Even Willie Mays would be stunned by this catch

July 8th, 2020

DETROIT -- The Tigers drafted Derek Hill with their first-round pick in 2014 with dreams of him roaming center field at Comerica Park. Hill, who has been making highlight-reel catches from West Michigan to Erie, has also dreamed of doing the same thing in Detroit.

“Pretty much every day, honestly,” Hill said.

On Wednesday he finally got his chance. He didn’t get the cheers from a home crowd, or any crowd, but he did get the look of exasperation from a hitter, albeit a Tigers teammate. His gravity-defying catch in the Tigers’ intrasquad game was incredible enough to go viral, making him the talk of Summer Camp.

“We'll take it,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We like that. I think everybody liked it except the guy that hit it.”

Actually, even the hitter appreciated it.

“It was awesome,” Jeimer Candelario said. “He's a great center fielder. He can run. He has a really good first step. So good for him, man.”

Candelario was standing on third base, arguing that Hill didn’t hold on to the drive that went deep to straightaway center. But with no umpires to make the call, the coaches ruled Hill barehanded the ball after it popped out of his glove, all while on his back.

“Just barely got it before it hit the ground,” Hill said.

To those who have followed Hill on his way up the Tigers farm system, the catch is no surprise. Hill has been a defensive marvel since his first full pro season at Class A West Michigan in 2015. If anything, Tigers coaches worried he made too many incredible plays, putting his body at risk for injuries that knocked him out of action and slowed his development.

Injuries cost Hill parts of four consecutive seasons, including most of 2017, when he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Last year was Hill’s first without a stint on the injured list. He put up a highlight reel of catches at Double-A Erie, including a running catch on a similar ball over his head at UPMC Park last summer. His diving catch in shallow center field provided a key out in Casey Mize’s no-hitter for the SeaWolves last year.

While Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo earned the bulk of the recognition in Erie last year, they loved the outfield behind them, led by Hill.

“He can really cover ground,” Gardenhire said. “He’s got great instincts out there. He’s got strides. He can glide to the ball. And then you see him like today, where the wind drifted [the ball] back over his head, he’s still very athletic and he can do some things. He’s a gifted athlete out in the outfield for sure.”

More than athleticism, Hill has the gift of reading a ball off the bat and knowing where to go meet it. If anything, his catch on Wednesday was on one of the few balls that turned him around and forced him to change his initial route, as winds from an approaching line of storms picked it up.

“The ball started out on my left side and just kind of faded back over my right side,” Hill said. “I just had to make the adjustment. I didn’t have time to really flip around and pick the ball back up, so I just decided to do it over my shoulder.”

He made that catch with his glove as he tumbled to the ground. The impact knocked out the ball, and his barehand catch recovered it.

“I think it was honestly just one of my better catches,” he said. “I’d never really done the barehand thing, so it’s nice to add that to my repertoire.”

The fact that it came at Comerica Park was a bonus.

“Yeah, it did have a little bit of a symbolic purpose to me,” he said. “Obviously, I’m finally up here. Hopefully, I can go out there and show my talent.”

Hill was expected to open the season at Triple-A Toledo before the coronavirus pandemic suspended Spring Training and, ultimately, the Minor League season. Once the Major League season begins in two weeks, he’s expected to join other Tigers prospects in Toledo to continue his work.

After the shutdown, Hill went home to California, took what he learned in Spring Training and worked on slowing the game in his mind. He believes he has that ability now.

If he can take those lessons with him to the plate and hit, he has a tremendous opportunity. For years the Tigers have valued center fielders with the range and instincts to cover Comerica Park’s expansive gaps, from Curtis Granderson to Austin Jackson to JaCoby Jones. Detroit nearly put Brandon Inge in center before settling him in at third, and tried to trade for Jackie Bradley Jr. years ago before dealing for Anthony Gose instead.

If Hill makes it, he could make plays like Wednesday's with regularity and make Comerica Park look a little smaller.

“It’s definitely living up to its reputation as being the biggest outfield in all of MLB,” Hill said, “but that’s just more chances for great plays, so I’m excited.”