Lakeland, Fla. — Imagine the fun they could have had back at Santa Rosa (California) Junior College back in the day.
Garrett Hill and his twin brother Evan pitched for the Bearcubs. Garrett, who finished last season with the Tigers’ Double-A affiliate in Erie, is right-handed and Evan pitched left-handed. Imagine the coach filling out the lineup, writing “Hill” in the pitcher’s spot and letting the other team figure out on the fly whether to stack their lineup with left- or right-handed hitters.
“He’s playing in a Sunday league now,” Garrett Hill said of his twin. “I threw with him all offseason. He still loves it and still wants to get out there. It was awesome growing up. We threw a lot of whiffle balls to each other. Kind of had a built-in buddy system.”
It was like they had their own version of the Maddux brothers going there, but unlike the Greg and Mike Maddux (who weren’t twins), bringing it from different sides of the mound. Come to think of it, watching Hill pitch — bespectacled, unimposing physically, not blowing up the radar gun but craftily, consistently getting hitters out — you do get a Maddux vibe.
Listen to Hill talk about his mindset on the mound and see if you don’t hear faint echoes of Greg Maddux.
“Just keep competing,” he said. “Every year I try to build off what I did before. Tightening up breaking balls and competing in the zone. That’s been a big thing — attack the zone, strike, strike, strike, and getting hitters to swing at your pitch.
“It’s all about tricking them enough to make your pitcher’s pitch look like something they want to swing at.”
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Nobody is saying Hill is the next Greg Maddux, don’t be ridiculous. But Hill shares a mindset and a methodology with the Hall of Famer. The 26-year-old, a 26th-round pick in 2018, has five pitches in his toolbox — four-seam and two-seam fastballs (91-92 mph), an elite change-up, slider and a developing curveball.
But, in keeping with the Maddux vibe, he can paint with all five. He threw first-pitch strikes 59% of the time last season, pitching between High-A West Michigan and Erie. He struck out 99 and walked 28 in 75.2 innings.
In all, he went 6-1 in 17 starts, with a 2.74 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP, before dominating hitters in the Arizona Fall League (21 strikeouts and three walks in 13.2 innings).
“It’s about being the zone, but more importantly, it’s throwing quality strikes,” Hill said. “It’s being on the corners, up, down, inside and outside. Guys like us, we don’t throw 100 mph and we’re not wiping guys out. We’ve got to pitch.”
As it was with Maddux, Hill’s velocity will be a concern for some coaches and evaluators. The Tigers have addressed it, putting him through a program of drills and training exercises designed to increase his velocity a tick or two.
But increasing his velocity isn’t going to make or break him as he gets to the next level.
“A big part of my game is just pitching, throwing to spots and getting guys to swing at my pitches,” Hill said. “More velo would be a plus for me, sure, but it’s not the end-all, be-all.”
They used to call Maddux “Mad Dog” in his time. That wouldn’t fit Hill. He’s more stoic than snarly. But there is certainly some dog in him. As in junkyard dog.
Hard not to get a chip on your shoulder when you got just one tepid Division-1 offer out of high school, endured Tommy John surgery at age 20 and lasted to the 26th round of the draft.
“You kind of wear it on your sleeve a little bit,” Hill said. “It’s like, on paper I’m not necessarily supposed to be here — 26th round, you don’t see that in the big leagues very much. But working with that and having that in the back of your mind, it’s kind of proving somebody wrong, proving a bunch of people wrong — those who thought I wasn’t ready and using that as a driving force.”
Hill is probably laughing at the Maddux references. When he was asked about the pitchers he grew up watching, the first guy he mentioned was Nolan Ryan.
“Not that there are any similarities, just his mentality,” Hill said.
But the pitcher he most emulated was former Giants righty Matt Cain. Same five-pitch mix, same low-90s velocity, a grinder, but when he was at his best, he was an artist.
“Not super explosive, but he was the same guy every day,” Hill said. “Whether it was a good day or a bad day. No emotion on the mound. I like that. He was going to be there every day. You knew what you were going to get from him.”
That’s the reputation Hill is carving for himself — consistent, reliable and ever-improving. It’s possible he could start back at Double-A this year. A lingering oblique injury limited him to just 19.2 innings at Erie last year.
But given the rapid trajectory he’s been on and seeing him dominate elite hitters in the fall league, the expectation is he would spend most of the summer at Triple-A Toledo and potentially be an option for the Tigers later in the season.
He’s part of a three-pack of heady, crafty right-handed pitchers who took a big leap toward being big-league ready — Hill, Beau Brieske and Reese Olson.