Diamondbacks Report Card: Aaron Hill

Reportcardhill_mediumName: Aaron Hill
Age on Opening Day: 29
Salary: $5,000,000
2011 Stats (combined): 137 games, 571 PAs, .246/.299/.356, 8 HR, 61 RBI
2010 Stats (Toronto): 138 games, 580 PAs, .205/.271/.394, 26 HR, 68 RBI

I think we can skip the entire '2011 Expectations' section for this piece, because it's probably safe to say that no-one had an expectations for Hill with regard to the Arizona Diamondbacks before the season started. My entire knowledge of him, personally, was having picked Hill up during his monster 2009 season, when he batted .286 with 36 home-runs. He fell off my radar after that, so when he was traded to us on August 23rd, it took quite a bit of scrambling for information. So who is Aaron Hill?

After that great 2009, the 27-year old Hill seemed prime to join the crop of elite players at his position, but to be blunt, the wheels fell off the rest of the time in Toronto. In 2010, while he did hammer more than 25 home-runs, he batted only .205. No American Leaguer in baseball history had managed that double before the season, though Hill's average was undercut by Carlos Pena's .196 - and a third hitter, in the National League, also did it the same year. No prizes for guessing who that was (the link will tell you if you can't remember).

2011 was worse still, with Hill's power largely evaporating. He had only six home-run in 396 at-bats, and while he'd never taken many bases on balls to start with, his walk-rate slumped to a career-low of 5.4% [MLB average is 8.5%]. The resulting on-base percentage of .270 ranked Hill 109th of 112 players in the AL with 350 plate-appearances. Few teams would be interested in such a player, but Kelly Johnson wasn't exactly setting the saguaros on fire in Arizona, with an OBP that, at .287, ranked him 112th of 117 in the NL. Still, it was better than Hill, and it took the addition of SS John McDonald to make the trade equitable.

Reaction at the time was pretty "meh", though most neutral pundits gave Toronto the edge, due to Johnson having been decent more recently. SI's Cliff Corcoran wrote, "Getting Hill won't be the answer Diamondbacks are looking for," and Tommy Rancell of Bloomberg Sports called the trade, "a bit of a head-scratcher for Arizona." Among AZ supporters, you can see in the comments here most fans weren't exactly impressed, and Amit of Dbacks Venom wrote, "This trade is a significant gamble for the Diamondbacks." Overall, the prognosis was gloomy: the Giants (whom we led by just one game) got Carlos Beltran, and we got Aaron Hill?

But then, after the trade, something odd happened. Johnson rebounded with the Blue Jays, batting .270 for them, though a huge part of that was his BABIP rebounding from .257 here to .346 there [his line-drive ratio was the same, in both places, at 19%]. For Hill, the change was even more dramatic. Yes, his BABIP was even higher, at .356, but he was also making much more solid contact, with a line-drive rate of 25%, five points above his career average. Perhaps even more encouraging, from a sustainability point of view, he was showing better plate discipline, walking at a 8.5% rate for the Diamondbacks.

The post-trade result was a line of .315/.386/.492 for Hill. That's an .888 OPS, with 16 RBI in 33 games. Beltran, meanwhile, cost the Giants one of their top prospects and had an OPS not much higher than Aaron, at .920, driving in 18 runs over 44 games for San Francisco. Both men were free-agents at the end of the season. Hill had a couple of $8m options, which Arizona declined; however, they instead negotiated a deal (after the player switched agents) which will see Hill stay through 2013, and earn a total of $11 million. You can read Dan's detailed analysis of the signing here, but the "tl;dr" version is: good defense, and should see his overall numbers rebound a bit.

On this end, the plus is that he fills an obvious hole. Our recent survey of Diamondbacks' prospects didn't have a single second-baseman ranked in the top 20. The highest-placed candidate, David Nick, has yet to see a single pitch above the High-A level, so even if he continues to develop, 2014 would seem like the earliest the 21-year-old could be expected to contribute to the major-league roster. The alternative to Hill being re-signed, would likely have been shuffling Ryan Roberts to second and trying to sign or trade for a third-baseman. On that basis, I think I'd rather have Hill.

However, I do have concerns for the future. Very well though Aaron played after coming from Toronto, his .225 average in 2010-2011 ranks 235th of the 238 major-leaguers with 650 PAs over that time. Even including his power, by OPS he moves up only to equal 219th. That's the guy Arizona now has signed to play second-base for the next two years. I have a genuine fear the 142 PAs for the D-backs are the aberration, rather than the thousand with the Blue Jays. Of course, there could be any number of rational reasons for his struggles with Toronto, and a change of scenery is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. That might have been the case here, going by Hill's thoughts:

I’m relaxed, and I haven’t felt that way in a while... Sometimes, you dig yourself in a hole and the more you try to get yourself out, the deeper you are digging. It’s weird about this game. Everyone can play up here. You just have to let it happen sometimes... My swing feels great. Everything feels together. It feels loose. My hands are free. That’s all I want right now. Other than that, just let the athletic ability take it. I’m not going to try to do too much. Whether you want to call it change of scenery or whatever . . . that’s when I know I’m at my best, when I’m at the plate with a clear mind. See it and hit it. It sounds simple, but it’s tough to get to. It’s getting there.

In terms of 2012, he certainly won't be sustaining the .356 BABIP he had for the D-backs; but neither will he sustain the .217 he had in Toronto during 2010-11. As with most things, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Bill James project Johnson at .256/.314/.405, which is a little lower than his career line (.267/.321/.416), but works out as fractionally better than 2B, mostly Johnson and Hill, posted overall for Arizona in 2011 (.231/.310/.416). If the walk-rate improvement we saw from Aaron after his arrival can be sustained - and I freely admit "if" is the operative word - it'll help, and production should be okay, given the collective NL OPS at the position last year was below .700.

Grade: incomplete. A B+ for his time here, but it's difficult to ignore what happened before his arrival.

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