On Monday afternoon, Hill not only became the 14th different pitcher to start a game for the Tigers this season, he delivered a historic gem in his Major League debut. His six innings of two-hit, one-run ball topped Tigers nemesis Zach Plesac, sending Detroit to a 4-1 win to start a doubleheader sweep at Comerica Park.
“To live out this dream, it means the world,” Hill said.
Hill became the first pitcher in Tigers history to toss six or more innings while allowing two hits or fewer in his Major League debut. It was a demonstration of spin and smarts over velocity. While Hill didn’t overpower the Guardians, topping out just shy of 94 mph according to Statcast, he allowed just three balls with exit velocities over 100 mph. He drew just five swings-and-misses, but three were for strikeouts.
The Tigers swept a doubleheader from Cleveland for the second time in as many years, this time with two starters who had never pitched in the Majors until this season and weren’t even at Triple-A when the season began. Alex Faedo, making his 11th Tigers start this year after returning from Tommy John surgery, kept Cleveland contained in Game 2 for three scoreless innings before leaving in a 26-pitch fourth inning with right hip soreness. Tyler Alexander picked him up with 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief in a 5-3 win.
“So many guys we’ve been leaning on, guys that we weren’t necessarily counting on coming out of Spring Training,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “Their ability to come in and hit the ground running and take on a big role for us and pitch well has been awesome. I can’t say enough good things. The composure that our young guys have, I can’t say that I’ve seen it a lot.”
Hill, the Tigers’ 26th-round pick in the 2018 Draft out of San Diego State and their No. 23 prospect, caught evaluators’ attention with 99 strikeouts over 75 2/3 innings last year to go with a 6-1 record and a 2.74 ERA between High-A West Michigan and Double-A Erie. The cancellation of the Rule 5 Draft was a godsend for Detroit, which watched him complete his climb up the system with a 3.23 ERA and 98 strikeouts over 69 2/3 innings between Erie and Triple-A Toledo this season.
Three of Hill’s 15 Minor League starts this season came against Guardians affiliates, including his worst performance with six runs allowed over four innings against Triple-A Columbus on June 3. If any club should have a scouting report on the Tigers rookie, it’s Cleveland.
But Hill turned the tables, outsmarting a high-contact lineup with a studious approach that fit his bespectacled look.
“He handled himself so well,” Barnhart said. “It was extremely impressive to watch him work. He seemed very stoic, and he threw a lot of strikes. It’s no secret [the Guardians] have the highest contact rate in baseball, and when you have a lineup like that, to go in and try to punch a bunch of guys out would probably be the bad way to go about it. He did exactly what we talked about, pitched to contact. He threw all his pitches in the zone for strikes.”
Despite that, Hill held the Guardians to a Josh Naylor solo home run and a Steven Kwan single. The latter would have accounted for a run, but Tucker Barnhart’s lunging swipe tag from a Robbie Grossman throw retired Myles Straw trying to score from second base in the third inning.
Hill’s five-pitch mix kept the Guardians guessing. The only time he became predictable was in his home run to Naylor, who pounced on a third consecutive offspeed pitch and drove it deep to right. Hill retired his final seven batters from there, earning a handshake and gratitude from manager A.J. Hinch.
“That was really fun, watching him go to work and prepare,” Hinch said. “It’s a dream come true for him, and then to go out and methodically work through his day, super composed, very prepared, very smart with how he went about his business, really, really fun to have him stay in there against a heavy contact team and keep us in the game.”
It was a stellar debut for what will be at least a three-start audition from Hill, the latest hurler to rise through Detroit’s system sooner than planned and help an injury-plagued Tigers starting corps. He’ll finish out the first half in the rotation, including a likely rematch with the Guardians next week in Cleveland. The Tigers plan to reassess their rotation from there, potentially regaining Rony García from the injured list.
“That’s the dream is to stay here,” Hill said. “Just work hard, work with [pitching coach Chris Fetter] and keep going.”
The Tigers have already used their most starters in a season since the 1996 team used 16 on the way to a 6.38 ERA. Seven of this year’s 14 were homegrown; three others were acquired as prospects. Just nine games have been started by pitchers over 30. Drew Hutchison will push that into double digits when he starts Tuesday.
The franchise record for starters used is 17 in 1912.
“Starting is definitely all hands on deck right now,” Eric Haase said.