In a deal reminiscent of the Scott Kazmir signing two years ago, the Oakland Athletics have signed reclamation project Rich Hill to a 1 year, $6 million dollar contact. The news broke last night:
Source: Rich Hill agrees to terms with Oakland. One-year deal for $6 million, pending physical.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 18, 2015
It's hard to imagine saying this in 2016, but Hill is one of my favorite sleeper pitchers for next year. I was blown away by some of his peripheral statistics after his third start and sat down to watch his final start against the Yankees. What jumped out to me was Hill's fastball. The pitch only averages about 90 mph and tops out around 93, so the velocity is modest, but hitters routinely took AWFUL swings at it. One example: ARod against a 91 mph fastball:
The data backs up the observation, too: Hill finished up with a .487 OPS against his fastball, and generated a 14% swinging strike% and a 40% K% with it. He also held opponents to just 85.6 mph on their batted ball exit velocities against his fastball, about 4 mph better than league average of about 90 mph on fastballs. The results against his fastball were pretty amazing.
In trying to determine why Hill's fastball was so effective despite the modest velocity, one thing stuck out to me most: Hill's high spin rates on his fastball and curve. According to statcast, Hill's four seamer has an average spin rate of about 2300 rpm, which is about 100 rpm higher than league average of about 2200. His curve was tracked at just under 2700 rpm, which was towards the top of the league.
I'm no expert with spin rates, but from what I understand, a high spin rate on a fastball/curve combo can be very effective for two reasons. The first reason is that a high spin rate on a curve makes the seams on the baseball more difficult for a hitter to pick up, which helps add to deception between a pitch mix. Hill playing his high spinning fastball and curve off each other add to his effectiveness because the batter has a difficult time picking up what pitch is coming because each pitch looks the same at first. Secondly, a higher spin rate on a fastball can make it more difficult to square up because it hangs in the air longer and seems to have a "rise" to it.
Hill only made 4 starts last year with the Red Sox, so durability, sample size and times around the league are all valid concerns. But he finished the year with some eye popping statistics after making some mechanical adjustments, and I loved what I saw watching him throw. Some notable stats from his Red Sox stint: 1.55 ERA, 2.27 FIP, 2.50 xFIP, 34% K%, 4.5% BB%, 11.3% swinging strike%, 27.3% pop up%. He not only missed bats, but generated weak contact and bad trajectories from hitters. Hill will also pitch a lot of games in the pitcher friendly environment of the AL West; 3/5 of those parks favor the pitcher, including his home stadium, where he will throw half of his games.
I don't know what Hill's ADP will be come March, but I suspect it will be outside the top 250. At that slot, Hill is a strong upside gamble, and is exactly the type of sleeper pick that can make a real difference in a fantasy league.