Rich Hill’s persevering journey to stardom

CLEVELAND – Every professional athlete has a different path on his or her rise to fame.

Rich Hill’s story scripts itself in a rather unique manner.

The 37-year-old left-hander is the number two hurler on the Los Angeles Dodgers, featuring a 6-4 record with a 2.76 ERA in 65.1 innings (13 starts) since joining the club via trade on August 1, 2016. His role atop one of the best rotations in the National League is hard to believe given his age and recent tenure in the Independent League.

“His story is so unique,” said manager Terry Francona. “Started as a major league starter with the Cubs. (He) morphed into a reliever with some success, some not. Kind of a bumpy road at times.”

Chicago landed Hill in the fourth round (112th overall pick) of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft out of Michigan, a prestigious school that acted as a pipeline to his first professional contract. Everything was clicking into place for the Boston native as he figured to make a seamless transition to the game’s highest level.

The journey actually shaped out to be somewhat of a rocky venture.

Hill began his major league tenure as a starter, making 70 starts between 2005-2009 as a member of the Cubs and Orioles. His best season came in 2007 – 11-8, 3.92 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, .235 opposing batting average – while his worst season came in 2009 – 3-3, 7.80 ERA, 1.87 WHIP, .296 opposing batting average.

Commence the derailment.

Shortly after his release from Baltimore, Hill attempted to resurrect his career with Francona and the Red Sox during the 2010 and 2011 campaigns. The southpaw’s inability to solidify a consistent role led to his entry in and out of the revolving door between Triple-A and the big leagues.

Tommy John surgery in April of 2012 spelled out disaster and forced Hill to test the waters of free agency just over seven months later.

Fortunately, the Indians were able to provide what seemed to be Hill’s last chance, a minor league contract with a non-roster invite to spring training. The veteran cracked Cleveland’s roster for a brief period in 2013, but his 6.28 ERA in 63 relief appearances prompted another visit to the drawing board.

Hill spent 2014 and 2015 with the Angels and Yankees before inking a deal to play for the Long Island Ducks, one of the finest teams in the Independent League. With 11 perfect innings under his belt on a roster lacking major league affiliation, Hill seemed ready for one last chance if a franchise had the audacity to take a flyer on a player desperate to prove his value on the mound.

“(It) goes all the way back to Independent League as a starter,” Francona said. “Makes a handful of starts with the Red Sox and they’re dominant.”

The highly anticipated return at the tail end of the 2015 season was not only Hill’s second stint with Boston, but it marked his most impressive performance to date, finishing with a 1.55 ERA, 0.66 WHIP, 4.3 hits per nine innings and 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 29 innings (four starts), all of which marked career-highs.

Independent ball somehow lifted Hill’s career out of a ditch in miraculous fashion.

“Every start was like 13-14 strikeouts,” said Francona. “Other than getting a blister from time to time, he has been one of the most dominant starters in the game.”

Fast-forward to the present and Hill now finds himself slotted behind Clayton Kershaw on arguably the top team in baseball. Francona will always value his time managing the lanky lefty.

“I had Rich a couple times, Boston and here,” Francona said. “He has the ability – as he’s shown – to be actually one of the more dominant pitchers in the game.”

“I don’t want him to beat us, but it’s easy to pull for him.”

John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.

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