When We Two Parted: Will Aaron Hill and/or Adam Lind Bounce Back in 2011?

Hi everyone.  We've spilled plenty of ink on Aaron Hill and Adam Lind but with the new year I thought it'd be worth taking a look at what we might expect from two major parts of the Jays offense in 2009 that were largely non-factors in 2010 (though they did contribute 49 home runs between the two of them).  We'll look at Hill first.  

Aaron Hill will be 29 by the beginning of next season and is signed through 2011 for $5 million with club options through 2014 (at $28 million for the three seasons).  However, due to a quirk in his contract, the Jays would have to exercise all three club options before 2011 in order to keep him in the fold that long.  After the 2011 season, the Jays can exercise the 2012 and 2013 club options, though, which would keep Hill on the team for another two seasons for $8 million each season.  Unless Hill keeps struggling like he did in 2010 or falls off a defensive cliff, those prices are a bargain.  

First, let's get defense out of the way - Hill isn't the gold glover he looked like when he first came up, but he has shown himself to be a highly competent defensive second baseman.  UZR likes Hill perfectly well, and Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved is crazy about him, rating him consistently as a player who contributes at least one, and often two, wins per season above average thanks to his glove.  Total Zone is also a big fan, and all three systems thought Hill was quite good in 2010.  I don't see any reason to think he will decline defensively in 2011 at just 29, so we'll focus on his offensive value.  

No two ways about it, as a hitter, Hill's 2010 was ugly.  He posted a .205/.271/.394 line with just 80 wRC+ and a tepid .291 wOBA.  The 26 home runs were nice, but not at the cost of all ability to get on base.  Hill also managed just 22 doubles.  Aaron missed time in April with a hamstring injury (although he was basically in the lineup almost every day for the rest of the season) and you have to wonder whether nagging injury was a factor in his poor 2010.

On the other hand, Hill actually posted the highest walk rate over any full season in his career in 2010 (7.1%).  His strikeout rate (16.1%) was basically in line with his career norms.  That makes him look like he wasn't doing anything wrong until you dig a little deeper.  Hill swung at way too many pitches outside the strike zone in 2010 (31.3% as compared to a career average of 23.6%) and when pitchers figured that out they started throwing him a lot fewer pitches in the zone - only 47.6% of the pitches Hill saw in 2011 were inside the strike zone, by a substantial margin the fewest in any season in his career.  Now some of that is increased respect coming off a 36 home run campaign in 2009, but Hill's response - swinging at many more outside-the-zone pitches was compounded by the problem of him actually being quite good at putting outside-the-zone pitches in play.  He managed to make contact with 71% of outside the zone pitches at which he swung, which is very high (his highest mark prior to 2010 was just 61%).  Other than outliers like Ichiro or Vlad Guerrero in his prime, batters generally don't get many hits hitting pitches outside the zone.  

In Aaron's case, because, as we will discuss, Hill is such a prominent pull hitter, it's safe to say that many of those out-of-zone pitches are off the plate outside.  That's because pull hitters feast on inside pitches.  If Hill is swinging at pitches off the plate, pitchers aren't going to come inside and he's not going to be able to do what he is best at as a hitter - pulling the ball for hard grounders, line drives, and fly balls that turn into singles, doubles, and home runs.  

In 2009, Hill was an outstanding fastball hitter (18.6 wFB) and a very good changeup hitter (4.6 wCH) but mediocre to poor on other pitches, particularly the slider (-6.0 wFB).  In 2010, pitchers responded with more sliders and fewer changeups, and when he was getting fastballs and changeups, Hill wasn't hitting them well.  Although he pounded curveballs in his breakout 2007 campaign, Hill hasn't hit them particularly well since - in fact, there really wasn't a pitch he handled well in 2010.  

If approach was a problem for Hill in 2010, mechanics were an even bigger issue.  Whether Aaron was trying for more loft in his swing in order to duplicate his power numbers from 2009 or whether some other mechanical issue was at play, the results were disastrous.  Hill's fly ball percentage went up a whopping 13% in 2010 while his HR/FB dipped to a more sustainable 10.8% - non home run fly balls don't turn into hits very often.  Worst of all, those fly balls were coming at the expense not of ground balls, but of line drives - Hill's line drive percentage in 2010 was a pathetic 10.6%.  In contrast, in 2009 Hill hit line drives 19.6% of the time (his career average is 18.5%, but that's dragged dwn by last season).  Line drives are by far the most likely batted balls to fall for hits, so a drop like that can wreak havoc on a hitters batting average.  For a low-walk hitter like Aaron, that also means a big drop in on-base percentage.  

In terms of where his batted balls were going, Hill has always been a dead pull hitter and that didn' t change in 2010.  With all the home runs Hill has hit in 2009-2010, none of them were to the opposite field, only one has been to centre, and relatively few are between centre and the power alley - almost all of them are between the left field power alley and the left field line.   His ground balls followed a similar profile.  While there's nothing wrong with being a pull hitter, it is helpful to keep pitchers honest by using the whole field - you can't pull an outside fastball.  At the very least, if you're a pull hitter you have to to lay off the outside stuff, which we saw Jose Bautista, for example, do with great success in 2010.  As we've seen, Hill didn't do either.  

With inputs like that - more fly balls, far fewer line drives, swinging and making contact at substantially more pitches outside the zone - you can guess what Hill's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) looks like.  It was .196, at the bottom of the league.  While a low BABIP can often a result of poor luck (which plays a significant role in whether balls in play go for hits, since no hitter can aim his batted balls away from fielders), and I'm certainly not excluding the possibility that luck played a role in Hill's poor 2010 (it almost certainly did) the things we have talked about also play a large role - in the case of line drives, so large that one accepted method for calculating a player's expected BABIP is simply to add between 100 and 120 points to a player's line drive rate (e.g. the major league average line drive rate is around 19% so one would expect the major league average BABIP to be about .300 (or .190+.110) which is exactly what you see).  Hill has never been a speed demon but did slow down a bit in 2010.  Whether that was the result of a slightly older, slightly bulkier player, or caused by his hamstring injury is open to interpretation, but speed also plays a small, but real, role in BABIP.  

That said, it may not really matter all that much whether Aaron Hill's 2010 was more the result of poor luck or problematic approach and swing mechanics.  Either way, it's not likely to repeat because Hill is unlikely to repeat such a low line drive rate.  Hill has been perfectly adequate at turning pitches into line drives over his career and with some adjustments, he is likely to revert to his career levels, which alone would account for most of the fluctuation in batting average (and as we discussed, obp) that Hill saw in 2010.  Projection systems peg Hill as not the hitter he was in 2009 nor the one he was in 2010 - Bill James has him at .260/.319/.446 with 22 home runs at 31 doubles, while ZIPS has him at .257/.312/.444 with 23 home runs and 28 doubles.  

That said, one can't just paper over a season as plagued with red flags as Hill's 2010 - the increased incidence of swinging at outside the zone pitches is worrying, and, because of the type of hitter Hill is, is likely a prominent cause of the low BABIP he saw in 2010.  If Hill continues to swing at, and get himself out on, outside the zone pitches, pitchers will continue to exploit that weakness.  Hitting is a series of continual adjustments, and if Hill doesn't make pitchers come inside by laying off stuff outside, he won't be able to utilize his pull swing for the power and production of which he is capable.  Additionally, the increased reliance on home runs as a source of offensive value isn't a good thing either.  I wouldn't mind seeing more doubles from Hill in 2011 at the expense of fewer home runs.  

It won't take much of a rebound at all for Hill to be well worth the $5 million he'll make in 2011.  I am guessing, though, that the Jays will hesitate to pick up 3 more years before seeing him rebound for themselves and so the team will wait and see how he does in 2011 before picking up the 2012 and 2013 options.  If they do that, they'll lose out on the $10 million dollar option for 2014, but you can't blame the team for hesitating on another 3 year commitment after a down 2010.  On the other hand, there's good reason to believe that Aaron Hill will be an asset for the Jays going forward.  

Today's title from the New Amsterdams song of the same name.  We'll check back in with the next installment and look at Adam Lind soon.  

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