What to Expect from 2B Aaron Hill
Far, far ago, when Paula Deen was simply known as the Butter Lady and I was able to read simple cardinal directions without thinking of Kim Kardashian's baby, a ballplayer named Aaron Hill went on the 15-Day DL. At the time, we were slightly distressed at this news, but we only figured you would need a replacement until mid-May.
But then four weeks stretched into six. And six weeks stretched into eight. And suddenly, you were left with Neil Walker as your starting second baseman for two months and thinking, "Who did I kill in a past life to deserve this?"
Now, however, the national Fantasy (mini-)Nightmare is over. According to reports, Aaron Hill is set to be activated from the Disabled List tomorrow, and the rightful order of the Arizona universe shall be restored. And since he's unowned in 16.7 percent on ESPN leagues, you may even be able to belatedly jump on the bandwagon.
Should you though? That's what we're here to answer. And the response is an unequivocal, absolute "Yes": pick him up or trade for him now.
Remember back at the beginning of the season, when I said to get one of the top 5 second basemen or bust? That mindset has only slightly changed. There are distinct tiers of second basemen, with Cano, Pedroia, and Kipnis at the top, followed by Altuve and Kendrick, then everyone else. At least, that's what our current projections say.
With his power, Hill makes a strong case to fall somewhere in that first tier. Hill posted a 3.9 percent homerun rate in 2012, a 4.5 percent rate in 2010, and a 4.9 percent rate in 2009. That means, treating 2011's 1.5 percent rate like the odd outlier it is, we could reasonably expect Hill to hit homeruns on about 4.0 percent of his remaining at-bats. So far this season, only two second basemen have managed a 4.0 percent homerun rate: Cano (4.9 percent) and Dan Uggla (4.6 percent).
Aaron Hill should be in most starting lineups for that potential power alone. Given even 350 plate appearances for the rest of the season (I wouldn't be surprised if he has more), Hill would be projected to hit 14 homeruns the rest of the way. On our remaining projections, no second baseman other than Cano or Uggla has more than 11 projected homeruns the rest of the season.
Of course, it's not just the homerun power, but the slugging as well. Hill posted a .522 slugging percentage in 2012, the highest of his career. Before getting injured this season, he was up at .556 through 42 plate appearances. Normally, we would expect Hill to regress to the mean with a slight dip in slugging percentage, but if he were indeed able to maintain a .522 slugging percentage, it would rank 18th among all major leaguers and best among second basemen. Currently, Robbie Cano's all the way down at .497.
High Balls in Play
One of the major knocks against Aaron Hill historically is that he's terrible at getting balls in play to find holes. I'm not going to dispute that; in the face of his career .289 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), last year's .319 sure seems like an outlier. Dude even hit .196 on balls in play during the 2010 season with Toronto, and that's not adjusted for the Canadian inflation rate.
However, how bad can a .289 BABIP be when Hill's putting eight percent more balls into play than a replacement-level player? Overall this season, the MLB average of total plate appearances with a ball in play sits at 68 percent. Hill's career average is at 76 percent, and he's only been below 75 percent once in his eight year career. Last season, 78 percent of his total plate appearances put a ball in play.
Let's do some quick math once again. Assume that fun 350 plate appearances number. At the MLB average in-play rate, 238 of those plate appearances would have a ball in play. The league average .296 BABIP on those balls in play equals 70.4 hits. Not bad, right? But with Hill's average 76 percent in-play rate would equal 266 balls in play, and even his lower career BABIP would come out to 76.9 hits. That's over a six hit increase.
I don't see that in-play rate dramatically decreasing, either. Hill has his strikeout rate to thank: since 2008, Hill's strikeout rate has never been higher than 14.7 percent or lower than 12.6 percent. You can count on him to be right around the 13.5 percent rate year after year. And when the current major league average sits at 19.9 percent of all plate appearances, that means a higher probability of success for Hill overall.
Where Hill Falls
If you have Cano, Pedroia, or Kipnis, you're not making a move for Aaron Hill. That's just a fact. Altuve, Kendrick, Zobrist, and Phillips, and I'd start to consider it. Anybody else: run out and make the move right now.
One player who has severely underperformed this year that you may want to consider replacing before he goes downhill is Ian Kinsler. Kinsler currently holds a .305 batting average and seven homeruns, but that has occurred while his walk rate has dipped once again to 7.7 percent and his strikeout rate is at an unsustainably low 8.6 percent clip. Kinsler has hit .270 BABIP or below in three of his past four seasons as well; he's currently at .308. Regression to the mean indicates a fall for Kinsler; Hill is definitely a stronger option.
Another player with a strong first half due for a fall is Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter. Which unsustainable stat would you like to start with: that 12.5 percent strikeout rate after putting up strikeouts in 18.5 percent of plate appearances last season or his 31 percent line drive rate that leads all qualified MLB batters? Even if one of those falls, Carpenter's fall from fantasy grace should be swift considering his inability to hit homeruns (1.8 percent homerun rate).