Since the beginning of the 2013 season, one of the most dominant starting pitchers in the Nationals’ minor league system is a player you likely know little about. Taylor Hill, a 6-foot-3, 233-pound sinker-balling right-handed starter at Class AAA Syracuse, has an 8-1 record and a 1.57 ERA over 12 games, the best mark among starters in the International League this season.
The 25-year-old has a stellar 0.924 WHIP, has thrown more innings (74 2/3 innings) than allowed hits (60) and rarely walks opposing hitters (a superb 5.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Last week, his streak of scoreless innings was snapped at 22 2/3 innings. Since 2013, he has a 2.52 ERA over 239 1/3 innings. Where did this guy come from?
Last season, Hill’s strong pitching shot him through the Nationals’ minor league ranks, from Class A Potomac (2.99 ERA) to Class AA Harrisburg (2.71 ERA) to Syracuse. He finished last season with a 2.95 ERA over 164 2/3 innings. How, in the past two seasons, has Hill, a 2011 sixth-round pick from Vanderbilt, risen so quickly through the minors and perhaps pitched himself into prospect status?
Experience, above all else, he believes. In Hill’s first full season in professional baseball, in 2012, he posted a 4.91 ERA across Class A Hagerstown and Potomac. He felt the wear from the college season to the longer professional campaign.
“I think part of it was just trying to figure out how to prepare and throw every four days,” Hill said in telephone interview this week. “I’m not using that as an excuse but as a pitcher, when you talk to other pitchers about it, you have to find your routine and you have to find your recommendations, but it doesn’t work for everyone. I think that was a big part of it. I think towards the end of [the 2012] year I ended up feeling a little bit better, and not to say that I had it figured out because I did not have it figured out. I just think I had a better idea of how to take care of myself and how to get ready for each start in my second full season.”
Hill took off in his second full season, in 2013, and has improved ever since. Since his first season in professional baseball in 2011, his hits per inning have dropped, he has walked fewer batters and further mastered his control. Hill relies mainly on command and an 89-91 mph sinker to mow through lineups. He also throws a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball and change-up, which is a work in progress.
Hill is keenly aware of what his capabilities and does hit best to maximize them. He yearns for weak contact. According to MLBFarm.com, Hill has a 55.3 percent groundball rate. It helps him average 6.2 innings per start. He won a gold glove for his defense last year.
“I’m not a guy who goes out and strikes out nine or 10 a game,” he said. “I’ll strike out three or four or five, and that’s fine with me. I think it allows me to pitch later into games. … I know that I need to go out there and need to get contact. If I strike somebody out, great. If not, get three groundballs in seven pitches instead of striking out three in 20 [pitches]. It gives me another inning. My whole goal is to see the least amount of time on the mound so I can get the offense back out there. It sounds kind of weird but in my mind it makes sense. The least amount of time I’m out there the least runs I’m going to give up.”
Hill credits the pitching coaches in the Nationals’ system — Spin Williams, Chris Michalak, Franklin Bravo and now Paul Menhart at Syracuse — for keeping him consistent. They have helped him tweak mechanics and alert him to slight changes.
Hill’s ascent has also occurred because he has learned to throw inside to left-handed batters. In college and early in the minor leagues, he struggled to do so. With mental and minor mechanical tweaks, he can do so now, and it has helped make him effective. He has held left-handed batters to a .225 average this season.
“I feel like I can do it just about whenever I want,” he said. “Same way to righties. Just being able to go inside, especially late in counts. Which for me is big, because I don’t throw 95, 98 and can’t get away with making a mistake. I have to be able to locate whenever I want. I think that’s a huge part of it.”
Hill has had success against left-handers despite a developing change-up, a pitch from a right-handed pitcher that would help neutralize them more. He has toyed with grips. He pushes himself to build confidence in it and to throw it, not baby it over the plate. He considers it one of his biggest goals for this season.
“When I have a lot of confidence in it, it’s fun to throw,” he said. “Hopefully I can get it more consistent.”
But what lies ahead for Hill? The Nationals have turned to Blake Treinen, who is already on the 40-man roster, when they needed a starter. Taylor Jordan, at Syracuse after struggling in the majors this season, has big league experience. Hill likely trails both, but his development has added more depth to the Nationals’ minor league system. He is, at least, on track for a September call-up to reward his strong season.
Hill, however, worries little about his potential major league future.
“It’s kind of one thing I learned at a younger age and more so in college,” he said. “You have to be able to control what you can control. I can’t control that. That’s obviously my goal but I don’t really worry about that because I can only go out and pitch. I don’t make those decisions. You have to have trust in the guys up there when they’re making those decisions when they think you’re ready, if and when that happens, then you’re going to be ready. Until then, there’s nothing I can do or say other than pitch well that will help me get up there.”