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Command and Sinker Will Be Key to Hill’s Success

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees

With Matt Thornton claimed off waivers by the Washington Nationals, the Yankees have found themselves a new lefty arm out of the bullpen. Journeyman lefthander Rich Hill, who was signed by the Red Sox, released by the Red Sox, signed again by the Red Sox, purchased by the Angels, released by the Angels, and signed by the Yankees in the past seven months, has found himself a home in the New York bullpen. His career in pinstripes began inauspiciously when he hit Tigers outfielder Ezequiel Carrera in his first Yankees appearance on August 5 before being yanked. However, the man whose ERA was listed as ‘INF’ as an Angel has seen the same metric plummet to zero as a member of the Bombers.

The former fourth-round draft pick hadn’t found much success in 465.2 career innings from 2005-2013 save for a 2007 season that saw him post a 3.92 ERA and strike out 183 batters in 195 innings for the division-winning Chicago Cubs. Injuries hampered Hill in 2008 and 2009 before he was converted to a reliever in 2010. Hill went on to post three solid years in Boston’s bullpen, albeit in limited action. In 31.2 innings, Hill had a 1.14 ERA while striking out 36 batters. Hill’s problem has always been the walk. His fielding independent pitching (FIP), which measures a pitcher by only that which he can control (walks, strikeouts, and home runs), was tracked at 2.32 over that same timespan—still good but not as shiny as his actual ERA. This is because while Hill struck out plenty of batters (10.2 per 9 innings) and didn’t allow a single longball, he gave up too many free passes (4.3 per 9 innings).

While it didn’t hurt him as badly over those three years as his FIP would have predicted, his lack of command would come back to haunt him as a member of the Cleveland Indians last year. In 38.2 innings over 63 appearances, he pitched to the tune of a dismal 6.28 ERA. His walks (which had inched from 2.3 per 9 in 2010 to 3.4 per 9 in 2011 to 5.0 per 9 in 2012) were out of control at 6.8 per 9 in 2013. He still struck out plenty of batters—11.9 per 9—but he gave up 3 home runs in addition to the inordinate amount of walks he allowed. It was the same story in his only two appearances with the Angels this season, as he allowed 1 run, 1 hit, and 3 walks while failing to record an out.

Hill’s control has been better this year, as he has only walked one batter as a Yankee. Instead of relying primarily on his four-seam fastball, he’s ditched the four-seamer almost entirely and has instead turned to the sinker as his main offering. This is extremely new, as he not only still used the fastball as his primary pitch in 2013 but also in his unsuccessful appearances in both ends of a July 1 doubleheader for the Angels. Perhaps pitching coach Larry Rothschild has encouraged Hill to rely on his sinker or perhaps Hill has found a bit of extra downward movement, but whatever it is, it’s working. His groundball rate vaulted upwards while the command of his curveball and slider (which was actually never an issue—it was the non-breaking balls he always had difficulty controlling) has stayed about the same.

It may seem like a cliché, but the key for any pitcher is throwing strikes and keeping the ball down. This especially rings true for Rich Hill.