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The Diamondbacks’ Worst Contracts: #11, Aaron Hill

How to make a mole-hill out of a mountain.

Arizona Diamondbacks Photo Day Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images
  • Date signed: February 2013
  • Length: three years (2014-16)
  • Cost at time: $35 million
  • Adjusted 2022 cost: $45.53 million
  • Production: 0.3 bWAR
  • Negative value: $43.13 million

How the player got there

Probably not for the last time this series, we open with this phrase: “Well, it seemed to make sense at the time.” Hill came to Arizona from Toronto, in a swap of under-performing second basemen, Kelly Johnson going the other way. Hill had signed a four-year, $12 million contract with Toronto in April 2008, just after turning 26 and coming off a season where he batted .291 with 17 home-runs. While injury limited his presence in 2008, he exploded in 2009, hitting .286 with 36 home-runs; he was an All-Star and won the Silver Slugger. The following two seasons? Less so: he had 26 HR in 2010, but only a 78 OPS+, then crashed utterly in 2011, posting a miserable .584 OPS (58 OPS+) over 104 games as a Blue Jay.

Similarly, Kelly Johnson was struggling in the final year of his deal, though he had signed only a one-year, $5.85 million contract in February 2011, coming off a 127 OPS+ season. His OPS+ in 2011 dropped to 88. The change of scenery in the late August trade seemed to do both men good. Johnson rebounded to a 111 OPS+ with the Blue Jays and Hill was absolutely phenomenal after arriving on the D-backs, hitting .315 with a 137 OPS+, as the D-backs pushed to the NL West Title. Aaron sustained and even surpassed this in 2012, becoming AZ SnakePit MVP for a season where he had a 133 OPS+ and was worth 5.1 bWAR. He won the Silver Slugger, and also hit for the cycle twice in 11 days.

At the age of thirty, he didn’t exactly seem over the hill, and having produced 6.7 bWAR over 189 games since becoming a Diamondback, he seemed a decent investment. At the time, GM Kevin Towers said of Hill, “He’s the guy you want up with the game on the line: he gets the big hits and makes the big plays defensively. He’s one of the premier second baseman in all of baseball, and the Diamondbacks a better club today and in the future having Aaron Hill here.” Hill was already on the books for 2013, having signed a two-year, $11 million contract after his 2011 campaign, so the three-year, $35 million extension covered the 2014 through 2016 seasons.

What went wrong

The Hill contract came as part of a double-barrelled statement, being signed a week after the team also inked recently acquired third-baseman Martin Prado to a four-year contract - that one for a total of $40 million. [Though Prado was gone from Arizona at the deadline in year 2, he was good value, posting 15.4 bWAR over the whole term of his deal] A SnakePit poll showed enthusiastic approval for the extension at the time, with 87% of respondents rating it “good” or “great”. Shows how little we know, am I right? However, some went on the record as being opposed to the deal from the start.

Matthew Poulet panned it: “Towers made another high-risk, low-upside move. Second basemen have a history of cratering earlier than most, and Hill is going to be 32-34 during the years his extension covers. Of course, Hill was terrific last season, one of the NL’s 10 best players. However, he has a terribly inconsistent history on offense, and his glovework has gone from outstanding in his mid-20s to above average now. He’ll almost certainly be a below average defender by the time his new deal ends in 2016. The big problem here is that Hill is going to play this year at 31. His new deal doesn’t kick in until 2014. Contracts of this type for second basemen in their 30s are practically unheard of and for good reason.”

Jack Sommers was also skeptical. “Regression aside, Hill’s extreme pull tendency is what bothers me the most when it comes to committing to him long term. He already struggles badly in LATE AND CLOSE and Innings 7 thru 9. League averages dip in those situations of course…. harder throwing relievers at the back of bullpens suppress offense. But it’s my opinion that Hill is more vulnerable to that because he is such a dead pull hitter. And 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.”

Both these prophetic, pessimistic statements proved to have truth in them. Hill’s defense had been a positive to that point, with dWAR above zero every season. 2013 saw that streak end, and it was then exactly at 0.0 over the three years of the contract. But it was Aaron’s bat that really fell off. He did miss playing time in 2013, after a pitch on April 9 broke his hand. The injury lingered longer than the 4-6 weeks expected. and while he hit reasonably on his return, Hill appeared to wear down, with a .576 OPS that September. It proved a sign of things to come once the contract started. Over its three years and 374 games, Hill managed a total of 26 home-runs - the same number he hit in just the 2012 season.

His overall slash was .246/.305/.365 for a .669 OPS (81 OPS+). We began hearing rumors the team were looking to trade Hill as early as July 2014, but it was another 18 months before the D-backs were able to get out from under his contract. In January 2016, Aaron was shipped to the Brewers, with Chase Anderson, Isan Diaz and $5.5 million in cash, for Jean Segura and Tyler Wagner. The change of scenery again seemed to help, Hill being worth 1.6 bWAR in 78 games there, before being traded once more. He went to Boston where he ended the contract by posting an OPS+ of 54. There was one brief last hurrah in 2017 with the Giants, but it was clear Hill was toast and he was released in June, ending his career.

Biggest lesson to be learned

I’m going with Matthew Poulet: “Contracts of this type for second basemen in their 30s are practically unheard of and for good reason.” Which is perhaps a worrying thought, considering Ketel Marte is under team control through at least his age 33 season...