Detroit Tigers: Is Derek Hill an MLB player?

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Derek Hill #29 of the Detroit Tigers poses for a photo during the Tigers' photo day on February 20, 2020 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Derek Hill #29 of the Detroit Tigers poses for a photo during the Tigers' photo day on February 20, 2020 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images) /

Derek Hill is no longer a top prospect and his weaknesses are well documented, but it seems like the Detroit Tigers aren’t giving up on him quite yet. This begs the question: Is there a path for Hill to be a legitimate MLB player?

Hill played his way back into the minds of Detroit Tigers fans this July after receiving ample playing time and attention during the team’s Summer Camp.  Site Co-Expert Rogelio Castillo broke down his bid to make the roster that ultimately fell short on Opening Day, but remains a real possibility as the season carries on.

The Scouting Report

Hill is perceived as an excellent defender in center field, a trait that carries even more value in the spacious confines of Comerica Park. There is very limited advanced fielding data available at the minor league level, but Hill passes the eye test here. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing him make highlight-reel plays like this:

For what it’s worth, Hill had a range factor per nine innings of 2.35 in 2019 for Erie, which would put him below average for MLB center fielders and below the marks set by Jacoby Jones and Harold Castro in 2019. It’s hard to buy into that as a red flag, though, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt defensively for now.

Unfortunately, Hill strikes out at a 28 percent rate. Coupled with a 7 percent walk rate, there’s no way around the fact that his hitting profile is ugly. His walk to strikeout ratio of .26 was one of the worst in all of Double-A and is not a path to success. The few players that are able to get away with this type of profile, like Tim Anderson and Javy Baez, serve as a sort of exception that proves the rule because they are such unique athletes.

This type of hitting profile, one that desperately needs an approach refinement, is one that Tigers fans have become frustratingly familiar with under Al Avila (I’m looking at you, Victor Reyes and Brandon Dixon). Hill has shown the ability to walk more in the past, but his decreased walk rate in Double-A is not a good sign for things to come in the MLB.

When he puts the ball in play, Hill actually has decent batted ball splits that have continued to improve over his career. His line-drive rate of 20 percent would put him just below league average in the MLB. He’s not too pull-happy and has shown the ability to use all fields well, going the other way 29 percent of the time.

Hill found more success in 2019 from driving the ball in the air and posted a fly ball rate of 42 percent, up from 33 percent in 2018. Roger noted a swing change that allowed Hill to launch a career-high 14 home runs. FanGraphs is still relatively optimistic about his raw power, grading it at 50, or average.

We also know that Hill is fast, as evidenced by his 56 stolen bases across the last two seasons. His 70-grade speed helps him make an impact on the bases, though Chris Brown of Tigers Minor League Report noted that his stealing efficiency dropped significantly last year.

Finding an MLB Comparison

It is difficult to find MLB outfielders who spend any significant time in the league that doesn’t walk at a league-average rate, strikeout too much, and aren’t elite fielders at an elite position. There are plenty of players that have one or two glaring weaknesses, but Hill has a collection of issues that aren’t often met with success. Hypothetically, if we tweak Hill’s profile just a bit, there are a few players who he can look to emulate:

Keon Broxton: Broxton spend parts of 3 seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers before bouncing around the league in 2019. He has accumulated 2.7 fWAR in the majors slashing .209/.297/.388. Despite striking out at a ridiculous 39% clip in his career, he has been able to stay relevant with his above-average defense and big power. Hill and Broxton are remarkably similar physically, but Broxton has shown the ability to tap into his raw power, producing an ISO of .179 over his career. He has also shown average discipline at the plate, walking 10 percent of the time.

Jake Marisnick: Marisnick was a highly regarded Marlins prospect before being shipped to Houston in a trade. He’s contributed 6.1 fWAR across 5 seasons with the Astros, relying on solid power numbers and strong defense. He had a career year in 2017, producing a wRC+ of 117, despite striking out 35% of the time and only walking 8%. Marisnick was a key role player on a World Series team, and his career would be a bit of a pipe dream for Hill supporters.

Adam Engel: Some Tigers fans would scoff at the idea of having their own version of Engel. Admittedly, I never feel threatened when he comes up to the plate, but he is a positive fWAR player over his career and his profile is likely the most realistic comparison for Hill. Engel has been underwhelming offensively, but he seemed to find his groove a bit in 2019, producing a .687 OPS. The key comparison here is in the K/BB rates – Engel strikes out 31 percent of the time, while only walking 5 percent, a profile that even Derek Hill can try to one-up. Engel’s true value is in the field, where he boasts above-average defense.

Taking the Next Step

If Derek Hill were to join the Detroit Tigers in 2020, FanGraphs projects an ugly outcome: .204/.257/.302. The fact of the matter is that Derek Hill will almost assuredly never be close to league average with the bat. That being said, I’m not ready to write him off as a potential positive WAR reserve outfielder.

There are two areas where Hill can improve to make this outcome more realistic.

First, he needs to walk more. His hit tool is below average and his bat control has never been a strength, but there is still time to refine his approach. He showed the ability to walk more in the lower minors, albeit often in short spurts. Do I trust the Tigers to facilitate this change? No, not really, but it’s not an impossibility.

Secondly, he needs to translate his 50-grade raw power into more game power. He showed strides in the power department in 2019, and I’m not saying he needs to become a launch angle aficionado, but furthering his improvements from 2019 will go a long way toward making him a usable player.