Detroit — The notion of this being a critical spring training for Tigers center fielder Derek Hill, by now, must be laughable to him.
Like, has there ever been any other kind of spring training? A first-round draft pick in 2014, Hill wasn’t even put on the 40-man roster until before the 2020 season. The guy has been head-down, teeth-bared, all-out fighting for his place on this team for eight seasons.
“Nothing is guaranteed, ever,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday night from his home in Sacramento, California. “I don’t take anything for granted.”
When the lockout ends and spring training finally gets going, Hill could find himself battling the club’s No. 2-rated prospect Riley Greene for either the starting center field job or a roster spot.
As it stands now — and general manager Al Avila might still add to the mix — veteran corner outfielder Robbie Grossman is the only returnee whose spot is locked. Akil Baddoo, who played 66 games in center as a rookie last season, is projected but not guaranteed to start in the other corner outfield spot.
The Tigers carried four outfielders for most of last season, which leaves Hill competing with Greene, Victor Reyes and Daz Cameron for what may only be two spots. Crowding the situation further, catcher Eric Haase also could factor into the mix in left field.
So, yes, entering his age-26 season with two minor-league options left, Hill faces another daunting spring. Not that you’d know it from talking to him.
“I cannot complain one bit,” Hill said. “I’m feeling really good right now, really excited about this year. We’re going to have a really good team. I cannot wait to get out there. We’ve got some dogs on this team, so it should be pretty entertaining baseball for everybody.”
Hill endured seven frustration-laden minor-league seasons before finally breaking through last year. And true to his narrative, his rookie season was limited to 49 games, interrupted three times by violent injuries.
On June 9 at Comerica Park, he sprained his right shoulder making an incredible leaping catch at the wall in center, taking a home run away from Seattle’s Kyle Seager. But for one game called up as the extra man in a doubleheader, he didn’t return until July 17.
On Aug. 10 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Hill and Baddoo collided, horrifically, at full speed in left-center. Hill injured his left knee and was out until Aug. 21.
His season ended on Sept. 18 in St. Petersburg, Florida, on a frightening play at first base. He hit the bag wrong, flipped, wrenched his left knee and fell hard, the back of his head slamming against the turf.
“When you play a certain way… things are going to happen,” Hill said on Sept. 21 after the Tigers returned home from Tampa. “There’s no reason to be frustrated. You play the game hard and things are going to happen. You just have to deal with them as they come.”
Keep on keepin’ on
That’s been Hill’s mantra, forged through all the ups and downs he endured coming up through the system. It continues to serve him well.
“Just keep on keeping on; that’s really my thing,” he said. “Just keep on keeping on, no matter what. All the stuff I learned throughout the minor leagues — it took me a long time to get here — but the stuff I learned going through that I feel has helped me a lot once I did get here.
“I feel like I was more prepared, especially mentally, having already gone through those ups and downs. I had to handle all that. Now it’s just go out there and play, let my talent take over and see what happens.”
Hill is healthy now. He underwent a surgical procedure in October to repair the meniscus and remove loose particles from the knee. He’s been training and rehabbing at the Results Transformation Center near Sacramento and says he’s regained full strength and flexibility in the knee.
“You can get more out of rehab years than you do going into a normal offseason,” Hill said. “If it weren’t for the rehab, I wouldn’t be crushing legs day after day like I’ve been, building them up. It’s not a blessing in disguise, but I think it will pay off in the long run, just being more solid in my base.”
Building strength, both lower and upper body, has been a point of emphasis for Hill, as both a way to prevent injuries and to get some more pop in his bat. He hit just .221 against fastballs last season, with an overall average exit velocity on balls in play of 87 mph.
He’s also focused on improving his plate discipline (30% chase rate and 28% strikeout rate).
“Last year was a really good learning year,” he said. “I feel like I know the league better. I’ve seen the pitchers more than once, just feeling out everyone’s tendencies and whatnot. It’s still going to be a work in progress for as long as I play baseball. Everyone is always adjusting to each other. That’s what makes baseball fun.
“I was pleased with last year, but I know I have to work on a few things.”
Data shows defensive shortcomings
Hill’s money is made in center field, and he certainly produced his usual batch of eye-popping defensive gems.
“Nothing falls but raindrops,” he said, with a laugh.
Truth is, though, he didn’t grade out well, metrically-speaking. Granted, the 341 innings and 104 chances are a small sample size. But he ranked 197th in baseball with a minus-7 defensive runs scored, per Sports Information Solutions (SIS) and FanGraphs.
Data collected by Baseball Savant shows that Hill’s reads off the bat and first step were below average. He covered 1.2 feet less than the average outfielder in the first 1.5 seconds off the bat. And overall, he covered 1.3 feet less than the average outfielder.
Many of the highlight-reel plays were borne out of necessity after a slow read and jump. Hill caught 100 of the 142 balls that SIS determined he had better than a 0% chance of catching — a 70% efficiency.
Compare that to Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, a Gold and Platinum Glove winner who ranks at the top of this category. He caught 84% of balls he had better and a zero chance to catch (179 of 212). He had 70 more chances and missed seven fewer balls.
Work to do for Hill.
“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I’m always working to get better. I’m just going to prepare as much as I can this offseason to hopefully put myself in a position to perform at the level I need to get that roster spot.”
One thing you can bank on: Everything he does — in the outfield, at the plate or on the bases — he will do it full-out, with little or no regard to bodily harm.
“I play at one speed, no matter what,” Hill said. “It gets me in trouble sometimes. But at the same time, it keeps me out of trouble. I play at one speed no matter what the score is or where we’re at or who’s watching or what’s at stake — and wherever the chips fall, they fall.”