GOODYEAR, Ariz.: Rich Hill has had the misfortune to be a victim of the double whammy: a procedure to repair his shoulder and elbow reconstruction surgery.
What didn’t kill Hill made him a better pitcher. Actually, after two operations, it’s a wonder that Hill is pitching at all. He no longer is a starter, but that’s OK with him.
“To me, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “As long as I have a chance to take the ball.”
Hill has been taking the ball all spring and probably has a job in the Indians’ bullpen. After coming to camp as a non-roster invitee, Hill was placed on the 40-man roster two weeks ago.
“I had this date in my contract,” he said, referring to a clause that allowed him to walk away. “I think it was March 12.”
If Hill is on the roster, he probably is on the team as a left-handed middle reliever with matchup potential.
Hill was a starter through 2009, when overcoming injuries became his primary focus. Shoulder pain forced him to undergo surgery that season, and two years later he went under the knife to have Tommy John surgery.
“The shoulder was just to clean it out,” he said, differentiating his procedure from a rotator cuff repair. “But even if they just went in to explore, you have to regain your strength.
“The shoulder is your steering wheel. If you don’t have your steering wheel on your car, you go all over the road. If you don’t have your shoulder when the ball comes out of your hand, the ball goes all over the place.”
After the 2009 operation, Hill changed the way he threw.
“I was in Boston with Tito [then-Red Sox manager Terry Francona] and [pitching coach] John Farrell,” he said. “I was pitching out of the bullpen and was still throwing over the top, only dropping down now and then. But they wanted to see me throwing exclusively from the side.”
There is a widespread perception among baseball people that pitchers who drop down are super-vulnerable to hitters who swing the bat from the opposite side of the plate. In other words, left-handed batters are death to right-handed sidearmers and vice versa.
This is true even for pitchers who throw over the top. But it is said to be a fatal flaw for sidearmers, which is why many of those that drop down only pitch to hitters who bat from one side of the plate.
“You can say for guys who throw a little bit lower — not even sidearm — you automatically assume they are lefty or righty specialists. In my opinion, that’s not true because the numbers don’t hold true. If you want to look at opinions, you can do that, but you have to back them up with facts.”
Not surprisingly, Hill does not want to be put in that box, limiting how he will be used.
Francona, now the skipper of the Tribe, said that he would like to use Hill for three batters, maybe two of them left-handed.
“If you drop down and get left-handers out [and] then you get right-handers out,” Hill said, “what does that make you?”
Even after Hill’s second operation, he did not think his career was in jeopardy, but he was frustrated being forced to interrupt yet another season.
“I was disappointed just when I was finally finding my niche, getting a good feel for what I wanted to accomplish and my role,” he said. “But as far as having the surgery, it was kind of a good thing, too.”
Come again? Hill said rehabbing for a year gave him the opportunity to hang out at the ballpark and absorb information from other pitchers and coaches.
Most players who must endure a long layoff after surgery feel so detached from the team that they show up in the morning when nobody is around, go through their workout routine then go home. Not Hill.
“I got to evaluate things,” he said. “I’d go out and watch baseball. I’d watch guys go about their business, see their mechanics. I’d look at what the bullpen guys did as far as their routines. I’d pick up little things from them and make up my own.”
Actually staying for night games is far from the norm for injured players.
“They told me I could go home, but I didn’t want to,” Hill said. “I’d go and sit in the bullpen. I was fortunate that my manager wanted me to be around the guys to show them support. It was a huge benefit to me.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.