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.