CHICAGO — Derek Hill has been a defensive specialist for so much of his brief Major League career that he has more games played (17) than plate appearances (13) in the big leagues. With Victor Reyes on the injured list, it might be time for the Tigers to figure out what their former first-round pick can do.
The intercostal injury that bothered Reyes last weekend landed him on the 10-day IL Thursday, with no specific timetable for a return. The Tigers had options for replacements from Triple-A Toledo, including a resurgent Daz Cameron, but they’re going to give Hill a longer look.
“He’s swinging the bat arguably as well as he’s done his whole career, so we want to get a look at him as a contributor,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He’s earned this opportunity. We’ve only given him the 27th man job for the couple times that he’s been up here [this season]. When he got here, he had a big smile on his face, and I told him he gets to stay for a while.”
Hill will start Friday against White Sox lefty Dallas Keuchel, Hinch said. It will be Hill’s second Major League start. The other came in the next-to-last game of last season in Kansas City.
For anyone who has followed the Tigers, Hill’s story is familiar. Defensively, the former first-round Draft pick has the athleticism and instincts to be one of the league’s better defenders in center. As a reminder, he had three highlight catches for the Mud Hens last month during a week-long series in Indianapolis, all while crashing into walls.
The question with Hill has always been whether he can hit just enough to justify a big league role. He went 1-for-11 in his limited time in Detroit last year, and arguably his most notable plate appearance was an eight-pitch walk against Cy Young Award-winner Shane Bieber. His .662 career OPS in the Minor Leagues entering this season wasn’t encouraging, but his offseason changes with hitting instructor Doug Latta to simplify his swing and his Spring Training work with Tigers hitting coaches Scott Coolbaugh and Jose Cruz Jr. provided some hope.
“His swing has been evolving over the last few years,” Hinch said. “When I got to see him in the spring, you can see he has a little bit more strength than he’s given credit, and he can redirect the ball with a little bit of foresight.”
Hill hit a three-run homer as part of a two-hit, two-walk game in the Mud Hens’ second game of the season, but otherwise had a fairly quiet first week. His hitting turned right around the time he compiled those highlight catches in Indianapolis.
“I do think [the defensive plays] played a little bit of a role in getting the bat going,” Hill said, “just because you’re always excited after a good play or something like that. And normally after a good play, you’ve got a good at-bat coming.”
From the second game of that series until his most recent game for the Hens last Sunday, Hill batted 24-for-59 (.407) with six extra-base hits and a .995 OPS. His .590 average on balls in play in that 15-game stretch is unsustainable, but the drop in his strikeout rate hopefully is longer-lasting.
For the season, Hill is batting .355 (27-for-76) with five doubles, two homers, 11 RBIs and a .943 OPS. He has more hits than strikeouts (25).
“What he has swung at, he’s hit the ball pretty hard,” Hinch said. “And he’s using all parts of the field. He’s not in the mode of trying to separate and hit the ball in the air a ton, but he’s also just not content touching the ball and hitting the ball on the ground. So the line-drive stroke, combined with the knowledge of a ball from a strike, has created some offensive opportunities for him.”
While his swing mechanics have put Hill in a better position to hit, Hill said he feels more relaxed at the plate with a better knowledge of what pitchers are trying to do against him.
While his big league opportunities have been limited to a pair of one-day stints as an extra player for doubleheaders, he has used the opportunity to learn from coaches in the dugout.
“He learns, he listens, he talks,” Hinch said. “He knows a lot about baseball. He’s always trying to pick your brain on different aspects of the game.
“Now that he’s playing well, playing with confidence, I want to get him in the lineup to see if we can capitalize on some of that momentum of how he’s playing the game, not just what he’s doing.”