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What does Sam Hilliard’s disastrous 2020 mean for the future?

Colorado Rockies news and analysis for Wednesday, March 17, 2021


Even with Ian Desmond and David Dahl out of the picture, Sam Hilliard faces stiff competition for a spot in the outfield. As a lefty with power, Hilliard is likely to at least occupy a bench role, but if he wants regular starts, he will have to emulate his red-hot debut in the 2019 season rather than his dour 2020. As a 27-year-old entering his third season in the majors, the temptation may be to write him off as an unsuccessful gamble. However, Hilliard — a former 15th-rounder who has steadily improved throughout the minors and battled adversity on his way to contending for a starting spot on the Rockies — has faced just 875 pitches over his two major league seasons. Count him out at your own peril.

Sam Hilliard So Far

Hilliard broke out in 2019, crushing seven home runs on his way to a .649 slugging percentage and a 139 wRC+, both career highs. His torrid start was sure to cool off. The level of drop off though, was far greater than expected. Virtually every offensive stat got markedly worse, highlighted by a 2020 wRC+ that fell to a dismal 72. What exactly caused this collapse is hard to say, but the underlying stats, retrieved from Fangraphs, show that this was not simply bad luck.

Power was not the problem last year, and it is a testament to his remarkable 2019 that his slugging percentage dropped 211 points in a season and still remained pretty decent at .438. However, in virtually every other batting statistic, Hilliard put up the worst numbers of his professional career: his batting average dropped to .210, his wOBA to .301, and his walk percentage to 7.9%. Meanwhile, his already high strikeout rate skyrocketed to 36.8%. Hilliard’s problem last year was quite simple really: he could not hit the ball. His swing rate rose from 41.8% in 2019 to 46.5% in 2020 while contact fell from 73.8% to 63.3%. He struggled so much last season that he got sent down even though there were no Triple-A games where he could ‘get right’. Hardly a ringing endorsement from the Rockies coaches. And yet...

Reason For Optimism?

2020 unequivocally sucked, not just for Hilliard but for pretty much everyone except maybe the Dodgers. I am perfectly happy to just press ‘delete’ on the year (maybe on the Dodgers too?) and pretend we jumped straight from 2019 to 2021. For more data-driven analysis, start with Hilliard’s swinging strike percentage: as a rookie he was at 29% and when he arrived in Triple-A, it was down to 15.6%. That rate increased by 0.1% during his 2019 stint in Triple-A before dropping to 11% when he was elevated to the majors that same year. 2020 (17% K-rate) was the first year he failed to show improvement. Why then, after years of steadily getting better, did his offensive production plummet?

My theory: he spent his offseason focusing on defense. Playing in the outfield at Coors is hard, and for all of Hilliard’s impressive stats in 2019, his defense was terrible. He committed two errors in 18 starts and Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF) metric had him at -2.2. Last season he committed zero errors on his way to a -0.1 DEF rating. Being a league average defender while patrolling centerfield in Denver is a major accomplishment. For all his troubles last year, Hilliard’s homers and defense lifted him to a 0.2 fWAR, good for 7th on the team.

Hilliard’s drop-off was foreshadowed by a poor offensive showing in last year’s shortened spring training. shows that he hit .184 with 14 strikeouts and two walks in 17 games. This year he is hitting .267 through 13 spring games with five walks and nine strikeouts. Interestingly, while his strikeout rate remains high, he is yet to demonstrate his power. Instead, Hilliard appears to be taking a contact-driven approach, with only a single extra-base hit (an RBI double) to his name. This could pay dividends. Last year, Hilliard’s BABIP was .281, a number that should rise drastically if his goal is to get on bases rather than round them all at once.

Early signs show that Hilliard is righting the ship of his career and is on course for a return to form in the 2021 season where he should be a big part of what has to be one of the more entertaining outfields in baseball with Raimel Tapia and Charlie Blackmon.

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