The Curious Case of Aaron Hill

Perhaps more than any other regular player on the 2011 Toronto Blue Jays, Aaron Hill has been the target of derision from the fans and media alike.  Once considered among the best up-and-coming young infielders in the game, Hill has fallen off dramatically in the last two seasons after his breakout 2009.  In that season, at just 27, Hill accumulated a 4.1 WAR smacking 36 home runs and posting a .357 wOBA, but there were signs that regression was on the way.

The most important sign was his 14.9% HR/FB rate, a mark that tends to be an indicator of luck for a hitter if it’s vastly different from his career norm, which for Hill at the time was 5.9%.  But Hill’s batted-ball average was .288, a mark that was actually quite a bit lower than his career norm, so the suggestion could have been made that his .286 average and .330 OBP were actually the result of being a tad unlucky.

Regardless, the season put up by the 27-year-old Hill served as a beacon of hope that the Jays had found their second baseman of the present and the future.  Then came 2010.

Fuelled by an historically low batted ball average of just .196, Hill posted a terrible slash line in 2010 of .205/.271/.394 with a .291 wOBA.  The BABIP combined with his highest walk-rate since his rookie campaign and 26 home runs had some people (me, mainly) thinking that Hill would rebound and put up a nice season in 2011, but that simply has not happened.

Even with his great night last night in Seattle, Hill has a dismal slash line of .229/.276/.321 so far in 2011.  His wOBA is worse than his 2010 mark at just .272, he’s hit just six home runs, and with help from his poor defensive numbers has put up a negative WAR rating for the first time in his career.  Things are so bad that John McDonald, and his .268 career wOBA, is now taking at-bats away from Hill.

So, what the Hill has happened?*

Looking over his numbers, I started to notice that despite all of his inconsistencies in performance over the last few seasons, a lot of his peripheral numbers are very consistent.  His walk-rate, although terrible at 5.6%, is nearly identical to his 2009 rate (and lower than his 2010 rate), while he’s posting his lowest strikeout rate since 2006.  His BABIP has risen to .248 this season, but that’s a mark that still has to be considered a tad unlucky since his career mark is .283.

Looking at his batted ball information, things get even weirder.  Although Hill is posting a full-season career-high infield-flyball rate, his mark isn’t a whole lot higher than his 2009 rate (11.6% to 13.9%) and it’s nowhere near the top of the leader board.  Hill sits 28th in infield-flyball percentage behind the likes of Brett Gardner (who leads the league with a 21.8% mark), Carlos Santana, Edwin Encarnacion, Danny Espinosa, Troy Tulowitzki, Ichiro!, Carlos Gonzalez, and Colby Rasmus.  Looking at Hill’s line-drive percentage, there was a huge dip in 2010, but his 2009 and 2011 rates are nearly identical, while his groundball and flyball rates are also similar.

Along with the low BABIP, Hill’s HR/FB rate is also indicative of luck.  Although no one expecting him to duplicate his high HR/FB rate of 2009, Hill’s 2011 mark of 4.2% reeks of unfortunaety.**  That mark sits as the 25th lowest in baseball among qualified players and the 24 players in front of him are all players who rarely, if ever, hit homeruns.  Names like Michael Bourn, Ichiro!, Brendan Ryan, Alcides Escobar, and Elvis Andrus populate this list, and no matter how much vitriol you would like to spew at Hill (trust me, I’m there with you) you can’t deny that he has far more power than the names on that list.

Is it possible that Hill has had an unluckily long unlucky streak?  I’m not suggesting that he is as good as he looked in 2009, but I also have a hard time believing he’s as bad as he has been since then.  The problem is that Hill’s prime years are running out and the inevitable decline he’s about to experience may balance out any increases in luck.

Reading over a scouting report of Hill’s published back in January of 2005, this sentence flew off the screen:

“On offense, Hill features a quick bat and excellent strike-zone judgment. Plate discipline is his best overall attribute: he seldom swings at bad pitches, and does not strike out much.”

For anyone who has watched Hill over the past few seasons, even in 2009, the bolded sentence (emphasis mine) seems an odd one.  To the eye, at least, Hill appears to constantly swing at bad pitches, and although he doesn’t have a particularly high strikeout rate, “excellent strike-zone judgement” isn’t the first thing that pops to mind when you think about Hill lunging after a slider down and away and popping it up to the first baseman.

Hill’s walk numbers and plate discipline have taken a noticeable nose-dive since Cito Gaston’s first full year in 2009.  Is it possible that our favourite manager drilled the plate discipline right out of Hill, rendering him overly aggressive?  It’s certainly fathomable, at least to me.  Once pitchers starting catching on to his newfound ultra-aggressive approach, maybe they started throwing him pitches he had no hope in driving.

There is an $8-million team option remaining on Hill’s contract for next season; an option that has little-to-no chance of being picked up by the Jays, so there is now quite the dilemma facing the franchise.  Hill projects to be a Type-B free agent, but declining his option and offering him arbitration is a dangerous proposition.  If Hill were to accept arbitration, he cannot, under the collective bargaining agreement, make less than 80% of his current salary of $5-million, meaning in that scenario, Hill would make at least $4-million, a number he is unlikely to garner on the open market.  In most cases, even when the player has struggled, arbitrators award raises, meaning he may be given more than $5-million in such a case.

Alex Anthopoulos and his group of skilled ninjas have to decide if potentially bringing Hill back for that kind of money is worth risking the arbitration offer.  If it isn’t, what options does Toronto have at second base for next season?  The free agent market is thin and big contracts to other middle infielders like Brandon Phillips or Jose Reyes seem like foolish plans, especially for a team that doesn’t seem to have a penchant for making questionable long-term commitments.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot internally unless Adeiny Hechavarria makes big strides at the plate and can take over at short next season, bumping Yunel Escobar to second.

If, in fact, Hill is better than his last two seasons suggest and is just experiencing a prolonged bout of bad luck, would it be the worst thing in the world to decline his option, not offer him arbitration, and re-sign him to a cheap one-year deal?  Discuss.

Line-drive to the left field corner to Chris Sherwin for helping me out in the beginning of the reseach.  He’s on Twitter.

*Probably not funny, you shouldn’t laugh at that (you did though, I know you did)
**Not a real word

Travis Reitsma is the resident fantasy baseball “expert” here at Getting Blanked, but you’ll find he writes about other ‘interesting topics from around the league’™ as well.  You can find more of his work at Baseball Canadiana and you can follow him on the Tweeter where he is known to spit hot fire.

Comments (30)

  1. since 2009, his AVG has been almost exactly in line with his babip – for whatever that is worth. (i think 3 years is long enough for use to say that it seems he’s the same hitter now that he was in 2009). what we see is that his slugging % has continued to decrease. in other words, all that has happened is that he has hit less HRs and long doubles. for some reason, he came back from injury (concussion) much stronger than when he left, and in the time since, he has become less able to hit the longball.

    the common sense interpretation, at least to me, is that he was stronger or more able to turn quickly on the ball in 2009 than now. i’m no fan of speculation, but i have my ideas as to why that might be, but i don’t really care one way or another – mostly i’d just like to see him being at least a major league average hitter sooner rather than later. i’m sure this is true of all concerned. so what is to be done>?

    it seems that the obvious solution is to hire david eckstein to concust aaron hill and let the world run its course. n’est-ce pas?

  2. that does make sense, but looking at his line-drive percentage and flyball percentage, they’re nearly identical (although they weren’t in 2010), which would suggest that he’s still making good contact. It really baffles me as to why he’s been so terrible.

    And I hear Tanya Harding is cheaper than Eck. It’s a recession after all.

  3. As has been discuess (on this blog no less) many times, Hill’s BABIP may be partially unlucky, but it’s also partially infield flies + weak ground balls equal easy outs. You don’t get hits on those, ever.

    At the same time, I can’t help but feel every time I see Hill square up the ball, it really is going into an outfielder’s glove.

    And yes, I agree with saying that Cito took all the selectivity out of him. Sometime happened there and he went from a gap to gap hitter to a dead pull hitter. When he first came up he would hit everything. He had a good average. You should add to this post some pre-concussion numbers. (because I’m too lazy to look them up myself)

  4. Bringing him back next year on a cheap one year deal isn’t the worst idea, considering the dearth of options at 2b both in free agency and our own farm system, as bad as Hill’s been we may not find a much better replacement. Kelly Johnson is a named that’s bandied about often, who’s essentially having an offensive season this year reminiscent of Aaron Hill 2010. Not exactly an inspiring replacement…I don’t think it’s unreasonable that Aaron returns to a triple slash say 270/330/400, but it’s definitely a longshot at this point. I’m not quite sure Cito ruined Hill as Hill was already a pull everything hitter, I think success ruined Hill. He started becoming less selective and putting all or nothing swings on lots of balls in 2009 and through luck had lots of those bad swing flyballs carry out of a homerun park. When that stopped happening he became lost.

  5. I have foggy memories of people talking about Hill being a candidate to be a batting champ before the 2009 season. The selective approach, quick bat and hitting to all fields were reasons given. What I don’t understand is the defence. Some days he makes outstanding plays and seems to have great range. Other days, line drives go right through him. It is frustrating as hell to watch.

  6. @Chill: True say. He’s had an odd defensive career, at least according to UZR. He’s been a very good defender in most season, the two outliers being 2009 and this season, both of which he has been well below average. It’s hard to explain.

  7. i really think the common sense solution is probably right in this case: he isn’t as strong, and so the swings he’s been taking since 2009 aren’t going out or over as much as they were. this, of course, means treating pre-2009 hill and post as 2 different hitters in terms of stats – which seems right to me.

    as for the well hit balls: a soft line drive that doesn’t hit the gap is going to be caught instead of going over their heads to the wall, or over the fence for a HR. it doesn’t matter how ‘good’ the contact is if it is hit right at the fielder.

    hill used to hit to the gaps. he’d have stretches where he wasn’t taking any to right field and so everyone just pitched him outside. then 2009 happened.

    look at his spray chart: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/you-call-that-a-spray-chart-split/
    he was jose bautista before bautista was. one HR to right of centre. anyway mlb.com used to show you hitting charts, but i can’t find them anymore. basically i’m guessing he never (or rarely) hits to right field anymore. that and he is weaker.

  8. I think they have little choice but to offer Hill arbitration. If he declines (he won’t decline), well then great we get a draft pick, if he accepts (he’ll accept) then we’re get a youngish player with a 4.1 WAR season under his belt. There’s still a lot of upside there. Maybe its luck or maybe its approach or some combination of the two, but like Rasmus and Escobar he’s a player with proven talent. To just let that kind of talent walk without getting anything in return seems like a waste. Besides its not like we have any decent alternatives at the moment.

    If his 2010-2011 seasons end up being the real Hill, then he becomes a $5 millionish stop-gap until Hechevarria is ready. If he can post even decent numbers then we’re left with a player that can be traded at the deadline or a Type A/B player that will decline arbitration next offseason and generate a draft pick or two. Its worth a shot unless there’s some other 2B alternative out there I’m missing.

  9. grunching comments for now, but (as I’m sure other commenters have said) I’d be surprised if the Jays non-tendered him and AH turned around and took a reduced salary to come back.

  10. I haven’t developed a full time Hate-On for Hill quite yet. Despite his streak of being terrible I always ‘believe’ when he’s at the plate. This feeling usually disappears when he inevitably pops up but I keep believing anyway. I wonder why that is.

  11. Turns out nobody said it, but the point remains.

    Especially in a watered down 2B market, someone is going to offer Aaron the same thing or more than what the Jays offer him, and will do it without having non-tendered him. I know if I had a job and my boss fired me, I wouldn’t expect him to come to me and say “Hey man, if you’d like to come back at a fraction of the salary….”, and frankly, if he did, I’d probably ask him to politely fuck himself.

    We got pretty lucky with Edwin this offseason, but I don’t think that kind of thing happens all that much, especially with everyday players. With AH having been an everyday player this entire time, the Jays don’t really have the same leverage as they did with Edwin Encarnacion, whom they DFA’ed at the end of last season, and were probably the only people who had any interest in tendering him a contract at a reduced rate.

  12. because of his past success that we all hope and feel he can recapture

  13. I wonder if Chad Mottola becoming hitting coach next year will help Hill. He seems to do wonders for Snider, who goes to AAA, rakes, comes back, rakes for a couple of weeks or so and then goes back to being terrible. Murphy must be the culprit. Solution: Mottola. Alternate solution: somebody else other than Murphy.

    Of course, this is pure fantasy on my part. Maybe Murphy is helping other hitters. Maybe there’s no likelihood of replacing him. The team OBA has improved somewhat this season (mainly on the backs of JBau, Escobar and not having Wells), but imagine what it could be if Hill, JPA, Snider, Rasmus, Thames, and Lind either found or re-found some patience at the plate. Let’s give big Chad a try, I say!

  14. Should the Blue Jays end up being contenders in 2012, which I think they will, having a player as Hill has been the past two seasons (worst OBP in the majors 2010-2011) could cost them a playoff spot. I don’t see how the Jays picking up 8 million nor would he sign here for cheaper. It would’ve been nice if things had worked out here but he should move on.

  15. Aaron Hill has become an incredibly bad player. To suggest an incredibly long unlucky streak as the source of his woes simply does not jibe with the reality of his at-bats, in my eyes. Look at the guy hit. A few years ago, he was a damn beauty at the plate! Line drives, line drives, line drives. Sweet swing. Now, anyone who watches him knows he rarely does anything but pop out or weakly ground out. I don’t much care to search for explanation; all I know is he is absolutely AWFUL at this point at the plate. He just never, ever makes good contact (I don’t care that he happened to have a good night last night.)

    Combine this with mediocre defense and you have a downright bad player.

    Brendan said: “There’s still a lot of upside there. Maybe its luck or maybe its approach or some combination of the two, but like Rasmus and Escobar he’s a player with proven talent. To just let that kind of talent walk without getting anything in return seems like a waste. Besides its not like we have any decent alternatives at the moment.”

    I couldn’t disagree more with this perspective. Unlike Rasmus and Escobar, we have a player who, though perhaps with good seasons under his belt, has now proven over a long period of time that he SUCKS. It’s not like he had a bad month, or a bad three months. He’s been downright terrible for two years now. He’s done.

    Decent alternatives? Hill has a NEGATIVE WAR!!! Replace him with ANYONE!!! Specifically: bring up Hechevarria. Dude can’t hit? So what!? Neither can Hill! When considering Hechevarria’s possible performance at the MLB level, it is extremely relevant to consider the preposterously low bar set for him by his predecessor here. Even if his WAR was 0 it’d be an upgrade.

    The concept of a negative-WAR player in our everyday lineup who isn’t even a developing prospect is like a sick joke. Put Hill out of his misery.

  16. Bringing up Hechevarria would be the worst thing possible. His bat isn’t even AA decent.

    Why waste his possibly best glove in the world at short at 2nd, because you’re not moving Escobar over to 2nd in the middle of the season.

    Just throw one of the Mc’s in there and hope for the best, or let Aaron play it out. I believe Aaron’s best days are behind him, but it’s late in the season, what are you gonna do?

    Free Johnny Mac!

  17. True that Escobar will not be moved midseason, but it must be pointed out that Hill’s bat may not be even be AA decent either.

  18. Escobar definitely won’t move off of SS this season, but he will in the next couple years; either to 2B or 3B, depending on how Lawrie does.

    I don’t think Hill is as bad as Dan is suggesting, but I do think there’s still something to be said of the data that suggests he’s hitting the ball as hard as ever.

  19. The numbers may *suggest* that he still hits the ball hard, but watching him hit makes it clear that he does not. This seems to me an uncontroversial argument. Does anyone disagree?

  20. i heard somewhere that the year of his breakout hr season, he switched to a heavier bat. maybe he needs to go back to the lighter one.

  21. i feel like i’m taking crazy pills here: he is weaker. he can’t hit “well hit balls” as far.
    he’s trying to be a straight pull hitter, and now that he isn’t strong enough those stupid uppercut HR-swings he takes mostly pop up or end up in OF’s gloves.

    that’s all there is two it. solutions:
    1) go back to pre-concussion approach
    2) do the training (or whatever) he did when he was out during 2008.
    3) quit baseball

  22. lol. “two it” what am i? five? haha.

  23. Yeah, I’m not really arguing against him being less strong, he certainly might be, but there’s also no way to prove or disprove that other than by our eyes, which can be deceiving. All I’m saying is that there’s no proof in the numbers, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

  24. kelly Johnson anyone???

    also blamin cito for ruining his approach is a cop out.. you are in control of your own destiny, no player would be stupid enough to abandon a trait that helped get them to where they are..

    if he did, he’s crap anyways

  25. HRs and Batting Average are numbers and, i think in this case, ones that are useful.

    I’m so sick of hearing about how AVG is such a terrible stat. Think back to actually playing baseball and trying to hit to the opposite field. Yes, you can do that. Proof? Aaron hill’s spray charts….or most people that hit over .300.

    Although I don’t think we should call up Hech just yet, what one poster said strikes me as true: Aaron Hill is probably not even AA good right now. He’s getting himself out by trying to be a hitter that he isn’t capable of being for whatever reasons.

    So, maybe ask him why we don’t see any creatine in his locker, or why he still insists on having a 10lb iron bar for a bat, but let’s not pretend there aren’t #s that indicate why what we’re seeing is happening. It isn’t bad luck, it’s bad hitting.

  26. @dc

    if you worked out for basically a year, and then found you were crushing balls in BP, and on top of that pitchers were coming in to your wheelhouse with pitches you were crushing for bombs to the tune of 36 in a year…why would you think you needed to be a gap-gap hitter?

    especially given that Hill was more streaky pre-2009…why struggle like that? isn’t it better to just suck consistently?

  27. i don’t know who aaron hill is friends with in the clubhouse, but some of them should have an intervention. “dude, you are not jeff kent.” it has to be said.

    prove me wrong, aaron.

  28. good article.

    its a tough call. there are some signs that hill is reverting to his pre-2010 form, but the total lack of results is very strange.

    by all accounts, he’s physically fine and still has all the raw tools to be a good player. i’d say give him another chance, guys dont just up and lose all their talent at 28.

  29. Haven’t read all the comments but I think the right thing to do would be to resign Hill for 1 year plus an option. Hope that he can regain some value. Also hope that in 2 years time Hecchevarria is ready for the show, but don’t be foolish and bring that kid up early.

  30. Remember all those “just-enough” homers in 2009? They turned into fly balls. Hill was never a power hitter, he just had a nice year where the power bumped. Last year he completely sold out and everything else crashed and burned.

    In the minors he had an eye…I wish I knew where it went. If he could just find some middle ground as the kind of hitter who puts up a 90 OPS+ then you could justify keeping him around as a marginal starter until someone else kicks him aside. But he’s getting a Scotty Pods-type deal this offseason. An arb offer would be insane. You might be better off signing Jack Wilson.

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