Thursday, February 08, 2007

Gang of 13: Shawn Hill

The story of Shawn Hill is the story of a lot of young pitchers. It's one filled with potential. And it's one filled with injury that destroys most of that potential. Hill, a right-handed pitcher, got a brief chance with the Nats last year, starting 6 games. And other than a start against the offense-heavy Red Sox in Fenway, pitched solidly, giving the Nats a chance to win the other 5.

Hill was born in Ontario and was drafted by the Padres in the 33rd round of the 1999 draft, but didn't come to terms. The Expos drafted him the following year in the 6th round and he signed quickly. He progressed steadily through the minors, relying mainly on a sinking, two-seam fastball. Hill never had the kind of dominance you usually like to see in a minor leaguer, striking out around 6 batters per 9 IP. But he kept the ball on the ground, in the park, and in the strike zone, allowing him to succeed. The Expos advanced him one level at a time, and he maintained his solid production at each level, slowly building a solid case for promotion.

By the time 2004 Spring Training rolled around, Hill was though of enough where he was competing for a spot in the back of the rotation, despite never pitching in Triple-A. Hill lost out in the battle to John Patterson, and was sent back down to Double-A, where he held the opposing team to a measly 3.39 ERA. When John Patterson (what else) got injured later that summer and Claudio Vargas couldn't hold a spot, Hill got the call.

He made his first start against Philadelphia, and it's not one he's going to tell the Grandkids about. He struck out two of the first three batters he faced in a perfect first, but a double and three walks gave the Phillies two in the second. The Phillies sent nine to the plate off him in the third and six of them scored, ending his debut.

Amazingly, he followed that up with a 5-inning, one-run outing against the Blue Jays, although this was a lineup with both Chris Gomez and Dave Berg in it. As a footnote to the game, this was the last one between the two Canadian rivals, and, demonstrating how stupid MLB is, it was played in Puerto Rico.

He got knocked around in a third start, and was sent back to the minors. In his first start back in Harrisburg, he reported elbow pain, and was put on the DL for two weeks. That two weeks turned into a year. He had Tommy John surgery at the end of the season, putting him out for the all of 2005.

After the time off, he started back in Harrisburg, pitching solidly until a mid-season callup to Triple-A. One effective start later, and he earned a trip back to the majors to replace the always-injured Zach Day. Hill would get those aforementioned six starts in 2006, but his elbow would again flair up.

The team, hoping it was just an issue with the post-surgery scar tissue, put him on the DL to rest him. They gave him a rehab start at double-A where he threw nothing but fastballs to avoid the strain the curve puts on the elbow. Despite the restrictions, his elbow still ached, and they shut him down for the year.

Even with his health, Hill's stuff isn't good enough to make him much more than a mid-rotation starter (as if that's a bad thing!). He's the kind of guy who, when things are breaking right, can give you six innings without being blown out. But, as the question is with most of the Nats, will his arm hold up enough to let him maximize his talents?

It typically takes a pitcher 18 months to recover from Tommy John surgery. While some take less, others take more. The dangers of rushing back are that there could be a relapse, or the pitcher could adjust his mechanics to avoid elbow strain, thereby harming something else -- typically a shoulder, which would then be the end of him. The Nationals did the right thing in shutting him down last year, and it seems like he did the right thing too, in letting the Nats know that he wasn't healthy. Too many players (especially on this team) try and play through the pain until their elbows snap. (See: O'Connor, Mike; Guillen, Jose)

What I saw of Hill last year, I liked. He's the classic groundball pitcher, throwing heavy pitches that get pounded into the dirt, and he used his change and curve just enough to keep the hitters off balance. When he's in or right near the strike zone, especially on the lower half, he can succeed without having overpowering stuff. If he's healthy enough, and St. Claire can work his magic in perfecting the changeup, he'll have an effective pitch that dives down and away from left-handed batters, keeping them off balance in the way the curve works with righties.

The various projection systems love him:
Chone: 4.35 ERA
Marcels: 4.73 ERA
ZIPS: 4.27 ERA
Pecota: 4.51

Any of those numbers would've made him the Nats' "ace" last year.

Let's hope the ol' guy can stay healthy!

  • Our friends at Nationals Farm Authority interviewed Hill a while back. It's worth a look again as he recounts his experience in the Olympics and talks about tearing his UCL (basically the Tommy John Ligament) back in '99.

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