Patiently Waiting for the Real Sam Hilliard

Chad Young looks for signs that Sam Hilliard could come roaring back.

Saying Sam Hilliard burst onto the scene in 2019 is both cliché and accurate. To say he fell off a cliff in 2020 would be both cliché and only figuratively accurate. A hot commodity after 2019, Hilliard was on a lot of fantasy waiver wires by the time 2020 ended, but with draft season underway, it appears fantasy players are talking themselves into Hilliard again.

 

Dates ADP ADP Rank
10/1/20 – 12/31/20 379.8 368
1/1/21 – 1/31/21 375.9 350
2/1/21 – 2/28/21 344.1 318
3/1/21 – 3/12/21 343.1 313
3/13/21 – 3/25/21 316.1 296

 

As Hilliard creeps towards being one of the first 300 players off the board, it’s worth looking back at what went right in his debut, what went wrong in 2020, and what he can do about it in 2021.

 

Background and Breakout

 

He was never a top prospect. A two-way player at Wichita State, the Rockies took Hilliard for his bat in the 15th round of the 2015 amateur draft and he immediately started beating up Rookie ball pitching with a 134 wRC+ in 262 plate appearances. Of course, as a 21-year-old college bat, being 34% better than average at that level is more “what you expect” than “impressive.”

He kept that up in 2016 and 2017, hitting A (128 wRC+) and High-A (126) without a problem, but—again—sorta what you expect from a 22- and 23-year-old hitter in the low minors. And when he was finally challenged with Double-A in 2019, he was not nearly as impressive. His strikeout rate, which had never been good, jumped to 31.2% while his impressive and relatively easy power dried up, with his ISO falling to .126. It all added up to a below-average offensive season with a 99 wRC+.

And then 2019 happened.

The Rockies continued to challenge Hilliard and he made big strides in Triple-A. He got the strikeout rate back under 30 (29.3%) and the ISO up to nearly .300 (.296). And when Colorado pushed him even harder, giving him his first taste of MLB pitching at age 25, he responded in a big way.

Over 87 plate appearances, Hilliard brought his strikeout rate down even more (26.4%), posted his first double-digit walk rate (10.3%) since Low-A, and drove that ISO all the way up to .377 (not a typo). The 139 wRC+ is suppressed by the Coors Field park adjustment—his .407 wOBA outpaced that of teammates Nolan Arenado (.392) and Trevor Story (.380).

Of course, those two posted those number over far more PA and had sustained it multiple seasons, so Hilliard had more work to do to establish himself as a bona fide Major League slugger. Unfortunately, 2020 did not go well.

 

Falling Off the Figurative Cliff

 

Almost across the board, Hilliard dropped.

 

Year AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO wOBA wRC+
2019 .273 .356 .649 10.3% 26.4% .377 .407 139
2020 .210 .272 .438 7.9% 36.8% .229 .262 72
Career .236 .308 .527 9.0% 32.3% .291 .347 101

 

The numbers that jump off the page to me are the plate discipline numbers. Hilliard had never in his professional career walked that little or struck out that much. Of course, you expect a hitter to post worse numbers against MLB pitching than they did in the minors, but this is a pretty drastic drop from where he was in 2019.

The ISO pops too, but for a different reason. Obviously, the fall from .377 to .229 is a long way down, but .229 is still pretty good—in 2019, that was Mookie Betts, right in between Marcell Ozuna and Rhys Hoskins. If you want to tell me that the low power version of Hilliard is Betts-Ozuna-Hoskins, I am all in on that.

The natural questions are what drove the fall and can Hilliard fix it?

 

What Happened in 2020?

 

Whenever a hitter has such a great debut and then tumbles, there are two places I look first for an explanation: 1) Was the breakout just a batted-ball-luck-driven fluke? and 2) Did pitchers learn and adjust?

The answer to the first appears to be “no.” Yes, in 2020, Hilliard saw his BABIP and HR/FB rate—the first two places I look for batted ball luck—fall. But his 2019 BABIP (.298) was not inflated and his HR/FB rate didn’t drop a ton (from 33.3% to 27.3%). Given the small sample sizes involved, his BABIP and HR/FB rate didn’t move in any significant way and neither stands out as glaringly concerning. For a guy who hits the ball hard (his 44.4% hard-hit rate ranked 77th out of 351 hitters with 50+ batted ball events in 2020—his worst season), has elite sprint speed, and plays in Coors Field, a high BABIP and a high HR/FB rate would not be particularly surprising, and his BABIP wasn’t really all that high.

As for pitchers adjusting—there are some changes we can see, but it isn’t entirely clear that they drove his struggles. In fact, they may have been a reaction to his struggles.

To start, he didn’t see a big change in zone percentage. Hilliard was a pretty patient hitter in 2019—only 14 of 135 qualified hitters in 2019 had a lower swing percentage than his 41.8%—but he was a bit more aggressive outside the zone than in. Inside the zone, he swung at 60.5% of pitches, lower than all but six qualified hitters. Outside he swung at 28.8%, lower than all but 40 hitters. So you could imaging pitchers adjusting and trying to get him to chase more, but his zone percent went from 41.0% in 2019 to 40.7% in 2020. Basically no change.

In 2019, Hilliard feasted on four-seamers and sinkers—not so much anything else:

 

Pitch Type % of Pitches Run Value/100 Pitches
Four Seamer 35% 4.3
Sinker 14.9% 3.8
Curve 15.4% -2.1
Change 12.5% 1.0
Slider 13.1% -0.9
Cutter 7.6% -1.9
Splitter 1.6% -8.3

 

When 2020 started though, pitchers hadn’t really adjusted. In August 2020 (he had only 19 PA in July), Hilliard saw 40.4% four-seamers, 15.8% sinkers, and 11% changeups. So those three pitches he was best against went from 62.4% of pitches to 67.2% of pitches and weighted even more heavily towards the fastballs he mashed in 2019. And yet Hilliard struggled immediately, with an 88 wRC+ in July and 96 wRC+ in August.

By the end of 2020, he was actually hitting better against splitters and cutters (run values/100 pitches of 2.8 and 1.8, respectively) than four-seamers and sinkers (-1.2 and 0.5). Pitchers did dial back the hard stuff and throw him more breaking stuff as 2020 wore on, but this isn’t a case of a hitter who crushes fastballs suddenly getting a steady diet of curves—this is a case of a guy having a harder time with everything, even before pitchers adjusted.

However, just because pitchers didn’t try to get him to chase more by throwing more junk outside the zone, and just because they didn’t try to exploit a weakness with certain pitches, that doesn’t mean they didn’t make an adjustment. They attacked him very differently in the zone.

This GIF compares pitch location to Hilliard in 2019 and 2020.

 

Data and graphics from FanGraphs

 

Pitchers didn’t go in or out of the zone more, but they concentrated their pitches in the zone in fewer places. In 2019, there are six squares with a number of >2% and none higher than 2.4%. In 2020, the number of squares over 2% goes to 13 and there are six over 2.5%. As for where they were concentrating these pitches, I think this GIF shows that more clearly:

 

Data and graphics from FanGraphs

 

A very clear focus on getting the ball down and away from the left-handed Hilliard. And why would they do that? I bet you can guess:

 

Data and graphic from FanGraphs

 

That shows Hilliard’s RAA/100 pitches from 2019 by zone. That big blob of blue in the bottom left corner is Hilliard struggling to do much of value with pitches down and away. Hilliard struggled mightily with pitches down and away and so pitchers started to attack him there more aggressively.

The reason for all that blue: Hilliard didn’t make great contact in that area in 2019.

 

Data and graphic from Baseball Savant

 

He whiffed when he chased down, too, but if you were in the zone down, he was more likely to make contact.

 

Data and graphic from Baseball Savant

 

Basically, if you come up you might get him to swing through a pitch, but if he hits it, he hits it hard. If you stay down and away, you can get him to swing through stuff that gets out of the zone and the pitches in the zone he doesn’t do enough with. Pitchers reacting and adjusting to this isn’t a huge surprise.

Part of the problem is that Hilliard responding by swinging more. He was more aggressive in general in 2020—his chase rate increased from 28.8% to 31.8% and his swing rate on pitches in the zone when from 60.5% to 68.0%. Importantly, he started to attack those pitches down and away—the ones he really struggled to hit—a lot more.

 

Data and graphics from FanGraphs

 

The four boxes in the zone closest to that outside corner at the knees went from swing rates of 62%, 47%, 38%, and 36%, to 48%, 65%, 63%, and 65% respectively. Getting aggressive with pitches you hit poorly will only further encourage pitchers to throw those pitches and exacerbate the problem.

At the same time, his swinging strike rate jumped from 11.0% to 17.1%. Part of that was chasing more, and part was swinging more, and part was just making a whole lot less contact.

 

Data and graphics from FanGraphs

 

There is a whole lot more blue on that 2020 chart, but the most glaring change is down. Pitches up and away he already made limited contact. Pitches in he continued to make solid contact, but down—particularly down and away—he waved at a lot more often in 2020 than in 2019.

Maybe Hilliard had an issue with his swing that he needs to work out mechanically, but it looks to me like pitchers started attacking where he is most vulnerable, and instead of taking those pitches and waiting for ones to drive, he got more aggressive, likely overswung, and found himself making less contact and less strong contact, resulting in an ugly 2020.

 

What to Look For Going Forward

 

Using the Baseball Savant Statcast search, I found 60 pitches between 2019 and 2020 to Hilliard that found the zone in the corner down and away. Of those, he took 25 called strikes, fouled off 12, swung through six pitches, and took two balls, leaving 15 balls in play. Of those, he came away with three hits (a double and two singles), eight ground outs, three flyouts, and a pop foul.

Out of 15 balls in play, three resulted in something positive. Of the 45 pitches, he either took or failed to put in play, he ended up on base at the end of the PA 10 times—three home runs, two doubles, a single, and four walks.

After those 25 called strikes, he ended up on base after three. After the foul balls, he ended up on base five times. Of the swinging strikes, he ended up on base once. Those nine times on base included three HR, two 2B, one 1B, and four walks. The sample size is small—way too small to draw any meaningful conclusions—but it certainly looks like he was better off not swinging at those pitches.

There’s another pattern that appears in the 15 balls in play. The ground outs almost all look like this:

 

 

Or like this:

 

 

Here are all three hits:

 

 

 

 

I watched all 15 balls in play. He elevated six: the single up the middle, the double to left, three flyouts (one each to LF, CF, and RF, and a pop foul to the catcher. He put the other 10 on the ground—the single that snuck through, eight grounders to the first-base side of second, and one that was just barely to the third-base side. Only four of the 15 had an exit velocity greater than 90—the double to left, two groundballs up the middle, and one pulled ground ball. The rest ranged from 67.4 to 89.3 mph and he averaged below 85 mph.

Again, we’re looking at small samples that are far from conclusive, but when Hilliard elevated pitches down and away and went with them the other way, he got decent results. When he went away or up the middle, he hit the ball harder. When he tried to turn on them, he hit lazy grounders, one of which happened to sneak through the infield.

Based on that, early in 2021, I am looking for a Hilliard to do two things:

  1. Be more patient, particularly with those pitches down and away. He struggles to make contact with them. Swinging more aggressively seemed to exacerbate the swing-and-miss and didn’t lead to better contact. When he gets hits in that zone, they aren’t the kind of massive power he can generate when he waits for a pitch in a better spot. Those big HR/FB rates he posts? He can’t do that on these pitches. I am not the first to notice this—in fact, according to this MLB.com piece from Rockies beat writer Thomas Harding, Hilliard seems to be aware himself. How he puts that into play remains to be seen. If he can be patient down and away, pitchers will have to be perfect and hit those spots. If not, they miss down or away and fall behind. Or they let it get too much of the zone and Hilliard can mash it. If they are perfect and keep hitting those spots, then he has to move onto #2.
  2. Go the other way with those pitches instead of getting overly aggressive and trying to pull them. Pulling them is getting him nowhere, and while he is better off with his natural patients, waiting for the pitches he can crush, some pitchers are going to make that awfully tough on him. When they do, he has to adjust.

There is a third path—a mechanical adjustment that allows him to generate more power on those pitches down and away. That is something to look for, as well.

 

Fantasy Implications

 

Over his full run of 201 plate appearances from August 27, 2019 through September 27, 2020, Hilliard was by no means bad—a 101 wRC+ means he was ever-so-slightly above average, and that ISO is pretty solid. From a fantasy perspective, where we don’t mind taking advantage of Coors, his .347 wOBA ranked 82nd out of 234 hitters with 200+ PA during that stretch. He is tied with Joey Votto, Willy Adames, and Tommy La Stella, just ahead of Pete Alonso. Not a bad place to be! He also stole five bases.

If you prorate his career to 600 PA, you get 39 HR, 15 SB, 78 R, and 69 RBI. The .236 average is ugly, but the rest of that line is excellent for a guy you can get in the last round of a 12-team, 23-man roster draft. If we were confident in that projection, he would be going much earlier. Instead, there is a ton of volatility. If he can adjust and force pitchers to come to him, or do more damage down and away, that 2019 breakout is still looming as a show of what he is capable of. If he can’t adjust, he’ll lose time in Colorado and end up back on the waiver wire.

For now, I am willing to gamble on Hilliard, particularly in deeper formats and leagues that value SB. Any league with 300+ players rostered (12-team, rosters of 25+, or any 15-team league), he should be on a team. If you are in an Ottoneu 5×5 league, he is an excellent bench bat—a guy you can plug in the OF when he starts and have enough depth around him to not rely on him. In a 12-team league with 23-man rosters, he’s a solid late-round flier with upside, but depending on how your team shapes up, he might not be the right fit.  At the very least, he should be on your watchlist.

Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Chad Young

Chad is a long-time fantasy player and baseball fan, who learned to love the game watching 100 loss teams in the truly awful Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Chad is one of the creators of ottoneu and you can hear him on the Ottobot Podcast.

  • Avatar Aaron J Bennett says:

    How about an NL-only league? I can keep him at $9 in a 5×5 keeper league ($240 budget).

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