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2013 Indians Player Preview: Rich Hill

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we continue our look at the bullpen with a new addition to the Indians’ 2013 bullpen: Rich Hill.

Background: The Chicago Cubs took Hill out of the University of Michigan in the fourth round of the 2002 MLB amateur draft, just after Jeff Baker was taken and right before the Marlins snagged Josh Johnson. He came up through the minors as a starting pitcher and made his MLB debut in 2005; in 2006 and 2007 he was a key piece in the Cubs’ rotation. But he lost his command in 2008, and after short stints with the Orioles and Cardinals he latched on with the Red Sox in 2010—then underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011. He signed a minor-league deal with the Indians this winter.

Last year: Hill pitched well for Boston in 2012—that is, when he got out on the field. He went 1-0 with a 1.83 ERA in 25 appearances out of the bullpen for the Red Sox, striking out 21 while walking an alarming 11 batters in 19.2 innings. Though failing to reach 20 frames hardly seems like a full season, it’s a benchmark he’s topped only once since 2007. The DIPS stats all considered Hill very lucky in 2012, with xFIP estimating his true-talent ERA at 3.91.

FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus all estimated Hill’s performance to be worth between 0.3 and 0.7 wins above replacement.

Key factor: Health. Hill threw only 19.2 innings in 2012, and that low total was more than he pitched in the majors than he did in 2010 and 2011 combined. There are a number of unknowns that make forecasting Hill’s 2013 season difficult—his propensity to give up walks and his newfound strikeout stuff come to mind—but there’s simply nothing as important as whether or not Hill will be able to make it out to the field.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

Here’s something striking: in projecting a player who hasn’t played a full season since 2009, all three projection systems give Hill almost identical FIP projections.

Best-case scenario: Take Hill’s 2012 performance and triple the innings. Terry Francona can trust him to neutralize tough lefties and even good right-handed hitters in high-leverage situations. He becomes an integral part of Francona’s late-game pitching mix and fans leave more than one win with the feeling that things wouldn’t have gone as well with a lesser lefty specialist coming out of the bullpen.

Worst-case scenario: Hill isn’t with the team for long. Health problems, an inability to control the walks, or both at the same time keep him off the active roster for most of the season. He isn’t hard for the Indians to replace (at least one of Nick Hagadone, Scott Barnes, and David Huff will be on the outside looking in on Opening Day) and he’s quickly forgotten as a nonfactor for the 2013 Tribe.

What to expect: I’ll be honest—heck if I know. Hill would be a hard pitcher to project even without his injury history. So I’ll defer to the projections systems’ consensus. The Oliver projections look like a good best bet, but don’t be surprised if Hill overperforms or dramatically underperforms that line.

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