WAR Zone: Rich Hill, the ageless wonder

How the slowest pitcher in baseball continues to escape time.

Hill in camo jersey is in his windup.

Rich Hill obviously must have another arm.

I say that because I can’t believe that the 43-year-old Hill has managed to play quality baseball for so long without his arm falling clean off. To think that a man originally drafted in 1999 is still pitching in 2023 boggles the mind.

And yet, he carries on. Because he can.

Last week, Hill once again went up against the almighty power of MLB’s Aug. 1 trade deadline, and once again, the 18-year veteran fell victim as the Pittsburgh Pirates shipped him off to the San Diego Padres with mere hours to spare.

Depending on how you look at it, though, this was much closer to a win. While not a huge difference exists between the Padres’ and Pirates’ win totals, acquiring Hill indicates that San Diego is vying for a playoff spot. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, ruled out the postseason months ago.

San Diego is Hill’s 13th major league team (tied for the second-most all-time). Of those 13 clubs, only three retained him for multiple years. The last time that happened was with the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2016-2019 and that was six teams ago. He is, by every definition, a journeyman.

However, he doesn’t fit the bill of what you’d expect from a journeyman. Unlike the other two members of the 13-plus club since integration, Hill has never been a World Series champion or even an All-Star.

Similarly, most players who last as long as Hill have posted all-time great numbers and racked up countless accolades. Future Hall of Famers Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki come to mind. They hung around because, well, they earned it. Even the notorious Bartolo Colón — who last played in 2018 at the age of 45 — won a Cy Young at one point.

So how did Hill do it? Simple. He doesn’t try that hard.

That might be a bit harsh. He’s a professional athlete, and I’m a writer who maxed out at Little League. Obviously, Hill tries hard. However, I can say one thing: he definitely doesn’t overexert himself.

Hill has never thrown hard, but this year, he’s taken it to the extreme. According to Statcast, his fastball sits in the first — yes, the very first — percentile in fastball velocity (average fastball speed measured in mph). At an average speed of 88.2 mph, Hill’s fastball probably wouldn’t get a speeding ticket in a 70.

In addition to the four-seam fastball, Hill boasts an impressive mix of fastball variations and a variety of off-speed pitches. His repertoire routinely includes a curveball, sinker, cutter, slider and even a sweeper. Pitch speed-wise, those rank third-slowest, second-slowest, second-slowest, fourth-slowest, and slowest, respectively.

Even at his fastest, Hill is still in the first percentile. The man is an enigma.

But, as I indicated previously, he’s never been known for his speed. In 2015, when Hill was a spry 35-year-old, his fastball only landed in the 26th percentile. Whether or not Hill has ever had the ability to throw hard — or he simply chooses not to — is up for debate.

However, we do know that Hill has chosen to reduce his fastball usage more and more in favor of the curveball since his Tommy John surgery in 2011. This year, he’s used his curveball 37.8% of the time and his fastball only 33.2%. The change has clearly paid off; he’s now pitched more innings in his forties than he did in his twenties.

By MLB standards, Hill is definitely what you’d call a “late bloomer.” Following an independent league stint, Hill was signed by the Boston Red Sox in 2015 and had one of the strongest years in his career. His next two seasons made up the best multi-year stretch of his career.

His career statistics don’t jump off the page, but his late-career numbers are nothing short of extraordinary. Never a star, but always valuable.

And sometimes, that’s all you need to be.

Hill started his first game with San Diego on Sunday night. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well, as the lefty gave up six runs across only three innings of work. His ERA (earned run average per nine innings) now stands at 5.09 on the year. That’s not great.

However, there’s a reason why the Padres traded for him in the first place. He’s going to go out there every five days and eat up innings. Sunday night was Hill’s 23rd start of the year. Only four pitchers have more than that (24). At an age where his body should be breaking down, Hill is more durable than ever.

At the end of the day, San Diego brought him on to right the ship. Not just on the field, but off of it. The Padres came into 2023 with World Series expectations, and if the season ended right now, they wouldn’t even make the playoffs. The talent is there, but they can’t seem to get it together.

Hill could be their glue. Teams across the league recognize Hill for his competitiveness and pure passion for the sport. Most importantly, though, he’s a good dude, and people love to have him around.

And unlike age, that’s a quality that numbers can’t measure.

Even if San Diego chooses to part ways with Hill at the end of the year, it’s not a huge deal. Hill has already made it clear that he plans to return for his age-44 season in 2024. No matter how hard the world tries to stop him, Hill and his 88-mph fastball won’t be riding off into the sunset just yet.

Because even at 43 years old, nobody — not even time itself — can slow Rich Hill down.

“WAR Zone” is a column by Dominic Varela about some of his favorite stats in baseball and the wacky stories they tell us that runs every Monday.