SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The home runs off top pitchers and elite speed that 6-foot-5 Rockies outfielder Sam Hilliard displayed late last season in his first Major League action pointed to physical tools. But they revealed mental skills that could lead to big production, quickly.
Hilliard, who turns 26 on Friday, has a chance this Spring Training to earn not just a roster spot but significant playing time. He must continue to show the ability to adjust to situations and pitchers that was on display during his 27-game Major League trial (.273/.356/.649 slash line, seven home runs, four doubles and two triples in 87 plate appearances).
“The thing that stood out for us was the quick adjustments he made -- some game-to-game stuff and even from pitch to pitch, some adjustments to his swing in real time,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “How his hands worked, how he needed to shorten up and be a little quicker at the plate.
“He’s got sort of a leg kick, so the timing could have been an issue. But he showed the ability to adjust on the fly, depending on the pitcher, depending on the situation. A lot of good things that you look for, he did.”
Colorado could be getting a player right as he completes his apprenticeship.
A two-way player at Wichita State and a 15th-round pick in 2015, Hilliard arrived with power potential, provided he could make consistent hard contact. Strikeouts have been an issue, with 150 or more in each of his four full Minor League seasons, topping out at 164 in 559 plate appearances last year at Triple-A Albuquerque.
But at Albuquerque, strikeouts were less a part of his story than the contact he made. He hit .262 with 35 home runs and 101 RBIs. Add to that 29 doubles and seven triples, and it was a year for damage.
Hilliard arrived in the Majors not as an all-or-nothing swinger but as a cerebral battler.
His two homers off the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, a fellow Mansfield, Texas, native, on Sept. 18 came on 1-2 and 3-2 pitches. He figured out a to-that-point dominating Hyun-Jin Ryu and parked a two-run shot off him, then pulled a double off closer Kenley Jansen at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 22. In pregame warmups before his tying, pinch-hit homer off the Brewers’ Josh Hader on Sept. 28, he turned up the pitching machine to Hader speed and quit hitting as soon as he felt he could catch up. In the game, he blasted a 96.6-mph heater the opposite way.
Hilliard struck out 23 times in 87 plate appearances, but the significant damage demonstrated potential.
“We've had a lot of at-bats, and you learn ways to make adjustments in-game. And also the accessibility of film that you have in the big leagues -- if you're unprepared, it's your fault,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard’s preparation is done partly with someone who has been where he hopes to go. Former Rockies All-Star outfielder Brad Hawpe owns Cooperstown Cages in Fort Worth, Texas. Hawpe coaches some youth ball but mostly tends to the business; however, he will do hands-on coaching with a small number of special players.
Many of Hilliard’s strikeouts came while he was experimenting with his leg kick as a timing mechanism. Hawpe, whose own kick was a little lower than Hilliard’s, has helped. But Hilliard’s thought process has made the biggest impression on Hawpe.
“He's young as far as hitting goes, but he's very intelligent, so he can comprehend things and feel things like a Major Leaguer, versus a younger player,” Hawpe said.
Tapia on the run
Through 255 Major League games, outfielder Raimel Tapia is 17-for-22 on stolen-base attempts. But in eight Minor League seasons, he stole 153 bases and was caught 76 times. Now he wants to bring his daring attitude to the highest level.
Last year, his first full year in the Majors, he hit .275 but with 100 strikeouts to 21 walks. He knows if he can reach base more consistently, he’ll have chances to steal.
“I would like to look to steal 30 bases, be quicker and improve that part of the game,” Tapia said in Spanish through a translator.
Taking it slowly
Black acknowledged that infielder Brendan Rodgers, the No. 29 prospect in the sport according to MLB Pipeline, has made progress from the labrum surgery that ended his 2019 season in July. While the Rockies don’t expect Rodgers to have a Major League impact until May, he could get at-bats as a designated hitter during the spring, Black said.