2023 Tigers player previews: Garrett Hill hunts for a regular role

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We’ve discussed Beau Brieske in his preview already, but right-hander Garrett Hill is perhaps an even more surprising underdog who could help the Tigers this season. The 27-year-old was drafted by the Tigers back in 2018 all the way down in the 27th round. He was never expected to have much of a pro career, and yet five years later Hill is now a second year major leaguer trying to establish himself.

From the start, Hill looked like a pretty good pick so late in the draft. Coming out of San Diego State, the unassuming looking soft tosser had solid control of a four pitch arsenal. He was too much for A-ball hitters and put up good numbers post-draft and in the 2019 season. But with a fastball that sat 90-91 mph, a relatively small frame at an even six feet tall, a solid offspeed pitch and not much else, Hill very much looked the part of a depth starter who wouldn’t handle the much deeper, more experienced competition in the upper minors.

Like a lot of recent prospect success stories, this is where we reach the “but then he emerged out of the year off in 2020…” portion of events.

Entering the 2021 season, Hill was a 25-year-old fringe starting pitcher prospect who was repeating High-A after a year away from regular season action. No one expected much, but Hill had clearly put in a lot of work during the COVID year. The fastball was still a low 90’s affair, but his command had improved enough for him to rack up plenty of whiffs and weak contact by pounding the top of the zone. Still lacking a plus secondary pitch, Hill was able to mix in small doses of all three secondary pitches, and ring up plenty of strikeouts despite the lower power stuff.

Suddenly Hill found himself creeping up Tigers’ top prospect lists for the first time.

Garrett Hill 2021-2022

Season Level IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 ERA
Season Level IP FIP K% BB% HR/9 ERA
2021 A+ 56.0 2.66 30.6 7.8 0.32 2.57
2021 AA 19.2 3.01 33.3 11.9 0.46 3.20
2022 AA 32.0 2.60 40.9 7.9 0.84 2.25
2022 AAA 37.2 3.88 28.7 9.4 0.96 4.06
2022 MLB 60.1 5.15 15.2 11.0 1.19 4.03

Right now, Hill isn’t very high on the Tigers’ depth chart. The reason he remains interesting, is that he hasn’t stopped making improvements to his game. A pitcher who didn’t appear to have much projection left as a prospect has proven those assessments incorrect over the past two seasons by thriving under the new player development and major league coaching staffs.

He held his own in brief stints at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo in the first half of the 2022 season before his major league debut with the Tigers on July 4. Across eight starts and nine relief appearances, Hill was effective enough, posting a 4.03 ERA. Still he was far from overpowering, and a steep decline in strikeout rate from his minor league numbers was a glaring sign that things needed to improve. On the other hand, a late season velocity boost out of the bullpen showed Hill capable of dialing up a much better fastball in short outings. That altered the equation, opening up a more likely pathway to a regular bullpen role.

Hill’s fourseamer does have good carry and he gets down the mound well considering his compact six-foot frame. This results in a low release point and a nice angle to the top of the zone. That element of his profile has mitigated the lack of velocity on his run through the minor leagues. The fastball has always played up a little. Still, in the low 90’s you’re going to have to be very good, with at least one dominant offspeed pitch to get major league hitters out.

Late in the 2022 season Hill moved to the Tigers’ bullpen and started experimenting with a full overhead windup. The results were pretty interesting. Suddenly he was sitting 94-95 and topping out just shy of 97 mph. Those numbers were a tick lower out of the stretch, but overall Hill showed the ability to dial it up in a short outing. In two appearances already this spring in Grapefruit League action, he still has that extra gear, throwing 94-95 regularly. That’s at least a promising early sign.

Developing a harder slider with more of a classic gyro spin profile has been a key goal for Hill with the Tigers’ pitching coaches this spring. Hill came up with an experimental version days before he started the Grapefruit League opener against the Philadelphia Phillies and they immediately put it in play. The development of that pitch will likely have a lot to do with his role and his overall success this season.

With the newfound velocity on his fastball and a starter’s control, Hill has several positive attributes. A spot in the rotation probably isn’t in the cards without significant injury trouble, but there’s a middle relief role just waiting for him to seize it. And if they can just get a little more out of the slider, we could even see Hill in a setup role as the season progresses.

For now, Hill enters the spring in a bit of a tricky position. He’s too old for the Tigers to continue working with him as a starter in the minors, but he’s likely eighth or ninth on the depth chart for the major league rotation. And on the other hand, he hasn’t shown the stuff of a high leverage reliever either. Yet he looks capable of giving the Tigers some solid innings in that middle relief space. He remains a bit in between, but obviously of interest to the new front office.

The Tigers will probably continue to stretch him out as a starter this spring as insurance against injuries, but ultimately he’s bullpen bound without some major developmental leaps. Airing it out in short outings, the fastball is likely to be pretty effective. If he can just tune in the new version of his slider, the Tigers should have themselves a solid reliever.

Once a certified longshot to reach the major leagues. we’ll see if Garrett Hill can take the next step and carve out a role in 2023.

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