Fantasy Baseball: Will Rich Hill Be Worth the Risk?
Back in 2007, the Chicago Cubs saw a promising 27-year-old pitcher with an loopy curveball named Rich Hill throw a career-high 195 innings with an ERA just a shade under 4.00. Despite some command issues, it appeared he was beginning to cement himself as a big leaguer.
Unfortunately, his pro career has taken quite a few twists and turns throughout the years.
His performance was erratic and injuries kept piling up, including a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder and Tommy John surgery. After a stint with the Long Island Ducks in the Independent League, Hill resurfaced with the Boston Red Sox in 2015 and went on a stretch he'd never experienced.
Brian Bannister suggested a curveball-centric approach while the southpaw was pitching in Triple-A, which spurred an incredible four-start stretch to finish out the year. In 29 innings of work, he produced a 2-1 record with a 1.55 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and a strikeout per nine innings rate (K/9) of 11.2.
With such a small sample size, this performance couldn't exactly be sustainable, right? When he was actually on the mound in 2016, it actually was, making him an attractive fantasy baseball commodity.
Reaching the Top of the Hill
The Oakland Athletics were impressed enough by those four dominant starts that they took a flier on the left-hander, and they weren't disappointed. While he was sent to the disabled list two separate times, his 76 innings with the club were fantastic, leading to a 2.25 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 2.54 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) with a K/9 of 10.7 before getting dealt prior to the non-waiver trade deadline.
Hill only made 6 more starts with the Los Angeles Dodgers after getting traded, but his stellar production continued -- he posted a 1.83 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and 2.07 FIP with a 10.2 K/9 over 34.1 innings. His overall stats from 2016 looked quite a bit different from the rest of his career.
Staying true to Bannister's advice, Hill featured his curveball 42.4 percent and utilized different release points to give the pitch various shapes. To put his usage of this pitch in perspective, only four other starting pitchers threw their curveball at least 30 percent.
But, the Blister
At the time of the deal, Hill was on the DL because of a blister on his left middle finger. That sounds like a fairly benign injury, but it caused him to miss well over a month of action. Could he have challenged for the Cy Young award had he stayed healthy? Injuries prevented him from qualifying for the ERA title, but if the bar gets lowered to 110 innings, it's not far-fetched by any means.
And it's not as if ERA is the only area the southpaw excelled at, either.
Despite a swinging-strike rate (10.6 percent in '16) just a half-point above league average, his K/9 (10.52) and soft-contact rate (22.3 percent) ranked ninth among pitchers with at least 110 innings last year, while his tidy 2.12 ERA and .193 opponent batting average were only topped by teammate Clayton Kershaw.
Furthermore, Hill also induced the second-lowest contact rate on pitches thrown in the strike zone (78.7 percent) and no starter in baseball posted a smaller home-run-to-fly-ball rate, which settled in at just 4.2 percent.
Now that we have a larger sample size, it's clear to see Hill's resurgence is indeed legitimate. The biggest concern for fantasy baseball owners, though, is his inherent injury risk and if he's worth it at his current ADP.
Value in Context
Clearly, Hill is capable of being an outstanding pitcher, but if an extended injury history is telling us he won't pitch an entire season, is investing in him on draft day worth it?
The answer is yes, and especially in leagues that use rotisserie scoring.
In early National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts, Hill is the 29th-ranked starting pitcher and is getting selected inside the top 130 overall picks. If he's going in the double-digit rounds of 12-team roto leagues, this presents incredible value.
NFBC drafters are currently taking the likes of A.J. Ramos, Francisco Rodriguez, and other top-20 closers before Hill is finding a home. But instead of buying into saves, consider the quantity and quality of innings you'd get by taking Hill instead.
No relief pitcher has logged more than 90 innings since 2014, and last year, none of the 36 relievers with double-digit saves even reached the 80-inning plateau.
With a Steamer projection of 145 innings, Hill could make 20-25 starts, meaning he'd provide 55 percent more innings than any closer would likely provide. If you're in a roto league that uses a 1,400-inning maximum cap, Hill will contribute more than 10 percent.
And playing for the Dodgers -- one of the best teams in the National League -- should also yield double-digit victories for the southpaw.
Taking the plunge on this particular 37-year-old is absolutely worth it in rotisserie, but head-to-head owners run the risk of having him skipped over or rested down the stretch during the fantasy playoffs. However, don't forget that this is the same risk on the opposite side of the age spectrum with young pitchers who are under innings limits.
Rather than trying to tiptoe around hypothetical scenarios, embrace any discount for Hill’s high-caliber innings -- even if they come in lower volume.