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Hill seizing opportunity: 'I feel like I belong'

@beckjason
September 23, 2020

The expansion of Major League bullpens has resulted in an explosion of specialized roles over the last 30 years. Tigers rookie center fielder Derek Hill can relate. When Detroit took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning Tuesday in Minnesota, Hill entered the game in center field,

The expansion of Major League bullpens has resulted in an explosion of specialized roles over the last 30 years. Tigers rookie center fielder Derek Hill can relate.

When Detroit took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning Tuesday in Minnesota, Hill entered the game in center field, moving Victor Reyes to left. When the Twins tied the game and sent it into extra innings, Jorge Bonifacio pinch-hit for Hill in the 10th as the Tigers tried to rally.

It marked the second time in four days that Hill entered a game for the late innings and left before its end. He was an eighth-inning defensive replacement in center field last Friday, trying to keep the Tigers at a 1-0 deficit against Cleveland, then was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the ninth as Detroit attempted a comeback.

Hill is very much a specialist in his first Major League stint, which explains why he has eight plate appearances in 13 games played. But after spending last season at Double-A Erie, the former first-round Draft pick is happy to learn in the big leagues.

“For me, honestly, just getting the opportunity to come up here, coming from Double-A is outstanding,” Hill said Wednesday. “Yes, I would like to be maybe a little bit more impactful, but they definitely have a plan for what they're using me for, and so far it's worked out -- scored a couple runs, done some pretty good things on the bases.”

Hill making impact as defensive specialist

This is what the Tigers had in mind when they called up the 24-year-old Hill a few weeks ago following JaCoby Jones’ season-ending broken hand.

“I think with Derek, we actually use him the way we thought we were going to use him -- defensively, late in games, winning games, also situations where you can steal a base, where his speed can create havoc,” interim manager Lloyd McClendon said. “We'd like to try to get him a few more at-bats, and hopefully down the stretch we'll do that.”

The role fits Hill’s strengths. Defensively, he can be a standout Major League center fielder, evidenced by the 111 feet he covered to run down a Franmil Reyes drive last weekend, and make it look relatively easy.

“I thought it was going to carry just a little bit more, honestly,” Hill said, “so I really just put my head down and just ran as fast as I could. I was hoping that I got there. When I picked my head up, I was pretty much dang near right underneath it, so it all worked out.”

Offensively, his speed makes him a basestealing threat, but he has a .243 average and .662 OPS over six Minor League seasons. He hit .254 in last year’s Arizona Fall League.

Working counts and making consistent contact is the key.

“I think his bat has been the one thing that's lagged behind a little bit,” McClendon said. “But we have been really, really pleased with the progress that he's made with the bat at this level -- not in games, but in the cage, in BP, in his drill work, his skill work. And you can see the ball starting to come off a lot more explosively off the bat. So we're excited about that, and hopefully he'll continue to get better once he gets to consistent play again.”

Said Hill: “I think it's more refining. The work didn't stop necessarily, but the fine-tweaking kind of stopped a little bit ago and we just narrowed down on one specific path and we're sticking to that.”

Even with the limited at-bats, Hill says his September stint has been a confidence boost.

“I feel like I belong here, honestly,” he said. “Obviously the game is a lot cleaner up here, and I definitely need to clean up a lot of things offensively and defensively. But I know that I can play at this level, and it should be exciting for next year.”

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.