DENVER — Sam Hilliard was drafted out of Wichita State University in the 15th round of the 2015 draft. Since then, the 6-foot-5-inch outfielder has progressed steadily through each level of the Rockies system, spending one year at each level from Low-A to Triple-A. After spending time in the Arizona Fall League in 2018, he was promoted to Albuquerque where he enjoyed a breakout 2019 season.
“It’s been fun.” Hilliard said in July. “It’s definitely a different league, different traveling. You got guys moving in and out all the time so it’s important for you to stay focused and go about your stuff — everything the same way everyday. It’s just the adjustment of that and trying to prepare for whenever you get called up to help the big league team win when and if that happens, you’re just trying to prepare for that everyday.”
Hilliard adjusted well to the Pacific Coast League, setting team records in less than a full season. He set the Isotopes single-season record for runs scored (109) and extra-base hits (71: 29 doubles, 7 triples, 35 home runs) in 126 games. At the time of his call-up to the bigs, he also ranked in the top four in the PCL in runs scored (1st, 109), games played (1st, 126), home runs (3rd, 35), total bases (3rd, 279), and RBI (4th, 101). Per the Isotopes, Hilliard was one of three players in all of Minor League Baseball with at least 30 home runs and 20 stolen bases.
In 2018 Hilliard represented the Rockies in the Arizona Fall League as part of the Salt River Rafters. During his time in Arizona, he said that he had made some adjustments to his pregame routine in order to stay more steady in the batters’ box and produce more offensive at bats. He said he has continued to make small adjustments, but, “I like to think I’ve got the same basic core of what I was using in the Fall League that helps me. I feel like I’m doing well and I’m just gonna try to keep going through the end.”
He also mentioned that his big goal for this season (other than make the big leagues) was, “to cut down my strikeouts this year and I’ve been ups and downs with that. Sometimes it’s rough, I go through rough patches but overall I feel like I’m in a good spot and feel like I’m more good towards that goal.” Hilliard finished his time in Albuquerque with a career-high 164 strikeouts (32.8%, 2nd in PCL).
One of the many accomplishments Hilliard posted this year was being named a Triple-A All-Star. It was his fourth All-Star appearance in as many levels. Yonathan Daza, Pat Valaika, and Roberto Ramos were also named to the team, with Ramos being added late as a replacement for Kevin Cron.
“It was fun,” he said. “It was a blast getting to go with Daza and Ramos. It’s always fun getting to go with teammates, and El Paso wasn’t too far so we got to drive and we actually played in El Paso right after so it was really convenient. But the festivities were a blast, the Home Run Derby was awesome. Ramos put on a show. . . . It was just a lot of fun being able to compete with some of the best talent in the country.” Hilliard was also named to the All-PCL Team alongside Daza.
All of his accomplishments led to Hilliard being called up on August 27 alongside fellow prospect, right handed pitcher Rico Garcia. Hilliard went 1-for-3 with a strikeout and a home run in his debut and is currently 5-for-20 (.250) with two home runs and a triple in seven big league games.
“It was an early day, didn’t get much sleep the night before, obviously,” he said. “[I] got here, found out I was playing center field against the Red Sox so there were definitely some nerves, but when I got on the field I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous than I actually was. I actually felt pretty good.
“I did a little bit of everything in my debut,” he continued. “I made an error,” he chuckled, “got a lot of action in center, struck out in my first at bat, ended up hitting a homer. It was an emotional roller coaster for sure but it ended on a good note personally. Unfortunately we didn’t get the win, but it was an interesting debut to say the least.”
Playing the outfield at Coors is always a challenge, but Hilliard was able to solicit some advice from Charlie Blackmon about how to make the adjustment from the minor leagues to the majors.
“Charlie told me the biggest adjustment for him was that third deck, and I can definitely understand why,” he said. Minor league and spring training stadiums don’t have third decks, so Hilliard had to get used to the scale and nuances of playing in a major league stadium.
“You’re not used to that in the minor leagues,” he said. “The ball goes up and it goes above the stadium really quick and you can see it here. There’s video boards, there’s more lights, and there’s more people so it’s a little harder to see so just going out in batting practice and taking reads off the bat like live like in a game really helps.
“I’ve played all three positions already in a game so I’m getting used to all three,” Hilliard continued. “I’m gonna keep working in center because it’s the most ground to cover, but that’s another adjustment. . . so, just work on those two things.”
Like many prospects, Hilliard’s family was in the stands to cheer him on during his major league debut. However, it was particularly special for him to have his father, Jim, in the stands. Jim Hilliard is currently battling Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, aka Lou Gherig’s Disease) after being officially diagnosed in March 2018, right before Sam’s first big league Spring Training. Having his father in the stands was “everything.” Hilliard said. “It was, I definitely wanted him to be here for my debut, you know, even if things were really bad and he couldn’t do a lot. He would’ve still definitely been here, you know, he’s doing fine but it’s just huge to have him and the rest of my family here to see it.”
In his major league debut, Hilliard slammed a 455-foot home run to right center field in the eighth inning with his family in the stands to witness that special moment.
“It was amazing. I’m just super glad that they were here,” he said.
He continued, trying to find words to describe the special moment, “It was just a moment that...baseball, sometimes...it’s super special and I looked up when I was in the dugout and I looked up at the video board for a brief second and saw them celebrating and it was a really cool moment and then getting to talk to them after the game and them saying ‘congrats’ and stuff. It’s just something I’ve always dreamed of and it was probably the best moment of my life.”
After having some time to process his father’s diagnosis, Hilliard plans to use the bigger stage to bring awareness to this devastating disease and his family’s foundation: Team Hilliard (als.net/teamhilliard, Twitter: @TeamHilliardALS).
“You know, I used to didn’t want to talk about it because it was new, but I realize today if you’re not talking about it, what are you really doing to help?” he said. “So yeah, I’m definitely about bringing more awareness to it and we have a foundation.
“They’ve [the Hilliard family website] got all the information if you want to donate, if you want to buy equipment.” he continued. “We have, like, ‘Team Hilliard’ merchandise with, I’m pretty sure my swinging silhouette on the shirt so if you want to rock that it’s pretty cool. But yeah, it’s got all the information on there and I’m sure I’ll be getting asked about it so I’m definitely not gonna shy away from it, I’ll talk about it for sure.”
Despite everything that he’s going through, Sam Hilliard has been a bright spot on this Rockies team that is trudging dismally towards October. If he continues to perform as well as he is capable of, between the breakout year in Triple-A and his showing so far in the majors, Hilliard could solidify himself as a staple of this Rockies outfield for years to come.