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Zach Wilson shares his thoughts on Rockies’ outfield prospect Sam Hilliard

Hilliard is a power hitter who also strikes out a lot. What does Zach Wilson think about that?

Last week we published an article with an overview of the Rockies’ farm system with insight from Zach Wilson, Rockies Assistant General Manager of Player Development. Today and tomorrow, we will get some insight about two of the Rockies breakout prospects from 2019 — Sam Hilliard (No. 5 PuRP) and Ryan Rolison (No. 2 PuRP). We will start will Hilliard.

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Sam Hilliard was drafted in the 15th round of the 2015 draft by the Colorado Rockies out of Wichita State University. Since then, the 6-foot-5 outfielder has spent a year at each level of the Rockies system, culminating with a late August call-up in 2019. He has had mixed results at each level, but came on strong in Triple-A and had a breakout year that included some Isotopes records that can be traced back to the team’s time as the Dodgers farm team.

Sam Hilliard Minor League Stats

Year Level Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG
Year Level Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB AVG OBP SLG
2015 Rookie Grand Junction Rockies 60 222 45 68 13 8 7 42 36 55 12 0.306 0.397 0.532
2016 Low-A Asheville Tourists 127 461 71 123 23 5 17 83 56 150 30 0.267 0.348 0.449
2017 High-A Lancaster JetHawks 133 536 95 161 23 7 21 92 50 154 37 0.300 0.360 0.487
2018 Double-A Hartford Yard Goats 121 435 58 114 22 3 9 40 41 151 23 0.262 0.327 0.389
2019 Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes 126 500 109 131 29 7 35 101 54 164 22 0.262 0.335 0.558
2019 MLB Colorado Rockies 27 77 13 21 4 2 7 13 9 23 2 0.273 0.356 0.649

Overall, Hilliard profiles as a high power, but high strikeout-type of player. Yes, he hit 35 home runs in Albuquerque, but he also struck out 32.8% of the time. The only two levels in which he struck out less than 30% of the time were in Grand Junction (24.7%) and Lancaster (28.7%). However, he has also hit for a lot of power, with slugging percentages about the .449 mark at every level except for Double-A Hartford. In Hartford, he hit just .262/.327/.389 with nine home runs — his lowest numbers in any of the full-season leagues.

Zach Wilson noted the Double-A struggle for Hilliard, but also pointed out that he made noticeable adjustments as the year went along.

“Sam is a very interesting case,” Wilson said. “He had a lot of success prior to getting to Double-A. And then when he did, he had marginal success. I think he had like nine homers there, and he had a bunch of strikeouts. And part of that was adjusting to that level. Part of that was he needed some of those failures to figure out the adjustments or to believe in some adjustments he needed to make, which the last about four weeks of that season, he started to make them.”

In his last 30 games with the Yard Goats, Hilliard went 26-for-110 (.236) with six extra base hits and 37 strikeouts (33.6%). Hilliard was also selected to the Arizona Fall League in 2018 after his year in Hartford so that he could continue to make adjustments and carry them into his 2019 campaign.

“If you look at his Fall League stats, vastly different than what his Double-A stats were in terms of batting average and strikeout to walk ratio and all of that stuff,” said Wilson. “He made some very significant improvements and then was able to carry that right over into Spring Training last year. And then obviously took an enormous step forward Triple-A, knowing that a couple things needed to happen. He had such incredible raw tools, particularly with his power, that if he could just make some, a few minor adjustments with his swing, with his leg kick or some different things that we were doing, that power had a chance to come out big time in the form of production in a game.

“At the same time, he was also trying to continually work on his pitch recognition and cutting down strikeouts without losing the tremendously impactful OPS that he could have,” Wilson continued. “So that’s a delicate balance: How do you cut down on strikeouts, but really keep that OPS at a place where it needs to be, especially for a guy like him? He’s a guy that should be hitting homers and driving in runs, you know. That’s his skill set, that’s where he needs to be.

“So we spent a lot of time talking about that and working through that,” he continued. “Some of that was swing adjustment. Some of that was just pitch recognition stuff. Some of that was mentally how he was stepping in the box. So there’s a lot of different areas and people that worked with him to get him to the point he was at last year in Triple-A. He was able to take all that, make the adjustments and really went off and had a tremendous year and proved throughout the course of time last year that he was ready for the next challenge, which was coming on top. And then obviously, he just continued to take off from there. And in fact, at the Major League level, he continued to get even better at the areas we were working at. And that’s what you can ask from a young player.”

If you really dig into Hilliard’s Double-A stats, you’ll notice a drop off between May and June. May was certainly his best month; he hit .366/.430/.465 with seven doubles, five RBI, and 17 strikeouts (23.9%). After that, his production started to wane. However, he was still named a Mid-Season Eastern League All-Star. If you look beyond the stats, you’ll remember that his father, Jim, was diagnosed with ALS in March of 2018 — right before Sam was to start Double-A ball. So even though his stats weren’t fantastic, as Zach Wilson always says, there are things that happen beyond the stats that affect a player’s performance.

“People forget sometimes, too, that he had some personal, real personal things that make being in professional baseball even harder than it already is that he was dealing with at the same time,” Wilson said. “Two years ago, nobody knew about his dad. I knew about it, and he was dealing with it. Nobody else knew about it. That was part of what went on with him in Double-A.

“So you never know when things are going to click for guys. It really all started to come together for [Hilliard] at the end of that first year in Double-A, went to the Fall League, and then totally took off last year.”

And Hilliard certainly did take off in Triple-A. After batting .328/.389/.516 in the Arizona Fall League, he batted .262/.335/.558 in Albuquerque with 35 home runs and then batted .273/.356/.649 with seven home runs in his brief stint with the big league club last September.

Hilliard did appear to take a bit of a step back in Spring Training this year, batting just .176/.222/.441 in 15 games. He also had 12 strikeouts in 34 at bats. These are not great numbers in a short spring, but he has shown potential and has given the Rockies something to think about. If he can continue to work on pitch recognition and continue to cut down on the strikeouts, he has potential to be a threat in the Rockies outfield.