When a writer in the baseball blogosphere wishes to convince his or her readership that a player previously considered to be terrible might be a’ight, he or she will often mimic the promotional strategies of Pepsi Cola and play a rousing game of the Player A and B Blind Taste Test with the selection of arbitrary numbers that prove the blogger’s point.
And so …
Player A: 556 PA; 21 HR; 7.7 BB%; 13.5 K%; .211 ISO; .302 AVG; .359 OBP; .513 SLG; .370 wOBA; 128 wRC+.
Player B: 537 PA; 31 HR; 10.2 BB%; 23.8 K%; .278 ISO; .261 AVG; .339 OBP; .539 SLG; .367 wOBA; 129 wRC+.
Player A is Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill, and Player B is Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce. While Bruce has spent his 2012 season creating MVP buzz (admittedly it’s mostly been from writers in Cincinnati and people on Bleacher Report) with his power numbers, Hill’s career year in Phoenix has gone largely unnoticed. And yet, the second baseman who couldn’t attain a single win above replacement last season is on pace to record a five WAR year in 2012.
Hill is an especially interesting case to those of us who like to take long walks in the park with numbers, more specifically numbers that are commonly attributed to luck. Two seasons ago, Hill put up one of the worst batting averages for balls in play (BABIP) in recent memory with an astounding . 193. While DIPS theory suggests that pitchers don’t really have much control over their BABIP, it’s a different story for batters. For anyone watching Hill that season, his low BABIP was obviously not a matter of luck, as his 10.6% line drive rate, the lowest ever recorded, will attest.
In 2011, Hill managed to turn some of his fly ball outs from 2010 into line drives which increased his BABIP, but a much decreased HR/FB ratio had many questioning the cost of that development. The decline resulted in going from 26 home runs in 2010 to only eight the following year. This season, his batted ball numbers don’t appear to be all that different from 2011, but thankfully for Hill, his HR/FB ratio is back to being above average and more in line with career norms, resulting in a return to the 20 home run club.
We also see that Hill’s fly ball rate doesn’t vary that much outside of 2010′s outlier which seemed to come directly at the cost of his line drives. That season happens to coincide with the Toronto Blue Jays attaining the highest team fly ball rate ever recorded, suggesting to me that it might have been an organizational philosophy that encouraged making contact with the bottom part of the ball. In fact, in the three full seasons that current hitting coach Dwayne Murphy has been with the Blue Jays, the team has appeared three times in the top fifteen all-time highest team fly ball rates.
While such practices have served pull hitters like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion well, a theory proposed by Jack Moore of Fangraphs suggests that Aaron Hill simply doesn’t have the power of those two players to justify the hearty loft that such hitting calls for.
Hill was hitting the ball hard — his average home run went off the bat at 102.3 MPH in 2010 compared to 101.9 in 2009. A possible explanation? He was lofting the ball too much. He also had a higher average launch angle (29.1 degrees vs. 28.6) on his homers in 2010 than in 2009 and the same true distance (387.2 feet).
Here is Hill’s home run swing in action in 2010:
Here it is in 2011:
And finally, here it is in 2012:
There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of difference between his swings year to year that can’t be explained by camera angle. The timing of his weight transfer seems a little bit better to me in the 2012 swing with the bottom of the back foot being revealed to the umpire at the exact same time as contact is made.
Whatever the case may be, it appears that Hill has figured something out, and not just in what type of contact he makes, but also with a more patient approach to the plate which is resulting in fewer swings, and undiminished amount of contact. He’s still pulling the ball for power in a similar fashion to what he did in his most successful seasons of the past, but he’s also added an ability to hit the ball closer to center field with what one presumes is some additional authority as well.
Here’s his spray chart from this season:
And here it is in 2010:
Unsurprisingly, he pulls the ball for power almost exclusively off of hard pitches inside, just as he’s always done, as we see from his ISO by location this season from fastballs:
However, as is the case whenever we look into a player’s numbers at a depth further than surface, this one factor doesn’t completely explain everything. However, combined with sorting out the angle at which he’s making contact, increased patience at the plate and better timing with his weight transfer, Hill has been better suited to take advantage of his new team in a new league.
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the second baseman’s resurgence is that the Diamondbacks were willing to take a chance on the second baseman this off season with him coming off the worst year of his career. Their faith in offering a two year deal worth $11 million to Hill on the free agent market has already brought back more than $20 million in value without the first season of the contract even being finished.
That’s prudent baseball and it mirrors Hill in his taking advantage of what he’s being offered approach to hitting this season. Both have been a resounding success.