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Arizona Diamondbacks All Decade Team: Second base, Aaron Hill

The Hills are alive... with the sound of cycles.

St Louis Cardinals v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

On August 23, 2011, the Diamondbacks were in the thick of a pennant race, but were struggling. They had just lost to the Nationals in Washington, their sixth defeat in a row, a result which allowed the Giants to pull within one game in the NL West. But that day, they pulled off a relatively rare post-waiver move. They sent struggling second-baseman Kelly Johnson to the Toronto Blue Jays, in exchange for their struggling second-baseman Aaron Hill, plus defensive wiz John McDonald. You can make a case that this trade saved the D-backs’ season. For after that point, Arizona won their next nine in a row, went a major-league best 25-9 the rest of the way, and ended up winning the division by eight games.

The presence of Hill was no small part of that. He batted .315 with an OPS+ of 137, and put up 1.6 bWAR in just 33 games. That pro-rates to 7.3 wins over 150 games. It was also a better rate than J.D. Martinez managed after his trade here in 2017. It was all the more remarkable because Hill had been below replacement level in Toronto, at -0.9 bWAR. His line as a Blue Jay has been .225/.270/.313 for a .584 OPS, an OPS+ of just 58, so it’s safe to say, no-one saw this coming. Particular the commenter in our trade thread who called Hill “a guy who is worse in every way imaginable” than Johnson... Though he wasn’t alone: the consensus was generally “???” Me? I was too busy watching Xena: Warrior Princess to express an opinion.

With hindsight, the deal definitely favored the D-backs. At the time of the trade, Hill was under team control through 2013 and McDonald through the end of the season (though both ended up staying with Arizona longer). Johnson was a free-agent at the end of 2012. Over those periods, Hill was worth 7.8 bWAR and McDonald 0.2 bWAR, while Johnson put up 2.8 bWAR. Money worked out about equal, so the D-backs came out north of five wins ahead, despite SnakePit qualms at the time. However, as we’ll see later, Kevin Towers wasn’t willing to quit Hill while he was ahead. The subsequent extension put quite a different shine on the overall picture.

Milwaukee Brewers v Arizona Diamondbacks - Game 4 Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

But initially, all was golden. Hill went 5-for-18 in the 2011 NLDS against the Brewers, including a home-run in Game 4 (above). While the team declined their $8 million options on him for 2012 and 2013, they were interested in retaining his services at a lower price. Less than two weeks after that denial, Hill was instead signed to a contract covering those same two seasons, at a total price-tag of $11 million. The collective analysis at the time seemed rather warmer than on his initial arrival. Though the comment which stands out for me was unconnected to Hill. It was blue bulldog’s assertion, “Tim Lincecum doesn’t fear Goldy. Tim Lincecum doesn’t fear anybody.” #AgedLikeMilk

2012 made Kevin Towers look like a genius - at least as far as this extension went [some of his other moves that same winter... not so much] Because Hill put up a five-win season that easily repaid the entire contract, winning the Silver Slugger at second-base by batting .302 with 26 home-runs. At the time, the 5.1 bWAR was the second-best season by a Diamondback at the position in franchise history, trailing only Craig Counsell’s 5.5 in 2005. [Yes, Hill was ahead of Jay Bell’s 38-homer season in 1999, which comes in at 4.9 bWAR] It was a particularly strong final third for Aaron: he batted .320 over his final fifty games, with 13 home-runs and an OPS of exactly 1.000.

But it was June which was particularly historical. On June 18th, against the Mariners, Aaron became the fifth Diamondback to hit for the cycle - the previous one had been the man for whom he was traded, Kelly Johnson. Hill singled in the first, tripled in the third, doubled in the fifth and completed the cycle in emphatic fashion, going deep off Shawn Kelley in the seventh inning (above). Then, eleven days later, he did it again, as shown below. It was the shortest interval between two cycles by the same player for more than 125 years, since Tip O’Neill cycled on April 30 and May 7 for the St. Louis Brown Stockings in 1887. And Hill just missed three June cycles, having fallen a double short against the Rockies on the 5th.

Hill got his second set of MVP mentions that year, listed on three ballots (a sixth-place and two tenth-places). He finished 26th, the highest-placed Diamondback that year. But despite Aaron’s excellent season, Arizona weren’t able to repeat at champions, struggling to an 81-81 record, largely because of their 15-27 mark in one-run games. Still, ownership were very clearly impressed with Hill’s performance. In February 2013, with a season still to go on his existing deal, rewarded Aaron with a mega contract extension: $35 million, covering the 2014-2016 years. Fans were very happy: 87% voted the extension as “good” or “great” in the SnakePit poll at the time.

But that’s where it all went wrong.

You can see why the team made the deal. In his first two seasons with Arizona, Hill batted better than .300, with an .881 OPS. Over that timeframe (2011-12), Hill was better than Paul Goldschmidt (.840) or Justin Upton (.843). At the position, he was the best-hitting 2B in the National League by almost a hundred points. He had given the team 6.6 bWAR in only 189 games. But there were concerns. I managed to write two articles, both in favor of and against the signing: I’d appreciate it if everyone could ignore the first link. :) But let the record show, one of those with most concerns at the time was Jack Sommers, who wrote:

My gut feeling is that regression aside, Hill’s extreme pull tendency is what bothers me the most when it comes to committing to him long term... As he ages, and loses just a tick of ability to turn on the hard stuff, he’s going to start cheating more, and then will really have a tough time, unless he adapts and starts hitting the ball the other way much much more than he has his entire career.

2013 did prove tough for Hill to repeat his MVP caliber performance, though it wasn’t his fault. Things started well: after nine games he was batting .314, with a .986 OPS. But he had a broken hand, after being hit by a pitch from Pittsburgh’s James McDonald. Hill played out that game, and appeared in two more, before eventually hitting the DL a week later. The healing process which followed was thoroughly troublesome. Originally expected to miss 4-6 weeks, it ended up being more than ten before Hill returned. And his hand still was far from perfect, Hill opting to play through the injury anyway. In July, an MRI showed little improvement, and even by September, it was only “80% healed”.

Hill avoided the need for surgery, but ended the year having played only 87 games. He still batted .291 with 11 home-runs in that shortened campaign, good for an OPS+ of 124. It was the next year the big bucks kicked in. At an annual value of $11.67 million, the new contract was among the ten richest ever given out to a second-baseman to that point. But Hill’s performance completely cratered, whether due to lingering effects of the broken hand, the pull issue Jack mentioned, or something else entirely. Despite concerns, the sheer scale of the collapse was unexpected. The pre-season projection systems for Hill in 2014 averaged out at 2.85 WAR. Instead, he was the worst second-baseman in the majors, at -1.2 bWAR.

This was mostly a result of all aspects of Aaron’s offense going away. His batting average dropped almost 50 points. He stopped taking walks, with a BB% of 5.2% (for comparison, Chris Owings’s career walk-rate is 5.3%). At one point, Hill went more than a month between walks: May 25-June 29, covering 120 at-bats. He had fewer home-runs than in 2013, despite playing 47 more games. This all combined for an OPS of .654, in pre-humidor Chase Field. The resulting OPS+ of 81 was the same as Billy Hamilton. That’s... not good. One suggestion for the collapse was that Hill was struggling to hit breaking stuff, and so pitchers were throwing him more of it.

But whatever the result, it was terminal. The following season, Hill continued to go south, his OPS dropping further, to 72 - even as his salary ticked up from $11 million to $12 million. He began to lose playing-time, starting only 31 games after the break as Chris Owings took over at second. The trade rumor mill began to turn, with ideas such as a further swap of underperforming second-basemen in November, with the Reds for Brandon Phillips. In the end, it was something similar, Hill becoming part of a deal with the Brewers, also involving Chase Anderson, Isan Diaz and cash, for Jean Segura and Tyler Wagner.

Anderson has been solid for the Brew Crew, worth 8.2 bWAR over four seasons. Segura had, as noted in this position’s intro piece, one great year here before effectively being turned into Ketel Marte - continuing our ongoing chain of second-basemen. Wagner didn’t amount to much, while Diaz made his major-league debut last year - as a Marlin, after being one of the components in the trade which brought subsequent MVP Christian Yelich to Milwaukee. All told, it’s probably a case where both teams can consider themselves satisfied with the outcome. That Aaron Hill ended up being key to the presence here of Ketel Marte is a better way to remember him, than his underwhelming last couple of seasons on the field.