Detroit Tigers rookie year in review: Derek Hill

Derek Hill leaps into second base. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)"n
Derek Hill leaps into second base. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)"n /

Derek Hill’s season is over, so he seems like the ideal candidate to kick off our series reviewing the contributions from rookies for the 2021 Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers saw 16 different rookies take the field this year, with contributions ranging from minimal to critical. Derek Hill fits somewhere in the middle, with enough playing time to be part of some key moments, but not quite enough game action to truly affect the season.

So let’s look at who Derek Hill is, what he did for the 2021 Detroit Tigers, and what role he might play in the future.

Who is Derek Hill?

Derek Hill was selected by the Detroit Tigers with the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, and his path to the big leagues has been arduous. Hill was lauded for his speed and defense as an amateur, with a solid offensive profile, as explained in this pre-draft scouting report from MLB Pipeline:

"Derek Hill is one of the fastest players and best defensive players in this year’s high school class. He ran sub-6.4 60-yard-dashes on the showcase circuit this summer, and he glides around center field. He also has a solid arm, stronger than most at his position.An Oregon recruit, Hill has offensive potential as well. With his wheels, bat speed, line-drive swing and mature approach, he should have no trouble hitting for average. He also displays some gap power, with the potential for perhaps more once he adds strength."

Derek Hill’s speed and defense translated to pro ball immediately, but it quickly became clear his bat needed work. Hill stole exactly 100 bases through his first four seasons in the minors, but he also batted just .223 with a total of five home runs.

Complicating matters was a seemingly endless string of injuries that held Hill to just 251 games in those first four years. He made three separate trips to the IL in 2015, and then two more in 2016, including a lengthy stay at the end of the season when he tore a ligament in his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery.

That arm injury kept Hill out of action until late June of 2017, and thus he didn’t really play a full season until 2018, when he hit .239/.307/.318 in 106 games at High-A Lakeland. Hill was Rule 5 eligible that winter, but as a 22-year-old with a poor record of hitting and no experience in the high minors, he was left unprotected by the Detroit Tigers. His chances to reach the majors seemed slim.

But Derek Hill put himself back on the map in 2019 when he hit .243/.311/.394 in 120 games for Double-A Erie. The .705 OPS was far from spectacular, but his speed and defense remained strengths, and he blasted 14 home runs, 5 more than his career total to that point.

The Detroit Tigers added Hill to their 40-man roster that off-season. He spent most of the bizarre 2020 season at Detroit’s alternate training site, but finally made his big-league debut on September 4th. Hill saw just 12 trips to the plate, though, going 1-for-11 with six strikeouts and one walk.

Derek Hill in 2021

Derek Hill’s dalliance with the big leagues convinced him he needed to alter his swing if he wanted to be an MLB player, so he spent the off-season working with famed hitting instructor Doug Latta.

The video below shows four swings-and-misses from Hill. The first two are from 2020, and the second two are from this year. The outcome on the pitches is the same, but it’s easy to see the changes Hill made. Both he and his bat are more upright, and his swing decisions seemed much better this year.

Hill had a solid spring training, and he carried that progress with him to the minors. He made a few appearances for the Tigers in April, and then hit .355/.417/.526 through 21 games with the Toledo Mud Hens in May before being recalled to Detroit.

In his first four games back with the Tigers, Derek Hill went 3-for-11 with two walks and three steals. But in his 5th game he was visited by his old nemesis: injuries. Hill made a terrific catch in deep center field to rob Kyle Seager of a hit and likely prevent the Mariners from scoring, but in the process he smacked into the fence and hurt his shoulder.

Fortunately the injury wasn’t too serious, and Hill was back on the field a few weeks later, though he didn’t return to full-time action in Detroit until mid July.

Hill continued to flash his defensive skills, and he blasted his first big-league home run on August 8th, but just two days later he and Akil Baddoo both hit the injured list after a frightening collision in the outfield.

That resulted in a relatively quick trip to the IL, though, and as soon as Derek Hill returned he went right back to making highlight-reel plays.

He robbed Toronto’s Kevin Smith of extra-bases twice in the span of five days, blasted two more home runs, and laced a walk-off double against the Brewers. But another injury finally put an end to Derek Hill’s rookie campaign.

Derek Hill’s 2021 Stats

Derek Hill’s Future

Derek Hill showed progress this year, but he remains a flawed player. In his final 26 games of the season Hill struck out 28 times without drawing a single walk. And despite ranking as one of the fastest players in the majors, Hill wasn’t very effective as a base stealer, and his defense received mixed grades. Fielding Bible lists him with -7 defensive runs saved, while Baseball Savant gives him +3 outs above average.

The Detroit Tigers head into 2022 with a crowded outfield. Barring a trade, Robbie Grossman is locked into one of the corner spots, while Hill, Akil Baddoo, Daz Cameron, Victor Reyes, and all-world prospect Riley Greene seem poised to battle for the remaining slots. And it’s possible the Tigers will add an outfielder in free agency.

Derek Hill’s speed and defensive promise give him a leg up as a potential bench outfielder, and his .792 OPS against left-handed pitchers could find him in a platoon role opposite Baddoo. But it’s equally likely Hill spends most of the 2022 back in Toledo, with a handful of trips to Detroit whenever an injury arises.

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