As a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, you get used to disappointment. For Jays fans around my age (a gentleman’s 27 ½), winning was the norm when following my favourite team growing up. I started watching baseball in 1989—at least that’s when I remember starting to watch it with any frequency—and was immediately spoiled with the consistent taste of winning. In my first five years of baseball consumption, I witnessed my Blue Jays win four division titles and two World Series’. Times were good and I came to expect that winning was something that just happened to the Blue Jays—like gravity, death and the slow erosion of the middle class.
The last 18 years have been a slow, but powerful, slap of reality to the unsuspecting cheek.
Along with that disappointment is a seemingly endless list of players who achieved far greater success once they were no longer members of the Blue Jays—Chris Carpenter, Shawn Green, Woody Williams, Michael Young…okay, maybe there is an end to that list, but you get my point.
Last night, for the second time in 11 days, Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill (formerly of the Blue Jays) hit for the cycle. He became the first player since Babe Herman of the Brooklyn Robins in 1931 to hit for two cycles in the same season.
And this isn’t a two-game fluke; Hill has been excellent this season—and in fact, has been excellent since being traded to the Diamondbacks last August in the deal that brought Kelly Johnson to Toronto. Despite almost two full years of suckage leading up to the trade, Hill has posted a .306/.370/.511 slash line with 13 home runs in just 445 plate appearances. Not only is he posting an on-base percentage that’s 52 points higher than his AL OBP, his slugging percentage has gone up almost 100 points and his walk rate has gone from 6.6% to 8.3%.
While it’s obvious that 445 plate appearances isn’t quite a large enough sample size to draw definitive conclusions, it is large enough to start asking whether or not Hill has turned a corner in his career.
According to fWAR, Hill has been the most valuable second baseman in the National League, buoying his team by nearly three wins over the theoretical replacement-level player. So what’s changed?
Well first off, Hill is being more selective. During the peak of his struggles with Toronto (2010 and the first two-thirds of 2011), Hill was walking at a less-than-stellar 6.3% rate, which was right around his career norm. Since being jettisoned to the desert, however, Hill has been walking at a much more respectable rate.
And it doesn’t stop there: He has been swinging at far fewer pitches outside the zone. In his last season-plus with Toronto, Hill swung at 31.4% of the pitches he saw outside of the zone; since going to Arizona, he’s lowered that number to 26.2%. He’s also swinging at far fewer fastballs in that time and has lowered his fastball whiff rate significantly. As a result, Hill seems to be making more consistent and solid contact which has led to him nearly halving his groundout-rate.
Due mostly to poor contact skills in his last year-plus with Toronto, Hill’s batted-ball average was a historically low .216 over his final 924 plate appearances with the Blue Jays. The drastic increase in line drives has resulted in a .335 BABIP since traversing to the Southwest.
As of right now, Hill is out-producing even his career year numbers of 2009 posting a wRC+ nearly 20% better so far in 2012. It remains to be seen if all of these things are sustainable long term, but Hill’s obvious change in approach has clearly helped him become a very productive Major Leaguer once again; much to the chagrin of every Blue Jays fan.