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Can Sam Hilliard be Mile High Joey Gallo?

Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Let’s play a game of “Guess the Player”. Here’s this chart with a series of data related to two particular ballplayers that may or may not be in the title of the article. Can you guess who’s who?

Who’s Who?

Player BB% K% ISO Speed (%tile) Launch Angle (º) Exit Velo (MPH) Pull%
Player BB% K% ISO Speed (%tile) Launch Angle (º) Exit Velo (MPH) Pull%
Player A 9,3% 34,6% 0,268 93th 10,9 89,7 44,7%
Player B 18,0% 34,6% 0,259 58th 22,7 91,5 43,0%

Player A is Sam Hilliard for his entire career (439 PA), Player B is Joey Gallo’s 2021 (616 PA). Hilliard is three months or so younger than Gallo, but the paths these two have taken have been very different. Drafted out of high school in the first round, Gallo was a dynamite prospect with top-of-the-scale raw power and athleticism who put up some silly Minor League power numbers (he hit 82 homers in 237 games in levels between Rookie Ball and AA as a 19-20 year old) before getting his first MLB cup of coffee at 21 and regular playing time by age 23, and he’s settled into being a very good ballplayer despite his issues with contact via a mix of excellent outfield defense, extraordinary power and fantastic plate discipline.

Hilliard, on the other hand, was drafted out of college as a 21-year-old in the 15th round after being a two-way player in college, and his relatively green status as a hitter (with, again, massive raw power and incredible athleticism) meant it took him until 2019, his age-25 season, to get his first taste of MLB action. It was a glorious run, however: Hilliard hit a bonkers .273/.356/.659 in 27 games, homering 7 times, including a memorable one off Josh Hader that ended up costing the Brewers a postseason spot.

The Poorly-Timed Pandemic

Hilliard looked set to receive extended playing time to get a chance to see what his power-speed combination could do over a full season, but he didn’t get that chance in 2020 because of the pandemic, and his shortened 2020 was really bad: .210/.272/.438, striking out in 36.8% of PAs. As a player who needed time to work out his issues against Major League pitching, that unfortunate timeline seemed to mess him up, and his start to 2021 was even worse: through May 4th, Hilliard was hitting .108/.154/.324 and had been essentially relegated to pinch-hitting duties. He was sent back down to Triple-A to work on his approach, and returned on July 16th. Did it work out?

In short: yes! The lefty hit a pinch-hit single in his first game back and slashed .237/.322/.492 from July 16th onwards, showing a more focused approach despite still K’ing a ton (68 in 199 PAs). His slash line was good enough for a 101 wRC+, making him a roughly league average hitter, low OBP, strikeouts and all. But why all this talk about Hilliard? He recently turned 28, and he’s not a prospect anymore, so why the fascination? And why the comparison with an All-Star caliber player?

The most obvious reason is the physical tools. Not only are Gallo and Hilliard virtually the same age, they’re also the same height and almost the same weight. The Yankee outfielder is listed at 6’5”, 250 pounds while Hilliard, who’s slightly lankier in build, is listed at 6’5”, 236 pounds. And what’s more, Hilliard is flat-out the superior athlete, posting running speeds among the fastest in baseball. while Gallo is “just above average”. Gallo hits the ball harder at his best and on average, however, but Hilliard has top-of-the-foodchain max exit velos as well (he’s capable of hitting balls 113+ MPH off the bat). They both have long levers that make bat control an issue, and their contact rates are similarly poor. So what’s the difference? Why has Gallo been a very good (if flawed) hitter while Hilliard has been below average so far?

Plate Discipline

Here’s another chart for you comparing Gallo and Hilliard, this time just for the 2021 season. We’re going to take the strikezone and separate it into four areas according to how Baseball Savant describes them: the “heart” (pitches down the middle, pretty much), the “shadow” (pitches around the edge of the zone, some strikes, some not), the “chase” (pitches that end up as clear balls) and the “waste” (pitches way out of the zone). Here’s how often Hilliard and Gallo swing at pitches in those spots, and I’ll put the league average rates in there as well, for a comparison:

Swing%

Player Heart Shadow Chase Waste
Player Heart Shadow Chase Waste
Sam Hilliard 76% 53% 21% 1%
Joey Gallo 74% 44% 13% 3%
League AVG 74% 53% 22% 6%

Hilliard actually does something a bit better than Gallo: he’s slightly more aggressive on the pitches he should be swinging at. The line between patient and passive can be blurry sometimes, and managing to be aggressive enough with pitches in the right spots while still being able to lay off close ones is an art. The big difference between the two can be easily seen elsewhere, however: Gallo swings far, far less often not only at chase pitches, but also shadow pitches as well, meaning that when there’s a borderline pitch, 4 times out of 9 he’s gonna take it, whereas Sam will swing at it over half the time. Considering that pitches in the shadow area make up anywhere between 44-50% of all pitches a hitter sees, what you do with them is crucial. Pitchers win on average when they throw it there: even the most disciplined hitter on the planet, Juan Soto, generated a negative run value in that area.

Anyway, I got a bit carried away. The point is, quality plate discipline is the main thing standing between Sam Hilliard and being an everyday player. A late 20s breakout isn’t out of the question considering his physical ability and late start to full-time hitting, and if the Rockies are going to surprise people in 2022 and compete for a Wild Card spot, they’re going to need a few surprise contributions. I believe Sam Hilliard has a chance to be one of those surprises.

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MLB, union agree to temporary expanded rosters, extra-innings rules, 9-inning doubleheaders, ‘Shohei Ohtani rule’ | NY Post

There will be 28 players instead of 26 allowed for the month of April, with no limit on pitchers. By May 2nd, however, the limit goes back to 26 players and 13 pitchers on the active roster. Also, the ghost runner on second base in extra innings is back (ugh), doubleheaders are nine innings again, and there’s a new rule they’re dubbing the Shohei Ohtani rule. Essentially, if the starting pitcher is batting in the lineup, then he remains the DH even after being removed from the ballgame. Apparently they want to encourage two-way players with this, but I don’t think there are many Ohtanis running around, so it’s basically his rule.

Spring Training 2022: Rockies 4, Angels 7

Kyle Freeland started this one and looked sharp for two innings before a mixture of bad luck, sloppy defense and a poorly-timed hanger resulted in a three-run 3rd inning for the Angels, and they would not relinquish that lead. Most of the Rockies regulars looked sharp, however. Kris Bryant got his first hit wearing purple, Brendan Rodgers and Ryan McMahon twice hit the snot out of the ball on a line, and Sam Hilliard had himself a nice showing, with a two-strike line drive RBI single off a tough lefty in Aaron Loup, a stolen base (they had him picked off and still he managed to swipe second) and a great running and leaping catch at the wall to rob extra bases. Rockies reliever Heath Holder had himself a game too, K’ing the side in the 8th inning. On the Angels side, Jo Adell hit a ball to Pluto, and it’s worth watching (he hit it WAY over the batter’s eye to straightaway center field, it was crazy).

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