On Monday morning, a few of the Red Sox biggest stars took part in a simulated game at the team’s minor league complex in Ft. Myers including Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, and John Lackey.
But the biggest “oohs and aahs” that I heard from the players, coaches, and front office types that gathered to watch were reserved for a pitcher who will begin the season in Pawtucket – Rich Hill.
The 31-year-old left-hander known for his great curveball has altered his motion this spring and become a full-time sidewinder. That typically results in a loss of velocity, but Hill is actually throwing slightly harder as he’s hitting 92 mph on the gun.
“The hitters tell me that when the ball is coming in, it really jumps and they have a hard time seeing it,” Hill told me. “They say my motion looks so smooth and easy and then all of the sudden when the ball comes out of my hand; it disappears because it comes out with a lot of life.
“I did a few things to tweak my mechanics and generate a little more power,” Hill told me. “One was to bring my arm slot up just a hair – it’s not very noticeable because I’m still throwing sidearm – but I wasn’t getting a downhill plane before. I’ve also added a little bit of a Luis Tiant twist and it has really generated a lot of momentum toward the plate and the velocity has gone up a lot.”
Catcher Mark Wagner wasn’t even on the receiving end of Hill’s pitches when he noticed the difference.
“I heard a ‘pow’ and I said, ‘Damn, is that (Daniel) Bard warming up?’” Wagner said. “It was Rich Hill. I said, ‘Man, he’s on to something.’”
Hill has been a starting pitcher for most of his nine professional seasons and would occasionally drop down to the side against tough left-handed hitters. Former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell suggested that Rich become a full-time sidewinder when he was pitching in relief for Boston last September.
“It feels like the ball just pours out of my hand,” Hill said. “It’s almost like when a hitter hits one right on the barrel of the bat and doesn’t really feel anything – that’s what it’s like for me on the mound. There’s no effort or trying to over-throw, it really feels very easy.”
With his new motion, Hill is no longer throwing his “nose to toes” curveball, but it’s been replaced by a sidearm slider with serious bite.
“The slider – it’s more of a slurve really – is just as big and it’s probably a few miles an hour harder, but I do miss that big 12-to-6 breaking ball every now and then,” Rich said with a smile. “I may mix it in because I know that it’s unhittable when I throw it well.”
“He was a hell of a pitcher before, but throwing from down there allows him to do anything that he wants to a batter,” Wagner said. “He can blow it right by guys or have a slider break four feet and make you look stupid. It’s impressive.”
On Monday morning, the Red Sox announced that Dennys Reyes would begin the season as the lone left-hander in their bullpen and that former All-Star Hideki Okajima was being optioned to Pawtucket. Statistically, Hill outperformed both lefties in Boston’s exhibition games as he did not allow a run in seven relief outings (8.2 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 6 K).
“I couldn’t have had a better spring training statistically, but I can’t get down about not making the big league team,” Hill said. “It’s obviously disappointing, but at the same time, there are 29 other teams out there and you’re showcasing yourself a little bit. But being from Boston, I want to play for the Red Sox. That’s really a goal for me.
“It was tough because there wasn’t much that they could say. I was disappointed and I didn’t hide that from them – I told them that I was not happy with the situation. It could be very easy to come down here and feel sorry for myself, but that’s not my makeup. I’m going to keep working hard.”
Hill worked diligently on strengthening his shoulder three days a week at Fenway Park in the off-season and says he’s hasn’t felt this strong since 2007 when he was in the Cubs’ rotation and started a playoff game.
“A couple of years ago, my wife and I went on a vacation to the Galapagos Islands,” Hill said. “But this off-season it was all about working out and getting strong and ready for this year. It’s paid off big time. The Galapagos Islands were great, but I’d rather be pitching in Fenway.”
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