The former No. 765 overall pick, now a 26-year-old, wanted to know if he belonged with baseball’s best prospects.
Hill posted a 1.98 ERA with three walks and 21 strikeouts across 13⅔ innings over five games (three starts) for the Salt River Rafters, playing alongside fellow Tigers prospects Spencer Torkelson and Ryan Kreidler, among others from the organization.
“It gives me a pretty good idea of where I’m at, and that I can compete against these guys and get these higher-level hitters out,” Hill said. “Ultimately, it helps get me where I want to be, which is the big leagues. If I can get these guys out, I think I got a pretty good shot of being successful and getting guys in the big leagues out, too.”
The highlight of Hill’s stint in Arizona occurred Nov. 3, when he took the mound for the AFL East in the Fall Stars Game. He was one of two Tigers selected to the showcase. (Torkelson was selected, too, but didn’t play due to an ankle injury.) There were seven active players from MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects.
Hill pitched a scoreless third inning.
He worked around a one-out double from Juan Yepez (St. Louis Cardinals) by striking out James Outman (Los Angeles Dodgers) with an 82.1 mph changeup and Logan O’Hoppe (Philadelphia Phillies) with a 94.3 mph four-seam fastball. Both went down swinging. For Hill’s first out, Bryson Stott (Phillies) flied out to left field on a changeup.
“I was in A-ball for quite a while, I felt,” Hill said, “so being able to face some higher-level hitters, it definitely proved to myself and gave me confidence that I belong there and that I was going to have success.”
The success in the AFL was a continuation of Hill’s strong 2021. He recorded a 2.74 ERA with 28 walks and 99 strikeouts over 75⅔ innings in 17 starts for High-A West Michigan (13 games) and Double-A Erie (four games).
With the SeaWolves, Hill put up a 3.20 ERA with 10 walks and 28 strikeouts in 19⅔ innings.
“The game just seemed cleaner,” Hill said. “You obviously have to get to Triple-A before the show, but guys are really, really talented up there. It starts to separate that cream. You can’t get away with as many pitches. If you leave one over the middle of the plate, it’ll get hit a little bit harder. I noticed the same thing in the Fall League. As hitters progress, you have to progress as a pitcher. Locate over velocity and get guys out.”
Hill wishes he could have pitched more than 17 games in the minors last season, but a sore left oblique with the Whitecaps sidelined him for “way longer than we expected.” He made his final pre-injury start May 18 and didn’t return until June 30.
“Eventually, we got to where I was able to get back into games,” Hill said. “But it was a six-week injury, which definitely set me back. And then even coming back to pitching, it was another long, bumpy road until I was able to be built up to six, seven innings again. That was tough.”
It wasn’t the first time Hill faced a setback. He recorded a 2.25 ERA with 47 walks and 129 strikeouts in 23 starts (124 innings) at two levels in 2019, but he didn’t get to pitch competitively in 2020 because the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the minor leagues.
Hill wanted to “ride that momentum” from 2019 — but couldn’t until 2021.
“We did what we could to get better,” Hill said, “but it’s hard when you can’t be in a 140-game season and face live batters every five or six days. It was good to get out there and re-prove that I was on the right track.”
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On Aug. 25, the Tigers promoted him to Double-A Erie.
“The four starts with Erie, that was cool, too,” Hill said. “It’s a whole ‘nother level of baseball, and it forced you to get better, which is the goal. Overall, last year was a blast. I’m just excited to build on it this year.”
In his three-year minor-league career, Hill boasts a 2.54 ERA with a 1.104 WHIP, 3.2 walks and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings, logging 237⅓ innings in 49 games (46 starts). He has allowed only eight home runs (three in 2021).
He isn’t considered a top prospect, but depending on his performance in minicamp and spring training, the Tigers could send him to Triple-A Toledo to start the season. If he starts in Erie, a promotion to the Mud Hens still might come quickly.
And his goal for 2022 is plain and simple.
“I’m hoping to get to the big leagues and stay there,” Hill said. “That’s the goal. That’s been the goal for as long as I can remember. I feel like I’m right there. As long as I keep building on what I’ve done, I think I got a good shot.”
About Hill’s arsenal
Entering the spring, Hill is throwing five pitches: four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup, slider and curveball.
His best pitch is his changeup (with arm-side run). His fastball sits around 92 mph, but the Tigers believe their new player development staffers can help Hill add more velocity. He is known for making wise choices with his pitch selection, staying unpredictable and attacking the strike zone, illustrated by his 64.7% strike rate in 2021.
“Curveball, I picked up a year ago,” Hill said. “I went to Arizona and was training down there. I just started throwing it. It felt way more comfortable than the slider, so I kept sticking with it. I used it more as an early get-ahead pitch or like a 1-1, 1-0 pitch to get back in a pitcher’s count. I went to our version of instructs and worked on that a lot. I found a few more cues that helped me develop the pitch. And then in the Fall League, I think it was a really good pitch for me. I saw a lot of growth with that one.”
He considers his slider a “work in progress” but likes the improvement over the past couple years. The Tigers want to give him a slider he can trust, which in theory, combined with a boost in fastball velocity, should provide a well-rounded mix of talent and feel for the game.
“That just gives another tunnel, another angle,” Hill said. “The ball is breaking with another velocity, so I’ll have four or five different pitches coming in at different velocities. I can work different sides of the plate. The more tools you have, the better your chances are.”