DETROIT — The first time Garrett Hill hit 96 mph on the Comerica Park radar gun, he did a double-take. The Tigers right-hander has never been one to check velocity from the mound because he has never really had that much velo to check. For someone who normally throws 92-93 mph, 96-97 catches attention.
“The first couple pitches, I was like, ‘Really?’” Hill admitted earlier in the week. “One caught my eye, so I looked a couple more times after to see if it was just like a one-time thing. I was able to maintain the velo.”
It wasn’t just one time on Monday against Houston; Hill’s fastball averaged 94.6 — three full miles per hour above his season average — and topped out at 96.6 on his way to two hitless innings of relief with a walk and two strikeouts. Astros hitters didn’t really know how to react, and neither, honestly, did Hill, who was just looking to help his mechanics when he tweaked his delivery to bring his arms above his head before he threw.
“I didn’t really expect a velo jump or anything,” he said, “but I just cleaned everything up.”
Six days later, the velocity was back, at least for an inning, in Sunday’s 11-5 loss to the White Sox. Hill struck out Seby Zavala and Romy Gonzalez swinging at 96 mph fastballs to begin the sixth inning. His fastball didn’t drop below 94 until a two-out walk to Elvis Andrus forced him to pitch out of the stretch and eliminated the arm-raising.
Once Hill came back for the seventh, however, his fastball velocity was down, as was his margin for error. After a leadoff walk to José Abreu, Hill’s 0-1 changeup to Eloy Jiménez was up. Jiménez sent it 450 feet towards the flagpole beyond left-center field at Comerica Park, completing the damage in Detroit’s rubber-match defeat.
“It was just a bad execution day for him,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “It was really, really good at the beginning. I thought his stuff was very explosive, and the swings showed that. And then once he got into the stretch, it was a little bit different.
“He’s learning. This is a different role. He’s not going to have four or five days off every time that he pitches out of the pen, so maybe we’ll get him a little bit more regular work in the next week.”
The Tigers moved Hill out of a starting role and into the bullpen in part to watch his innings after promoting him to Detroit to help their rotation early in the season, well ahead of plans. Sunday’s two innings pushed his season total to 123 1/3 across three levels, a jump of nearly 50 innings over last year and nearly matching his 124 innings in Class-A ball in 2019. But it also gave Hill a setting to work on his mechanics with pitching coach Chris Fetter while not worrying as much about game plans or starting routines.
Hill tried raising his hands in his delivery after watching fellow rookie starter Joey Wentz have success with it.
“[Wentz] looked so clean throwing on the mound,” Hill said. “He looked incredible in that game [against the Royals]. That’s what kind of sparked it.”
Hill tried it while playing catch with Daniel Norris and felt natural. The mechanics of it helped him keep pressure on his back leg longer instead of collapsing and putting pressure on his upper body. The velo jump was a bonus.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much,” Hill said earlier in the week. “Of course it helps. I don’t need to necessarily focus on being as fine, just as long as I’m over the plate, in the zone. That’ll still get results for me, whereas before it was like I’ve got to be on the corners or else it might get smashed or something.”
Hill said he still felt virtually the same mechanically Sunday, but maybe not with the same timing. That’s part of the learning process. Just because his velocity dropped in his second inning doesn’t necessarily portend to a relief role going forward.
“We still want him to be considered a starter,” Hinch said, “but there is some intrigue on how he enters these games, when he comes in hot.”
Asked about any thought of a long-term role change, Hinch brushed it off. That will be more for next season as the Tigers weigh their rotation options. But he did acknowledge relief work could be an option.
“We just want our best pitchers to pitch,” Hinch said. “There are opportunities to switch roles, but I think committing to that right now is just way too soon.”