I don’t know if Rich Hill is a complicated man. Baseball analysis does not shed any light into the hopes and fears of the athletes on our screens. But do I know whether Rich Hill is a complicated pitcher? No, not really. Some things say yes, some things say no. What I do know is that Rich Hill is starting Game 4 of the National League Division Series in another must-win (or go home) game for the Atlanta Braves. I also know that Rich Hill is unlike other pitchers in baseball. If the Braves can exploit his unique profile, a profile that’s nonetheless let him wend a 95 ERA-, 99 FIP-, and 91 xFIP- in his age-38 season, they might get to play a Game 5 in Los Angeles later this week. If they don’t, well, see you in 2019. The below is a couple of things you should know about Rich Hill, things which the Braves are hopefully learning about this morning before they face him this afternoon.
Rich Hill is a two-pitch* pitcher
Yes, he has two pitches. He has a fastball. He has a curveball. That’s it. This season, he’s thrown a fastball 58 percent of the time, and a curveball about 40 percent of the time. The remaining two percent is all sorts of other stuff that’s basically never used, a cutter, a sinker, a changeup, a slider, all either attempts to do a heckin’ bamboozle as the kids say, or just a plain ol’ boring classification error.
You can slice-and-dice his usage of these pitches however you want — but as we’ve seen, this may not be that helpful. For example, we know that this season, Rich Hill has basically pitched very generically: he starts hitters off with fastballs, and once he’s got two strikes or is otherwise ahead in the count, he puts them away with curveballs. But, that doesn’t mean he’s tethered to this strategy, he could just as easily start hitters with curveballs and then throw fastballs. (This season, he’s pitched more “backwards” in this manner as the game has gone along, though he will still generally rely on the curve as an out pitch.) So, what’s the strategy? Well, guess fastball or curveball — you’ve got two choices, pick one, and then try to demolish the pitch if you guessed right. It’ll be bad when you guess wrong, and you’ll potentially look dumb. But when you guess right? Oh baby.
Why do you have to guess? Well, because of this:
I’m not going to say that’s the best tunneling ever, but he’s not exactly giving the game away with his release points.
Anyway, there was an asterisk up on the heading. That asterisk potentially matters. This is a plot of the movement on Hill’s pitches.
The fastballs, well, they’re the fastballs. They’re bunched together to some extent. They’re not too consistent, because things differ: game conditions, arm strength, camera calibration, etc. But they’re kind of an ambiguous clump. The curves, though, look like there’s more going on. You’ve got your same horizontal movement but five-ish inches of difference vertically; you’ve got your same vertical movement but five-ish inches of difference horizontally. It’s not exactly every combination of curves possible, but you also have the curve wot doesn’t move as much towards the upper right, too.
In other words, if you guess curveball, that doesn’t mean you sit and expect curveball. It means you sit and expect some specific curveball with some specific arc, sweep, and drop. Just be aware that the curveball you want may not be the curveball you get. “Think fastball and then adjust” may not be helpful advice against Rich Hill. But, is “think one type of curveball, and then adjust to another type of curveball” more useful? Maybe we’ll find out.
He’s old, he’s slow, but boy, that fastball
Here’s some weird stuff about Rich Hill. Name a Braves starter with more than five starts and a higher strikeout rate than him this year. Here’s a hint: it’s not his Game 4 opponent, Mike Foltynewicz. It’s not anyone else in the rotation, either. Yes, Rich Hill has a higher strikeout rate than any Atlanta rotation stalwart this year. Now, here’s another riddle: name a Braves starter with more than one start with a slower average fastball velocity. Here’s a hint: it’s not the one Braves’ pitcher on the NLDS roster that hasn’t yet pitched this series (Julio Teheran). It’s not anyone else, either. Rich Hill’s 89.5 mph average fastball is slower than that of any starter the Braves have used this year, except for Kolby Allard. His fastball is the average of Allard and Teheran’s fastball velocity, which... yeesh.
Except, not yeesh!
Rich Hill gets a ton of whiffs on his fastball. So many whiffs. (By contrast, he gets relatively fewer whiffs on his curveball.) That’s probably not what you expected for a fastball-curveball guy, right? You probably expected guys getting over-anxious and swinging way too early at the breaking pitch. Instead, Hill has made a living this year blowing guys away with his slow-ish fastball when they’re potentially waiting on a slow curve and then trying to catch up. Here’s how Brooks Baseball’s landing page describes his fastball:
His fourseam fastball generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers, results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ fourseamers and has slightly below average velo.
What a weird, incongruous sentence.
If you’re guessing curveball, don’t try to speed up and hit the fastball. You might not. On the year, Hill has only thrown about 59 percent of his fastballs in the zone. Sure, you’ll probably take a called strike if you see fastball and you guessed curveball. But you won’t always. Take the pitch, live to guess and swing another day (or, well, on the next pitch).
And, whatever you do, don’t hit grounders.
Small note: blast from the recent past
Hill has had one prior start against the Braves this year, and it was one of his best of the year. He allowed just four baserunners in seven scoreless innings, while striking out eight. His overall strategy wasn’t too different, just refined: lefties basically got a steady diet of fastballs until the curveball was ready to put them away; righties got mostly the same, but with a more even split between the two.
The Braves can’t know, and won’t know, whether Hill will go back to that well again, or try something different. They can try to jump on fastballs early, but if he adjusts immediately, so should they. This isn’t the game or the time to be caught flatfooted, and despite his craftiness, I hope the Braves can handle Hill just fine.