One of the great mysteries of the Detroit Tigers’ organization over the past decade, has been a complete inability to draft and develop outfielders. Apart from brief glimpses from the likes of Andy Dirks, Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch, the Tigers have failed to produce even one average major league outfielder.
So, it went straight to the heart of prospect watchers when the Tigers finally bet big on a young center fielder named Derek Hill with their first round pick in the 2014 draft. Unfortunately for Hill, things have proceeded in fits and starts, punctuated by injuries throughout his professional career. He hit .238 with a .305 on-base percentage in 235 plate appearances at Single-A West Michigan in 2015, and improved to .266/.312/.349 in 415 plate appearances last season.
Hill has two eye-popping pluses in his game: his raw speed and elite defensive ability in the outfield. Both are consistently graded as 60 or better in both current and future value, and frequently warrant double-plus grades. With those tools already well above average, Hill’s path to the major leagues is a comparatively easy one to other prospects. He gets good reads and great jumps in center field with blazing closing speed. As a defender, he is largely considered a mature, polished standout in center field who would play plus defense in the major leagues already.
The speed is obviously a big contributing factor to his defensive abilities, and Hill routinely sets people buzzing with highlight reel plays. But that speed also should play extremely well on the basepaths. Stealing bases in Single-A is a different ballgame compared to the major leagues, but Hill appears to have a knack for finding the right time to steal. He has both the raw acceleration and top speed of a great base thief. Once again, that speed gives Hill somewhat of a cushion offensively that most lack. There are questions about how much he will get on base, but you can be sure he will maximize his value on the basepaths.
Hill’s offensive stats have not impressed so far, but there is some underlying talent in his game at the plate. Coming out of high school, prospect writers like Fangraphs’ Kiley McDaniel were impressed with Hill’s nascent gap-to-gap power.
Hill added some strength this spring and may have lost a step, but but also added some power to his offensive game. I grade hit hit tool as pure hitting ability, but his speed will create infield hits and prop up his stats further.
He has a simple, line-drive, gap-to-gap swing but I think he’ll slowly grow into his raw power as his body develops and into his game power a few years after that.
More recently, Paul Wezner of Tigstown still sounded optimistic notes about Hill’s bat.
For his age, Hill displays a solid approach at the plate, though he gets overeager and will chase out of the zone at times, leading to a bunch of strikeouts. Hill has strength in his swing and the potential for good gap power at his physical peak; assuming his hit tool progresses to the point that he can make consistent enough contact.
The primary issue for Hill (besides health) is his bat. He has demonstrated some mechanical improvements in his swing with pro instruction, and has always had a short, compact swing. However, his slight stature produces too much weak contact for some scouts’ taste. There is some concern Hill won’t develop the bat speed to handle major league pitching. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen graded Hill’s hit tool as a 20 with a ceiling of 40, with little power.
Hill needs to add mass just to compete at the upper levels of the minors with his bat. He repeated Low-A in 2016 and performed better than he did in 2015, though his peripherals went backward. Hill peppers the opposite field with ground balls and line drives and sprints for extra bases. His bat control has improved since high school, and Hill has average bat speed, but his wrists remains relatively punchless through contact and he gives away too many at-bats.
In other words, Hill projects as a well below average hitter.
Initial projections were far more rosy about both Hill’s contact ability and power projection when he was drafted. The stock on both tools has fallen, but its possible that the injuries are entirely the culprit. Currently, Hill looks a bit like a young Dixon Machado, with similar progression as his ceiling as a hitter. Sitting on the sidelines so much has eaten a lot of development time. However, we may have reached a point where it’s leading to an underestimation of Hill’s actual potential.
Scouts were still optimistic about Hill even as recently as last offseason, when Baseball Prospectus was forecasting a major league ETA of 2017 for Hill. Once again, an injury ended Hill’s season prematurely, and will keep him on the shelf for a substantial portion of the 2017 season. Hill has already racked up five stints on the disabled list in three minor league seasons. Ideally, Hill would pick up where he left off. The problem is that the point he left off is pretty close to square one.
Hill still has time to find his footing. If he can get healthy and finally get the consistent reps he needs to improve, there’s still a decent chance he hits enough to ride his glove to at least a utility role in the major leagues. However his physical fragility, combined with the fact that he is right-handed (as opposed to similar speed/glove major league players like Jarrod Dyson or Billy Hamilton) make it a longer road, and Hill is falling behind the pace.
Jacob’s Scouting Report:
Projected Team: Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps
Until the Tigers see Derek Hill stay healthy for a full season, it’s almost pointless to try to forecast his development. However, there is a clear premium on defense building across baseball, and it may raise the floor for players like Hill. A good defensive center fielder only needs to get on base a decent amount to be an overall asset. There’s a long road ahead for Hill to ever reach those modest heights. But because there is such an attainable path to the majors for him, he remains a player well worth rooting for.
(Video courtesy of Will Siskel)