As Rich Hill sees it, his sitting in a club room at O.co Coliseum during last month’s A’s FanFest, surrounded by his new teammates, largely could be traced to one day last summer when he was temporarily out of baseball.
Hill, a 35-year-old left-hander, was released by the Washington Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate and returned home to the Boston area. Weighing his options, he threw a bullpen session with a Boston Red Sox representative in attendance. Hill was offered some advice about his delivery but not a contract.
“If they had signed me that day, I might not be sitting here,” Hill said during the A’s annual introduction to Bay Area fans. “I would have probably signed, they would have put me at (Triple-A) Pawtucket, and I would have been a reliever.”
Instead, Hill ultimately followed through on an idea he had been considering for some time – even though it would take him on a more roundabout path back to the majors.
Hill, a starter when he broke into the majors in 2005, pitched primarily in relief from 2010 to 2014. But he decided last summer he wanted to start again and signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League in July to pursue that goal.
Hill made two starts for the Ducks, throwing five hitless innings in his first outing, then striking out 14 batters in six innings in his second. On Aug. 14, the Red Sox did sign him and sent him to Triple A – as a starter. Boston called him up in September, and he went 2-1 with a 1.55 ERA in four starts, and he struck out 10 in three of the four.
That convinced the A’s to sign Hill to a one-year, $6 million deal in November, intending for him to be their No. 2 starter this season behind Sonny Gray. Despite going nearly six years without starting in the majors before last September, Hill said he feels up to the task.
“One hundred percent, yeah,” Hill said. “I feel physically the best that I’ve felt in a long time. I just feel very well put together, strong. And the health factor is huge.”
The effects of that bullpen session last summer were more than just serendipitous. Hill said the Red Sox representative who watched him suggested one significant tweak to his delivery – that Hill move to the right side of the rubber to address his tendency to miss locations inside to left-handers. As it happened, that was where Hill had set up when he broke into the majors as a starter.
“By (moving), it felt like I just got back into a good comfort zone,” Hill said. “And it just took off from there.”
Hill also was throwing sidearm, a delivery he had used effectively as a reliever. When nothing came of that bullpen session with Boston, Hill said he resumed an over-the-top motion, used it in two 70-pitch bullpen sessions for Long Island “and made a decision to go from there (starting).”
Hill said he believes he’s a more well-rounded starter now than early in his career. He learned how to structure his routine between starts to “peak every fifth day” by watching teammates like John Lackey, Corey Kluber and Jon Lester. Hill also feels confident in his repertoire of pitches and doesn’t feel he has to throw any one pitch a certain percent of the time or in certain counts.
For the latter freedom, Hill credits a conversation he had last year with Brian Bannister, a former major-league pitcher now working for the Red Sox. Hill said Bannister helped him embrace the “creative process” of pitching. Along with shifting his thought process to focus on individual pitches instead of results, Hill said he took the mound last season with a different attitude.
“That was the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life pitching, because of the freedom to be creative,” Hill said. “I don’t go out there with this laissez-faire, throw-caution-to-the-wind type attitude when I pitch. It’s very convicted, it’s very aggressive, it’s a very boxer-type mentality to it. But with that, you find the balance of being creative, too.”
Hill said he chose the A’s largely because they offered him the opportunity to start for an entire season. Other teams offered the same chance, Hill said, but he called around to former coaches and teammates and received strong reviews about the A’s. So his career renaissance continues in Oakland.
“To perform in the opportunity he got last year, even though it was a limited opportunity, was spectacular,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “And that’s what you want to see is guys take advantage of the opportunity they get. He put himself back on the map. And we were on him right away.”
- Location: Hohokam Stadium, Mesa, Ariz.
- Reporting dates: First practice, pitchers and catchers, Feb. 21, position players, Feb. 26
- First game: March 3, at Angels (Tempe, Ariz.), 12:10 p.m.
- Opening Day: April 4, vs. Chicago White Sox, 7:05 p.m.
- Location: Scottsdale (Ariz.) Stadium
- Reporting dates: First practice, pitchers and catchers, Feb. 18, position players, Feb. 23
- First game: March 2, vs. Angels, 12:05 p.m.
- Opening Day: April 4, at Milwaukee, 11:10 a.m.
- Home opener: April 7, vs. L.A. Dodgers, 1:35 p.m.