Baseball

Rich Hill, the Newest Met

As of Thursday night, the Mets’ starting rotation featured Marcus Stroman, Taijuan Walker, journeyman Tylor Megill, and a sentient ball of string who showed promise in Low-A. Fine, I made up the last one, but if you told the Mets front office about this ball of string, they’d at least ask you for its Trackman data. A seemingly unending string of injuries left the team grasping for pitching — any pitching at all. Enter Rich Hill, in a trade with the Rays:

At a very basic level, the Mets had to make this trade. Jacob deGrom is on the shelf. David Peterson broke his foot walking around. Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard aren’t ready. Joey Lucchesi tore his UCL. Robert Stock, who was already 10th or so on the depth chart, strained his hamstring. Forget replacement level — Hill represents an upgrade from subterranean level. To some extent, any trade at all would be a win, in that it would leave them able to field a roster.

But Hill isn’t merely roster depth. He’s one of the most interesting pitchers in baseball, a curve-and-fastball machine who has spent years pumping sub-90 mph gas past hitters while bamboozling them with a dazzling array of breaking balls. Heck, earlier this year he was named the AL Pitcher of the Month (it’s not the most prestigious award, but it’s an award) in May, when he posted a 0.78 ERA over 34.2 innings.

Of course, there are other months in the year, and the rest of Hill’s 2021 hasn’t gone nearly so well. In total he sported a 3.87 ERA and 4.55 FIP with the Rays, both of which are the highest marks he’s posted since bursting back onto the scene in 2015. His 9.9% swinging strike rate is better only than his abbreviated 2020 season, and he wasn’t exactly great then either. There’s a strong chance that Hill’s 2021 season will be his last stand.

It gets worse! At the beginning of June, MLB released some now-infamous guidance about foreign substances. Spin rates declined across the league, even before the June 21 enforcement date, as pitchers felt the heat. Without pointing any fingers, let’s just say that Hill’s fastball lost its usual bite in the aftermath:

Rich Hill Fastball Metrics

Date Velo Spin Spin/Velo V Break Whiff%
Before June 1 88.8 2384 26.8 20.2″ 29.70%
After June 1 87.7 2250 25.7 19″ 15%

In essence, Hill’s fastball has gotten worse in every way. It’s slower, and it spins less even after accounting for the loss of speed. That means it rises less relative to gravity (using Baseball Savant’s measurements), which means hitters have an easier time getting their bat on it. Whatever the cause — and given that he’s losing velocity and spin in tandem, fatigue or injury is certainly an option — Hill’s fastball has been a disaster. Before June 1, it was worth 2.1 runs above average. Since then, it’s cost him 5.5 runs relative to average.

His signature curveball has suffered the same fate:

Rich Hill Curveball Metrics

Date Velo Spin Spin/Velo V Break Whiff%
Before June 1 72.8 2803 38.5 -13.1″ 25.50%
After June 1 70.9 2589 36.5 -11.5″ 16%

Again, it’s an across-the-board problem. The curve has still been effective — he spots it for strikes adroitly — but it simply doesn’t have the same bat-missing juice that it had earlier in the year, much less at his air-bending peak.

Whatever the reason, Hill has been mostly ineffective over the past month and change. Things didn’t get better yesterday in his Mets debut, when he went five uneven innings with only a single strikeout. Potentially even worse, he didn’t generate a single whiff; every time a Blue Jay swung, they made contact. The last time Hill didn’t generate any whiffs was in a start in 2018 that he left after two pitches.

Aside from this most recent start, none of this decline was unknown. Hill’s star had faded in Tampa Bay. He hadn’t finished the fifth inning in three of his final seven starts there, and one of those led to some characteristically Hill-ian frustration. With Luis Patiño waiting in the wings, his spot in the rotation was tenuous at best.

As a result, the Mets didn’t give up much in the deal. Tommy Hunter is in the trade as a salary offset; he likely won’t pitch again this year, and given that he’s on a one-year deal, he may never even set foot in St. Petersburg. But his prorated $2.25 million deal matches up well with Hill’s $2.5 million salary, and hey, why not take a lottery ticket shot at a reliever who has always been effective when healthy?

The true meat of the return is Matt Dyer, a catcher/corner infielder/corner outfielder who the Mets selected in the fourth round of the 2020 draft. He’s in his age-22 season and playing in Low-A, roughly half a year older than the average player in the Low-A Southeast League. He struck out nearly a third of the time there, and that doesn’t look like a fluke; he’s only making contact on two thirds of his swings, well below league average. He was uneven offensively in college as well, and whiffs will likely always be a part of his game.

The Rays have historically done very well with minor trade pieces, and there’s certainly a lot to like about Dyer’s game. He hits for power and takes walks, which makes the strikeouts more palatable. He has a strong arm, always a nice base for a catcher. Catchers have a lower offensive bar — strikeout issues that might doom a corner infielder to obscurity are totally fine behind the plate. Given that Dyer is new-ish to the position, an uptick in his receiving would change his profile considerably. Without that, though, there might not be enough here. The whiffs are nothing new, and players who strike out that much in the low minors don’t often reach the majors. This feels like a bet on whether the team can turn him into a plus behind the plate.

When a team decides to trade for a pitcher, they’d prefer a great one. When a team decides to give up on a veteran, they’d prefer a can’t-miss prospect in return. But the Mets had to pick whoever was available, and Hill’s talent level dictated the Rays’ light return. Would they have taken a mountain of prospects for him? Of course! Would the Mets have given that mountain up in exchange for a better pitcher? Maybe — they don’t have many prospects to spare, but they could really use the help. But we don’t live in any of those worlds. In this world, the Rays had a fringy starter, and the Mets had a fringy prospect, so they made a swap. Everyone’s a winner — except the minor league journeyman who would have taken Hill’s spot in the rotation if the Mets hadn’t acquired him.

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