Chris McCosky | The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — If Tigers center fielder Derek Hill looks different at the plate this spring, it’s because, well he is. Like, completely different.
“I’ve just tried to keep it as simple as possible,” said Hill, the Tigers’ first-round pick in 2014 who finally made his big-league debut last season. “I figured out last year that things definitely move at a different pace up here. Not that it’s quicker, just cleaner.
“And I needed to clean up a lot of things in my game.”
Hill worked this offseason with the “Swing Whisperer,” southern California-based hitting instructor Doug Latta, whose stable of hitters also includes Jake Rogers.
“I tried to get with him in previous years but it never worked out,” Hill said. “This year everything lined up so I went out to SoCal multiple times…very beneficial.”
Hill stands straight and still at the plate now. There is very little movement, no big load or leg kick, until he opens his hips, releases his hands and attacks the pitch. He tripled and singled in Dunedin on Thursday — both shots up the middle with exit velocities off the bat of 99 and 98 mph.
It looks like he’s had this swing for years, not months.
“That was the biggest piece, just to get off of thinking so much about my mechanics and worry about the pitcher more,” he said.
“I’d be in the box, I’d feel like something wasn’t right and I’d be thinking about what I was doing. Rather than what the pitcher was doing.”
The two hits raised his spring average to .308 with an on-base average of .400. He is also 3 for 3 in stolen base attempts. Last season’s rough 1-for-11 debut with six strikeouts seems very distant.
“We’re trying to learn what makes each of these guys tick,” manager AJ Hinch said. “One thing I noticed about Derek, he’s in the game. In the dugout. He communicates well. He’s very mature. His baseball IQ is good.
“There is a lot to like about him. If we can match that with some performance on the field, we’ve got us a good one.”
Hill is still just 25. And the defensive component to his game is elite, as he showed again Thursday. He ran down nine balls in six innings, two of them were web gems. The maturity that Hinch has picked up on has been hard-earned through a slow, seven-year, injury-filled ascent through the minor league system.
“Up there (in the big leagues), everything is so clean you have to be on top of everything,” Hill said. “That little experience I had last year I feel played a really big role in my offseason. Just maturity, be in every single pitch and every single play.
“It’s not that you took plays off, but it’s more about being locked in.”
Hill knows he’ll likely start the season in Toledo. What he’s shown thus far this spring, though, is that he’s a worthy, reliable option whenever the club needs him.
“I just go out every single day and give it everything I have,” Hill said. “It’s all I can do. Whatever happens, happens.”