Before a recent Oakland Athletics’ home game, a longtime scout ambled into the dugout and plopped down on the bench.
“How’s my guy Rich Hill doing?” he asked a team employee.
Hill — the newly minted American League Pitcher of the Month — has quickly become a popular player not just with potential trade-deadline suitors but also with his current peers.
“It’s a great story,” catcher Stephen Vogt said of Hill’s rise from independent ball to the top of Oakland’s rotation. “Rich is a great teammate, great person and great competitor.”
The 36-year-old’s fiery demeanor on the mound belies his calm and measured approach off it.
“I think the competitor is why he’s here,” Vogt explained. “The competitor is the reason why his story is the way it is.”
That story almost ended last summer when the Washington Nationals released Hill from their Triple-A club in the final week of June. Hill spent the next month pitching and working out near his home in Milton, Mass., with an eye toward returning as a starter — even though he hadn’t done so at the big league level since 2009.
“Honestly, it started when I was throwing bullpens back home,” Hill said last winter when asked about his path back to the majors. “I could feel the consistency, I could feel the ball coming out of my hand the way I wanted it to.”
A month after the Nats cut him, Hill landed a gig with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.
“I just remember him being lights-out,” Ducks skipper Kevin Baez said. “[He was] just commanding his pitches and just did outstanding. I mean, I have no other words to put it.”
In two starts for Long Island, Hill didn’t allow a single run while striking out 21 in 11 innings of work. The detour with the Ducks earned Hill a Triple-A deal with the Boston Red Sox, which led to a September cameo at Fenway Park (1.55 ERA in four starts) and ultimately a $6 million contract with Oakland in November.
“It couldn’t happen to a better person,” Baez said. “When he pitched for us, he was outstanding on and off the field.”
Like Vogt, Baez recalls Hill as a relentless worker who was quick to earn the respect of his teammates.
“He comes in, does his work, gets the job done and when he pitches — he’s a fierce competitor on the mound,” Baez said.
The manager added: “He was a great teammate. He was just a guy that the players looked up to. And when he pitched, all eyes were on him.”
All eyes are once again on Hill. Even as he nurses a groin strain that forced him to miss his start on Saturday, the veteran has emerged as one of the most sought-after starting pitchers on the trade block.
In a twist that is all too fitting, it could require more than prospects to pry Hill from Oakland’s grasp.
According to a recent report from ESPN, rival execs think the A’s could make interested clubs take on Billy Butler and his remaining contract as part of a potential deal for Hill.
Butler, who has been reduced to a platoon first baseman, is the top earner on the roster — earning $11.7 million this year and the same amount in 2017. Leveraging their journeyman-turned-ace to dump Butler’s glaringly bad contract would be nothing short of peak A’s for the famously frugal franchise.