade, because it happened right after the World Series and the most famous person involved was Sam Hilliard — not exactly headline news. But the Braves now have a prodigiously gifted fifth outfielder. “Gifted?” I hear you ask. “An almost 29-year-old who slugged .264 who played half his games at Coors last season?” Yes, gifted.

The first thing to like about Hilliard is that he has what I like to think of as pass-catching tight end athleticism. He’s 6-foot-5, 236 pounds, and has 85th percentile sprint speed and 97th percentile maximum exit velocity. (“Wait, this guy is almost exactly the same listed height and weight as Josh Allen and he still only slugged .264 for the Rockies?” Settle down.) That’s compelling in its own right, because everyone loves a huge guy who can run fast. (Apropos of big guys who run fast, I’ve watched this Duhan van der Merwe try about 100 times since the weekend. It’s possible I’m projecting this onto Hilliard.) While Hilliard hasn’t played enough to build a trustworthy sample — 1,378 defensive innings over four years, a little less than half of which have come in left — the tools are promising. And if nothing else, he’s almost certainly better out there than Rosario and Ozuna.

So let’s talk about the bat. Usually, when an outfielder posts a 44 wRC+ and draws physical comparisons to a hulking Scottish rugby union player, that conjures images of an absolute no-hoper at the plate. (I don’t want to single out anyone by bringing up Bradley Zimmer, so I won’t.) But Hilliard is actually quite selective, perhaps too much so for his own good.

Sam Hilliard at the Plate, 2022
BB% K% GB/FB SwStr% O-Swing%
Value 11.5 28.5 1.20 14.6 23.8
Rank 41st 53rd 161st 58th 338th
minimum 200 PA (358 hitters)

In 2022, Hilliard improved basically every aspect of his plate discipline from the year before — O-Swing%, contact rate inside and out of the zone, whiff rate, the whole nine yards — and his wRC+ dropped from 84 to 44. Keep that in the back of your mind for a second.

When the trade broke in November, Alex Eisert wrote his own optimistic take on the deal from the perspective of Hilliard and the Braves. There are two aspects of Alex’s article I want to highlight: First, the headline, which uses the exact same “What in the Sam Hill…” pun I wanted to make in the title of this post. I am furious about this and will be challenging Alex to a duel at the earliest opportunity.

Second, he found something interesting in the shift data. Hilliard, being a big left-handed hitter capable of hitting the ball at 115 mph, got shifted quite a bit. At the same time, he did what every cranky color commentator wants every left-handed power hitter to do in that situation: Try to go the other way.

It was an unmitigated disaster. The reason most lefty power hitters tried to go through the shift is that you have to be Tony Gwynn to place a pitched baseball with that kind of precision; Hilliard is an oversized rugby union winger with iffy contact skills. Alex found that his approach led to an opposite field-heavy spray chart on batted balls of all types in 2022. With the shift being mitigated by the new rule set for 2023, he can just pound grounders to the right side again and profit from it.

But the anti-shift adjustment Hilliard made last year was even more damaging than that. Last season, 402 players hit at least 40 fly balls. Of those, Hilliard’s pull rate ranked 345th, his hard contact rate ranked 209th, and his wRC+ on fly balls ranked 360th. Last season, the league hit .222/.217/.646 on fly balls, for a wRC+ of 131. Hilliard hit .159/.159/.386, for a wRC+ of 29. This after posting a fly ball wRC+ of 250 or higher in each of his first three seasons. (Bryce Harper had a fly ball wRC+ of 252 last season, for comparison.)

In short, the minute Hilliard arrives for spring training, the Braves should tell him to knock all that opposite field crap off and let it eat. Maybe he’ll strike out 30% of the time and hit .210, but if he walks his customary amount and hits for power, that’s a tradeoff both player and team should jump at the chance to make. And given the uninspiring alternatives the Braves have at Hilliard’s position, they should give him regular playing time so he can see if it works.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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dozingoffdadmember
1 month ago

I’m always here for a Gladio reference