Rays The Analysis: Rich Hill has struggled with command in 2021

Rich Hill (center) hasn't been able to locate his fastball and curveball well so far in 2021. (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

We’re at the part of the season where it’s way too early to make assumptions about teams, players, etc., but here we are.

The Tampa Bay Rays, the second-most injury plagued teams in terms of total days spent on the IL thus far this season, are currently 5-7, having just lost three of four to the Texas Rangers.

Also noted, that four-game series was at home, and the Rays managed to score 9 runs in those four games. There’s a lot of problems going on with the team right now, but one that is concerning from the start is the early-season performances of start Rich Hill.

Hill was a buy-low free agent signing the Rays took a flier in the offseason and at age 41, he’s rapidly reaching the end of his big league career. 

Before we go deeper on this, it’s important to know that Hill has experienced bad luck on the mound as his xERA this season is 4.36 compared to his current 7.54 ERA, an inflated number due to a small sample size.

The Analysis

Looking at his Baseball Savant page, his pitch location has changed based to seasons previous. Take a look at the heat map of his 4-seam fastball and curveball during the 2018 and 2019 seasons compared to the start of 2021.

This is the heat map of Hill’s 4-seam fastball and curveball in 2019 via Baseball Savant.
This is Hill’s 4-seam fastball and curveball heat map in 2018 via Baseball Savant.

Hill has used his curveball more often than his fastball, but the location of that curveball is key to this closer look at him. He’s thrived by throwing the curve in a vertical plane toward the outside of the plate for left-handed batters.

He likes to run it inside and low on right-handed batters and have it duck away from lefties, a commonality for a left-handed starter.

This is Hill’s 2021 4-seam fastball and curveball heat map via Baseball Savant.

In 2021, that curveball is being located middle-in for left-handed hitters and middle-away for righties, a stark contrast and it’s shown as the 84.4 MPH exit velocity on balls hit off the curve is up 2.5 MPH from 2020.

The other major change is his 4-seam fastball, which he likes to pepper high middle-in to lefties and middle-away to righties. So far in 2021, those have been flipped and opponents are hitting .318 off Hill’s fastball.

Also, it’s concerning to see his usage rate for the slider and cutter rising, which has probably happened since Hill has seen less success of his best two pitches. 

The better that he can locate his fastball and curve, the better that fares for not only his success, but that of the Rays when he’s on the mound.