OAKLAND — The tight-budgeted Oakland A's are always looking for undervalued players. Players like Scott Kazmir, Bartolo Colon, Brandon Moss and others became productive with the A’s after years of relative lack of production with other teams.
The A’s are hoping left-handed starter Rich Hill can join that list after signing a one-year, $6-million deal in November after a successful stint in the Red Sox’ rotation late in 2015.
Hill signed with Oakland to bring a veteran presence to an otherwise youthful rotation headlined by Sonny Gray, who finished third on last season’s American League Cy Young ballot.
It only took four starts in September to convince the Oakland front office that Hill could be the next player to emerge from obscurity to prominence in the pitcher-friendly confines of O.co Coliseum in 2016. In those four starts, Hill allowed five earned runs in 29 innings, while striking out 36 and walking just five. He whiffed 10 in his first three outings against the Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles.
Hill, who turns 36 in March, started last year with the Washington Nationals organization pitching for Triple-A Syracuse out of the bullpen. He was released by the Nats on June 24. Hill decided to go back to starting with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League before getting picked up by Boston in August.
From there, Hill quickly got back to the big leagues, where he’s gone 26-23 in 201 appearances as a starter and reliever since his debut with the Cubs in 2005. His short stint in the Red Sox rotation came after not making a Major League start since 2009 with Baltimore. In 2009, Hill went 3-3 with a 7.80 ERA and 5.21 FIP in 57.2 innings. From there, he bounced around as a reliever, making stops with the Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees.
What made Hill so successful during his second stint with Boston after so much time as a reliever? It was moving to the right side the rubber and changing his arm slot. His fastball averaged 90 MPH while he added a curveball he threw nearly half of the time to keep hitters off-balance.
The key for Hill, he said, was to never stop working, even when he was forced to pitch in independent ball.
“It’s just going there and having a passion for pitching, continuously doing the work, and having no excuses for whatever it might be,” Hill said. “There were some days where you throw off the side of a building, you get your work done. There’s just no excuses for why you can’t be successful.”
After spending time under the bright lights in Chicago, Boston and New York, Hill is hoping his experience can help the A’s batch of young, up-and-coming arms behind Gray.
A's manager Bob Melvin said he anticipates Hill to be a candidate for a spot in the front of the rotation, potentially being flanked by Kendall Graveman (25), Jesse Hahn (26), Chris Bassitt (26), Sean Nolin (26) and others competing for jobs on the Opening Day roster.
“There were other places that had opportunities [to sign this off-season],” Hill said. "But I feel this is just a place that is a young team. I feel like I can come in and lead by example.
“You want people to see that and create a culture and an environment where you go out there every single day to play and you do your best. And that’s what’s expected of you, whether it’s every single pitch, every single at bat, every single inning when you’re out there. And then when it’s over with, for that day, you move on, you look forward to the next day.”
To Melvin, what stood out about Hill’s success late last season was simple.
“Perseverance,” said Melvin. “He’s had some ups and downs. He’s been in the rotation. He’s been in the bullpen. And to perform in the opportunity that he got last year, even though it was a limited opportunity in the last month, it was spectacular. And that’s what you want to see, is guys take advantage of the opportunity that they get.”