LAKELAND, Fla. -- The wind gusting in from left field didn’t allow Derek Hill a chance for any acrobatic catches, the kind of play that was a regularity for him at Double-A Erie in 2019. Still, for the center fielder who was a human highlight reel, simply taking the field in a Tigers uniform was a highlight in itself.
Asked before Detroit 's 5-4 win over Southeastern University in Friday's exhibition contest how long he’d been waiting for this moment, Hill smiled.
“Since the day I was drafted,” he said.
That was in 2014. Hill was the Tigers’ top pick that year, the 23rd overall selection in the MLB Draft. Twenty-five of the 41 first- and sandwich-round selections in that Draft have made their Major League debuts. Hill just landed on the 40-man roster after spending last season at Erie.
Hill has had a scenic route, but far from pleasant. Injuries cost him parts of four consecutive seasons, including most of 2017 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. The '19 season was Hill’s first without a stint on the injured list.
All the injuries cost him developmental time. They haven’t cost him his love for the game.
“On the mental side, I’d probably say, has been the biggest growth,” Hill said. “Obviously, my body’s changed a little bit, but more mental, just being able to get through the ups and the downs of the season a lot cleaner, and staying out of those valleys for extended periods of time, unlike previous years.”
If the evaluation was solely on defense, Hill would be Major League ready right now. While Erie’s star-studded pitching staff earned its prospect rankings, Hill was the centerpiece of an outfield trio that ran down nearly everything in the air that stayed in the park. He also brought back a few balls that were headed out.
“Anything in the outfield, I just have extreme confidence in myself to be able to make any play,” Hill said. “If it goes up, I want to go get it and help my pitchers out and save them runs, and make them money.”
In Casey Mize’s case, Hill helped make history. His diving catch -- stretching out in mid-air for a fly ball in shallow center -- earned Mize a key out in his no-hitter last April.
It’s the kind of catch, ironically, that has helped slow Hill’s career, landing him on the injured list. If there’s a bright side to the time out, it’s the chance to strengthen his body.
“Playing every single day and playing the way that I do, you definitely have to have your body built up,” he said. “And in the early stages of my career, I definitely did feel the impacts a little bit more than now. I’d wake up in the morning and be like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t feel right,’ but I’d go out there and do it again.”
By staying healthy, Hill stayed in the lineup and picked up the regular at-bats to work on his swing. Though he hit .243 with a .705 OPS, his 2019 work added some extra-base punch, including 14 home runs. He was more selective on pitches as the season wore on; 26 of his 38 walks came in the final two-plus months of the season.
After batting .254 (15-for-59) with four doubles, three homers and six RBIs in the Arizona Fall League, Hill worked with a hitting instructor back home in Sacramento. He walked and struck out in Friday’s exhibition game against Southeastern University.
When the Tigers drafted Hill, he was compared to Torii Hunter, an outfielder with Detroit at the time and a friend to Hill today. Hunter played parts of seven Minor League seasons, mainly due to a slow-developing offensive game, before sticking in the big leagues for an 18-year career. It’s a lesson in patience the Tigers are heeding with Hill.
“I feel really confident about what we’ve put together,” he said. “Hopefully we can go out there and have a good season.”