Infield guru Hill not swayed by shift in thinking
Marlins coach remains true to techniques he's taught in bigs since 1992
JUPITER, Fla. -- This may be baseball's digital age, but there are still some jobs that require blunt instruments.
Perry Hill, the Marlins' first-base coach and infield instructor, was performing one of those tasks as his team finished batting practice before a recent Grapefruit League game up Interstate 95 in Viera, Fla., against the Nationals.
Hill had been standing behind a bunch of infielders with numbers in the 80s and 90s, sometimes stepping up to make a quick comment or even a demonstration of the technique he has been teaching in the Major Leagues since 1992. He had a fungo bat in his hand, and at one point he turned and started pounding it against the back lip of the infield dirt. Hill used it like a jackhammer, raising it up and banging it down, over and over. He walked five or six steps and repeated the process, and then he did it on the other side of the second-base bag.
What was Hill doing? If you think of the infield as a stage, he was creating marks -- like a stage manager might with crossed pieces of white tape -- so that the Marlins' second basemen and shortstops know where he wants them to be positioned against the average hitter.
"For years, I've used a little marking system," Hill said. "I just don't believe there's one straight up. There's a right-handed straight up and a left-handed straight up. My big deal is I don't like guys staying in the same place all the time. I ask players, 'Do you hit differently when the count's 0-2 instead of 2-0?' They say yes, and then I ask, 'Why would you stay in the same position?' Straight up right, straight up left, that's the reference point. Every field.
"In Miami, I have some little PVC pipes in the ground so I don't have to do it every day. On the road, I have to mark it off. It's a reference point. ... You want some consistency."
The 61-year-old Hill is a blur of motion during BP. He's either pounding ground balls to infielders or circling around behind and beside them, always teaching the fielding system he developed as a Minor League instructor with the Rangers in the 1980s. Hill calls it the six F's -- feet, field, funnel, footwork, fire, follow.
Hill's No. 1 student this spring is 36-year-old Rafael Furcal, who is being converted from shortstop to second after undergoing Tommy John surgery last March. He believes that, with work, any fielder can become adequate.
"There are some things you can't teach," Hill said. "You can't teach arm strength. But what you can teach is that [you] throw with your feet. You have to make the player's feet work correctly, and that adds to the carry on his arm. Maybe not the strength, but the ball carries [further] if you have good footwork with good mechanics."
If you watch the Marlins' infielders closely, you will see that they almost always have their spikes outside their shoulders when the pitcher starts his motion. It's what Hill drills into them.
"You just have to roll ball after ball after ball, and get guys wide so they can see the ball and the glove at the same time," Hill said. "I always tell them they have to get wide. To be a good hitter, you have to see two things at the same time: You have to see the ball and the bat. To me, to be a consistent fielder, you have to see two things at the same time: You've got to see the ball, you've got to see your glove. The guys who can't see the ball and the glove have narrow bases, their hands are way back here. If the ball does something the last five or six inches, they can't react to it. Those are the balls that hit off here [heel of glove]. They say bad hop. It's not a bad hop, you just didn't see it."
Hill coached in the Major Leagues for the first time in 1992, with the Rangers under Bobby Valentine. He has been with the Tigers, Expos and Pirates, in addition to three stints with the Marlins. Hill lists Jose Vidro and Doug Strange as the infielders who improved the most working with him, and at one point, he had the pleasure of coaching an infield with three Gold Glove winners in Derrek Lee, Mike Lowell and Luis Castillo.
I asked Hill to list the best fielders he's seen in his time in the big leagues and explain what made his favorites special. We quickly circled the infield.
Third base: Nolan Arenado of the Rockies. "He just played phenomenal against us," Hill said of the 2013 rookie. "I think he has good instincts. Great first step to a ball; tremendous first step."
Shortstop: Omar Vizquel and the Nationals' Ian Desmond. "I've got to say Vizquel. He was just amazing, everything you'd want. Mark Belanger, too. He was one of my early models. There are a lot of good ones now," Hill said. "I like [Desmond]. I like our guy [Adeiny Hechavarria], and I like [Andrelton] Simmons. I like [Troy] Tulowitzki. I hate to narrow it down to one. I think [Desmond] is consistent. If you hit him the same ground ball 10 times, he'll do the same thing 10 times. He won't do five different things on the same ground ball. He's very consistent. You hit him the same ball to his right, he'll do the same thing 10 times in a row."
Second base: Castillo. "Good first step," Hill said. "He was quick. He had arm strength, which for a second baseman is a plus. Shoot, he caught everything."
First base: Lee. "There are a bunch of good first basemen," Hill said. "I like Adam LaRoche. I always did. But when we had Derrek Lee, way back when, our guys weren't afraid to make a throw that maybe we wouldn't normally do. We'd take the chance, because we knew that if he didn't catch it, the ball was certainly going to stay in front [of him]."
There's one thing you should know about Hill. In an era of overshifts and computer analysis, he's a dinosaur. Hill studies tendencies the way that Tony La Russa did back with White Sox and A's in the 1980s.
"I go home after the game, take a copy of the game and put it in my computer," he said. "I watch the game again, take my ruler and different colored pens, mark where every ball was, what the count was, what the game situation was. I do it the old-fashioned way."
Hill believes it is still the best way.
"Off the computer, you get charts and balls, [but] you don't know if a guy was trying to get a guy over, you don't know if it was a hit and run, you don't know if it was a soft-tossing lefty or a hard-throwing righty," he said. "You just get a bunch of lines. To me, those things make a big difference."
Unlike the Pirates, Cubs and other teams that will sometimes play their second baseman in right field or their third baseman at second base, the Marlins almost always line up the traditional way.
"Sometimes teams will shift and make the pitcher pitch to the shift," Hill said. "I think the pitcher controls the game and you play defense by the pitcher. There are different theories. That's just the way I look at it. ... [An overshift] forces you to pitch the way you don't want to pitch. It should be the other way around. 'I'm going to throw a fastball in to start the hitter, then finish him away,' and we adjust accordingly. It shouldn't be, 'We're going to play him away so we have to pitch him away.' Ought to be the other way around, in my opinion."
I asked Hill if he feels he's in the minority clinging to the old way.
"I'm sure," he said, laughing. "So far, it seems to work. It's not broke, don't fix it."