Hill turning heads: ‘There’s a lot to like’

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — Derek Hill would’ve been excused if he had slept in and missed his Friday morning video conference with reporters after all the running he did Thursday afternoon.

It’s a shame that the Tigers’ 10-6 loss to the Blue Jays wasn’t televised, because it would’ve been a highlight reel for what Hill can do in an outfield. Everything that Toronto didn’t hit out early seemed to be run down by Hill.

He made a diving catch in right-center field to take away extra bases from Teoscar Hernández. A couple innings later, Hill made another ranging grab before crashing into the center-field wall on an Alejandro Kirk drive to left-center. Hill had a few more catches in between the highlights as Jays hitters elevated fly balls and line drives off Michael Fulmer, with the speedy outfielder making nine catches in all.

“I’m not sure if we have it, but he’s probably the Little Caesar’s player of the game from our side,” manager A.J. Hinch half-joked. “I mean, he was really good.”

This is why the Tigers are so patient with Hill, their first-round pick in the 2014 MLB Draft. Defensively, not only is he Major League ready, he could be an impact defender right now playing center field at Comerica Park.

The question with Hill has always been whether he’ll hit. He doesn’t have to be a masher, but the more he reaches base, the more he can use his speed in an offensive fashion. Thursday was a good day for him on that end, too, with a triple off the wall that he made look easy and an opposite-field RBI single.

He’s 4-for-13 this spring with three RBIs, three stolen bases and two walks. Considering Hill struck out 12 times in 21 at-bats last Spring Training, his lone strikeout this spring stands out. It’s a small sample that likely won’t get him on the Opening Day roster, but it gives some hope that he could finally have the foundation for an approach that can work for him.

“He’s hit the ball pretty hard to the middle part of the field,” Hinch said. “That’s a very intriguing player when he’s contributing on both sides. We know what we’re going to get defensively. We know he’s going to run the bases. The offensive production, it’s been good.”

Though Hill spent most of September with the Tigers, he was almost exclusively a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. He finished with more games (15) than plate appearances (12). His lone start was the next-to-last day of the season, when he hit a ground-ball single through the left side for his first Major League hit. His only other time on base safely was an eight-pitch walk off American League Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber. Neither the Tigers nor then-manager Ron Gardenhire wanted Hill to be overmatched.

When the season ended, Hill went home to California and paid a visit to renowned hitting instructor Doug Latta, who has also been working with Tigers catcher Jake Rogers the last couple years.

“Just trying to keep it as simple as possible,” Hill said, “because I figured out last year [that] things definitely do move at a little bit different pace. Not that it’s quicker; it’s just a little bit cleaner. So I feel like I needed to clean up a lot of things in my game personally, and I feel like I did that this offseason.”

The changes with Hill include a more upright, quieter stance at the plate, and a more efficient, repeatable swing. The goal was to take the focus away from himself and put it on the pitcher.

“That was the biggest thing for me this offseason was just to get off of thinking so much about my mechanics,” Hill said, “and just worry about the pitcher more. Because last year, when I’d go up, I’d be in the box and I’d feel something that wasn’t right. I’d be thinking about what I was doing rather than what the pitcher was doing, so that took away from my AB.”

The attention to detail has been a theme for Hill ever since last season’s stint in Detroit. He has received an advanced course in defensive positioning from bench coach George Lombard. He has taken tips from new Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman. When Hill isn’t playing, he’s often at the top of the top of the dugout, watching and cheering on teammates.

“That little experience that I had last year, I feel like [it] played a really big role in my offseason maturity, pretty much just to be in every single pitch and every single play,” he said.

The Tigers, in turn, are paying attention to him.

“He’s into the dugout, he’s into the game, he communicates well,” Hinch said. “His baseball IQ is good. There’s a lot to like with him, and if we can match that with some performance on the field, then we’ve got us a good one.”

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