May 23, 2016
Rich Hill, Ace Pitcher
Rich Hill's latest major-league opportunity relied upon a batting practice flyball striking Steven Wright in the head along the warning track at Marlins Park last August. Two days later, the Red Sox signed Hill off the roster of the Atlantic League's Long Island Ducks, and a day after that, he made his first (non-rehab) start in affiliated ball in six years.
By September, Hill was in the big leagues, filling a hole in Boston's beleaguered, last-place rotation. (Injuries to Wright, Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Brian Johnson and Matt Barnes had opened the door for Hill.) If you read or listen to the authors on this website, you know full well how remarkable the four starts he made for the Red Sox were.
"Rich has gone way beyond what I even thought was possible," Brian Bannister said this month. Bannister, now Boston's director of pitching development, worked closely with Hill during his brief tenure in Pawtucket and Boston last season. "It's fun to watch him now and people wondering what the heck is going on."
Now that Hill has built those four starts into something that indeed appears sustainable, we sat down with him at Fenway Park to ask, in more polite and long-winded terms, what the heck was going on.
Tim Britton: When was the first time you started thinking about spin rate in your career?
Rich Hill: To be honest with you, it was probably a couple years ago, but I really started to dive into it a little bit more last year when I was with the Nationals—being able to see the information that can be utilized by the players on a daily basis, especially the immediate results after you've either just pitched an inning before you go out for the next inning and/or for the next day. That's where it was just kind of exposed to me for the point of relevance from one day to the next or one inning to the next.
TB: Is that just on a scouting report or is someone pointing it out to you?
RH: Well they had TrackMan when I was with Syracuse, the Triple-A affiliate with Washington. I just used it and took it for what it was. It wasn't anything that's going to be dramatically changing, but I think it's definitely a piece of information that will help every player understand what they can maybe improve on. If you can get a percentage better at the major-league level, think about how much better you've gotten.
It's something that should be used by players. You don't necessarily have to agree with it, but I think understanding it is very important — where these numbers are coming from.
TB: How has it helped you as a pitcher? How has it helped you understand who you are as a pitcher?
RH: I go back to the year when I was with Cleveland. I didn't have a very good year, but I went back and looked at xFIP, FIP, DRA, and all those numbers were very good for me. What does that say? It says you're pitching above average; however, your ERA wasn't showing that. And again, ERA is ERA at the end of the day. You're giving up runs. It just kind of reinforced to me that I was pitching a lot better than what the actual numbers showed. So when you dive in a little bit more and find out some of the deeper numbers, it just reinforced that you were throwing the ball well out of the bullpen. Just continue to stay on that same path and don't change.
Now a lot of things have changed since then, since I'm not in the bullpen and I'm not throwing sidearm and I'm not so to speak a left-handed specialist.
But overall with me, looking at your pitch axis and trying the mirroring effect of having your curveball on the same axis as your fastball is really what leads to the ultimate deception. If you can mirror each other with your spin axis of your curveball and your fastball, you're on to something—for me, personally.
I don't dive all in to every stat. I think you can do paralysis by analysis. But if you can say one thing will help this guy realize that, 'Hey, your curveball is your best pitch. If you throw that at a higher percentage, you're going to be more successful,' why wouldn't that be something the player wants to hear? It benefits the player, benefits the team, benefits the organization. You take it for face value and understand what it is. I really believe if you can have the player understand what some of the numbers mean—not all the numbers, just some of the numbers—you can improve the player. Even if it's by one percent, you're getting a lot better.
TB: Was there someone who was that guy to come to you and say that?
RH: Well Brian Bannister here [in Boston] really opened my eyes to a lot of that stuff. It wasn't like we were diving super deep into the numbers. We just kind of touched the surface level of it. As I've gone on into this offseason and even into this season, there are things that I can improve on—being able to see how certain spin rates or pitch axes or vertical and horizontal planes are going to help me create the most deception and depth and shapes of my breaking balls, shapes of my changeups and cutters, all that stuff.
It was really Brian just opened my eyes to that. We had talked about some other pitchers that had incredible success in this game that people might not see as breaking ball pitchers. But they really are when you look at how they go about pitching—throwing 40 and 45 and 50 percent breaking balls as starters. That's something that opened my eyes to saying, 'Wow, this is something I need to do.' It is my best pitch and if I can utilize that pitch to the best of my ability, I'm increasing my percentages of success. That's all it is. You just want to continue to go out there and increase your percentages of success.
TB: You've mentioned throwing more than one curveball. How do you manipulate the baseball in different ways as a curveball?
RH: It's really just positioning of your fingers and your hand. It's all a big feel thing, and it's an outing-to-outing feel thing. It's not necessarily something that's always there. You're going to have days where you're, 'Oh wow, I have tremendous feel for every angle of my breaking ball.' Some days you might not have it.
Touching on that with the different angles and the different shapes of the breaking ball, it reinforces creativity. I think that's one of the best things that a pitcher can have, is this freedom to be creative when you're out there on the mound. Not every pitcher is the same. Not every hitter is the same. Everybody can't cookie-cut every single player. That's something that I took away from some of the talks that I had with Brian. It was just that creativity.
TB: Does that make it more difficult to repeat that spot and have it on the same axis as your fastball?
RH: Yeah, so the curveball and the fastball are going to be very similar axis points. When we start talking about slider, I think it goes back more to changeup and fastball than it does slider. Slider to me doesn't make really a ton of sense yet. I'm not 100 percent sure on how you can actually mimic a two-seam fastball and have it on the same axis as a slider, because it would have to be one heck of a sinker. It would have to be really really amazing. I'm not a sinkerball pitcher.
And that's another thing to realize: knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are and trying to actually improve on your strengths. Make your strengths super-strong. Being able to keep things simple and not trying to complicate things too much is a huge pathway to success, I believe, at the major-league level. What you've done that you've been successful at, you're going to do here and that's also going to translate to success at the major-league level. A lot of times—and I've gotten caught up in it too—you think you have to do something different or you have to create new pitches or you have to become a pitcher you weren't before you got here. But what you were doing is what got you here and is what is ultimately going to make you most successful here.
TB: I was talking to Sean O'Sullivan the other day who's worked with Brian going back to the Royals, and he was saying the same thing — "I'm good at this. Just keep doing this."
RH: And it's funny because we catch ourselves and you think like, 'Well now I need to start changing something because teams have seen me over and over and over again.' That's not necessarily true. What's made you successful will continue to make you successful as long as you don't try to veer off of that point of success. And also continue to be creative.
I think that's one of the biggest things for me. Maybe it's because I can shape the breaking ball in different ways and that promotes creativity. With different shapes on my fastball even, where you can ride it through the zone up past the chest and have the perceptual velocity and down in the zone—it's just something for me that I feel fortunate to be able to do.
TB: You mentioned perceptual velocity. What does that mean to you?
RH: For me, it's just that what you see is really not what it appears to be. You might see a fastball at 90 mph but the hitter will tell you different. He'll swing and miss, he'll be late on a fastball.
But it seems to me, if I'm 88 to 90, my spin axis and perceptual velocity is much closer to my curveball. It's almost the harder I throw, the more recognizable that perceptual velocity is. It's really interesting. The harder I try to throw, if I'm 92 to 94, the hitter will be able to pick up on that out of my hand a lot easier than he would if the pitch was 88 to 90. So it's interesting because I'm not quite sure really—I don't know if that has to do with more RPMs or where it comes from. That's a benefit to me, keeping the fastball in the 88 to 91 range.
TB: Is that something you've just noticed on the mound?
RH: I've just noticed it. Even later in games, my strikeouts will go up as the games go on, in part maybe because the velocity might drop half a mile an hour or a mile an hour. The strikeout rate will go up, and I really think it's because the fastball and the curveball mirror each other more as the game goes on.
But it's something that's interesting. Back to perceptual velocity, it's really the velocity that comes through the hitting zone late in the pitch. It's the last five or 10 feet before the ball gets to the catcher. It has that extra jump. The hitters will tell me. They show it to you by being late with their swings. They also will tell me, 'It looks like it's 96 mph. It's totally different and it gets on you very quickly.' You'll see 90 mph and think this guy's not throwing that hard, but perceptually I am.
And that's one thing, for me, I just think those kind of numbers reinforce the quality of pitches that are coming out of my hand. That's something that is interesting to me because it is a benefit to my stuff.
TB: You don't traditionally hear of guys throwing a curveball off a fastball and mirroring each other. You hear of that more with a cutter. How long have you been doing that? Is that something you've just gotten back to?
I think it's something I've always been doing but didn't realize I was doing. It was, 'I just have a good curveball or a great curveball.' Now with more in-depth analysis from resources like TrackMan and Brooks Baseball and being able to go on some websites and kind of do a little digging and see where you were at for that game, it's just trying to be consistent within those ranges. And again it's paralysis by analysis, so I'm not diving into these numbers.
A lot of these things you want to continue to stay convicted in your approach—attacking and aggressive. None of those things change, and you cannot quantify any of that. That's something that's an X-factor—if they can come up with quantifying conviction and all that aggressiveness that's out there. Because we've all seen players where you say, 'How does he do it?' And a lot of it is just throwing him out there and getting after it on a daily basis. That's something that you can't have too many equations for.
TB: You've talked about pitching with conviction for years. What's the relationship between conviction and confidence?
RH: Well I think they go hand-in-hand when you have success. I believe you have success which leads to confidence, but you have to have the conviction behind that success and routine. Everybody stays on a good routine, you do your routine, you start having success, and as you're having success, your confidence is going to go up.
As your confidence and your success continue to go up, sometimes we slack on our routine, because we figure, 'I don't need to do that today or I don't need to go to the gym or I don't need to run. I'm throwing the ball well.' However, what happens is when you start slacking on your routine, your success starts to drop. As your success continues to drop because you're not staying in your routine, your confidence will go with it.
So when all three of those—the first one to go is the routine, the second thing to go is your success and your ability to perform on the baseball field, and then after that your confidence starts to dip. Now all of a sudden you're starting all over to get back up the mountain, so to speak. The guys that you see who have smaller peaks and valleys stay on a good routine and stay consistent on a daily basis. I truly believe that.
I think sometimes those valleys can be stunted by having a quality routine and sticking with it. And again the same thing goes for success. This is a hard game to play. Everybody is going to go through their ups and downs. When you do have success, it's not permanent. Success is not permanent, in this game or any game. I don't care what you're playing, because it's all 'What have you done for me lately?' You're only as good as your last outing. Cliché after cliché, but it's true. You want to go out there with that. The biggest thing is going out there and knowing that you did everything that you could on that day to be as successful as possible, and have the percentages fall in your favor. If it does fall in your favor, that's great and you move onto the next outing. If it doesn't, you leave knowing you did everything you could.
TB: One thing that struck me last year was your utter confidence that this was not a fluke what you were doing. There were reasons for it. Where did that come from last year?
RH: I think it was consistency in my delivery, consistency with my routine, trust in my release point. Again, it's something that's translated over from, and I hate to say this, but you don't take one year and say, 'I want to do what I did last year' or one game and go into the next game, 'If I can only pitch like that…'. No. Every game is its own separate entity, and every year is its own separate entity.
I know it, I've lived it, I know exactly what it's like to say, 'I just want to do what I did last year,' which is a big mistake. It's a different year and a new routine. Sometimes it could be a new team. It can be all these uncontrollables. The biggest thing that you can control is what you're doing right now in the moment. So we talked about that last year — staying in the moment, staying within that pitch and not wavering from that consistency and conviction within each pitch. And for me, that's what keeps me consistent. Once you continue to do that and you continue to work every single day, you're training your muscle memory and you're training all those things that are really positive to have the most success that you can have.
I mean, I'm sitting here watching Marcus Semien work with Ron Washington. They've been doing that every single day since Day One of spring training, and this guy has gotten so much better. It reinforces how important it is to do the work.
TB: You're mentioning things like pitch axis, horizontal and vertical planes. Is physics something you were interested in when you were in school?
RH: No, not really. But how much it applies to your profession piques your interest and sparks something.
TB: You mentioned the creative process of pitching. How much are you enjoying that, now that you are being a bit more creative on the mound?
RH: I do, especially on those days where you have exceptional feel. I enjoy going out there and having that freedom to be able to create. It's something that is exciting every time I go out there. You can't recreate outings after; you can't have the same outing twice. Every outing is its own separate outing. But depending upon how the feel is for that day, you can be a little bit more creative than some outings. What I mean by that is I can change the shape of my breaking balls more than outings where I didn't have that great feel.
TB: Beyond the financial stuff, what does it mean to you to have this kind of success at this point in your career?
RH: To me, it's just continue to put the work in. If you work every single day and you put the time in and the work in, if you have a passion for something you do and you follow it, it reinforces moving forward and not giving up.
Tim Britton is a Red Sox beat writer for the Providence Journal.