Wednesday, August 02, 2006


this page has been adamant for some time in its insistence that rich hill be brought to the majors and given a place in the starting rotation. many who otherwise give cubs' prospects with virtually no merit all the rope they need to hang themselves and the team -- the name of ronny cedeno rings loudest here -- have inexplicably turned on hill after less than 50 major league innings for reasons that remain mysterious to this writer. and this in spite of what has become one of the most impressive minor league careers in recent cub history.

but fortuitous injury and the trading deadline have cleared a path for hill, who has utterly destroyed the pacific coast league for two years running, to prove his mettle for the remainder of 2006. and he may just be seizing the opportunity.

in previous stints in the majors, hill's control -- excellent in the minors since the end of 2004 -- has all but vanished, as the young lefthander appeared to this page somewhat intimidated. hill's 2005 debut in the majors began in very promising fashion, only to be derailed in a disastrous start against the mets on august 5. hill pitched without confidence for the remainder of 2005, consistently falling behind, issuing walk after walk -- 10 in his final seven innings -- and getting tattooed when he was forced to come over the plate in hitter's counts. an earned run average that stood at 3.78 on july 31 ballooned to 9.13 by year end, and an 18:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio ended at 21:17.

but this page, watching hill intently at that time, noticed a change the previous start, july 30. approaching the end of a good outing, hill was taken deep by troy glaus in the sixth -- a tape measure shot. the shift was almost immediately perceptible. hill began to try to get quite fine around the corners. glaus' homer had followed a long bomb by pedro feliz in the prior start, and it was almost as if hill made a conscious decision to retreat from the plate. for that, he suffered.

hill began 2006 in iowa but came up in may for a series of four starts. here again, despite dominating the high minors, hill retreated -- frequently behind in the count, issuing 15 walks in 19.1 innings, going 0-4 in four starts before being sent down.

this is a pitcher that clearly can choose not to pitch in this fashion. his domination of the minors since the end of 2004 has been so complete that this page finds it difficult to avoid mentioning kerry wood, perhaps the last cub pitching prospect to put on such a display -- and one can make the argument that hill has been better than wood in many respects, as wood never demonstrated the ability to control his ball as hill has in 2005 and 2006. when hill is walking batters, it is not involuntary -- as it is with wood and major-league walks leader carlos zambrano, who often have little idea where their pitches are going. hill's problem is more clearly psychological than physical -- and the root of it, supposes this page, is in that tape measure shot by glaus.

but what he is capable of should not be in question, for it was on display last night, as hill chalked his first major league victory. alternating a rising 90-mph four seamer with a devastating 73-mph curve, hill stayed ahead in the count all evening by using his fastball to great effect. despite temperatures approaching 100 degrees at gametime, hill remained efficient and effective in going eight innings with 109 pitches -- a number that most often gets a cub starter just into the sixth -- and 74 strikes (68%). he remained unflappable when, following his only walk of the evening to chad tracy, jacque jones played the third out of the fifth into a two run double. he simply induced a grounder from eric byrnes to end the inning and came back strong in the sixth. hill faced 30 batters but got into only six 2-0 counts and two 3-1 counts the entire night. and all this against one of the better offenses in the national league.

to be sure, this is but one start. but this page remains convinced that within rich hill lies the capacity for a front-of-the-rotation starter. the talent is there, as is now impossible to deny -- all rationalizations about quadruple-a pitching have been nonsense from the start and are now only more obviously so.

it is now up to rich hill to demonstrate that he can bring that talent to bear consistently, and in so doing earn the right to displace others in the 2007 starting rotation for the chicago cubs.

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