Hilliard, who turns 28 on Feb. 21, largely struggled on the field while dealing with personal and family hardship in 2021, and finished with a .215/.294/.757 slash line with 87 strikeouts in 238 plate appearances (36.6 percent). But after his July 16 return from a lengthy option to Triple-A Albuquerque, he slashed a more respectable .237/.322/.492 in his final 199 plate appearances. The surge also included 12 of his 14 home runs.
Hilliard has strength in his 6-foot-5 frame, plus top-level speed and ability to play all three offensive positions. But over parts of three seasons he hasn’t built a productive enough track record to dissuade the Rockies from pursuing outfield bats to improve the 2022 lineup. First-year general manager Bill Schmidt spent much of this week at the MLB General Managers Meetings in Carlsbad, Calif., laying the groundwork for acquisitions to make up for the shortcomings of the 2021 roster.
But with his versatility, the distinct possibility the designated hitter in the National League will be included in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the Rockies’ modus operandi of controlling the payroll with a draft-and-develop philosophy, there are routes for Hilliard to secure playing time should he convert his physical tools into run production.
The finish to his 2021 season might have been Hilliard’s breakthrough.
“I don't think I've had this much confidence in my swing at any point in my career,” Hilliard said.
In the season’s final four weeks he unveiled a change in his batting setup -- a less-hunched upper body, lower hands somewhat extended from his chest, front foot touching the chalk of the batter’s box behind him rather than roughly equidistant between the lines. He homered five times and drove in 14 runs in his final 19 games.
“It’s just something that felt athletic,” Hilliard said. “I feel a lot better about the pitch on the inside part of the plate -- on the black. I feel like I have a lot of space to get to it. Sometimes [in the past] I would cut myself off a little bit, kind of step over my body, close myself off to the pitcher.”
The Rockies' current roster is full of examples of how manager Bud Black handles the process of a prospect becoming a Major Leaguer. Ryan McMahon, Brendan Rodgers, Raimel Tapia and Garrett Hampson all have had times when they have lost playing time or they've been optioned if production didn't warrant Major League starts. But when they've made necessary corrections, they've played.
The pattern has continued with Hilliard, who started on Opening Day in 2020 and made the season-opening roster in ’21. Each time, the Rockies optioned him. But from the July 16 recall, Black started Hilliard in 49 of his 61 appearances.
Hilliard fought through not only his poor start, but his father’s end stages of a battle against ALS. He used the time in Albuquerque to clear his mind, but even after he returned, the swing needed work.
Conversations and cage sessions with hitting coach Dave Magadan, assistant hitting coach Jeff Salazar and Major League hitting coach Tim Doherty, and Hilliard’s study of the Giants’ Brandon Crawford and the Athletics’ Matt Olson solidified the changes Hilliard was able to institute in game action at the end.
“This is a physical change Sam has done -- nothing to do mentally,” Black said. “It’s all about what he needed to do with his hitting mechanics. And he changed in the middle of the season, which is very hard to do -- and accept it, accept the results if they went the other way. Because he needed to do this.”
While the final setup change led to more power and production, he still struck out 24 times in his final 69 plate appearances. Hilliard will join Estrellas Orientales for the second half of the Dominican Winter League season to have more game action with his new setup, with a goal of a smooth carryover into Spring Training.
Hilliard’s ability to cover center is attractive, although he could end up in a corner because the ground he has to cover in center could create fatigue on a player his size. If he can extract the most from his swing, the Rockies will figure out the rest.
Hilliard, who still has a Minor League option, will have to earn it. Not only do the Rockies expect to have experienced bats in the daily lineup, but there is a list of prospects -- corner outfielder Ryan Vilade (Rockies No. 5 prospect per MLB Pipeline) and corner infielder Colton Welker (Rockies No. 20), who each debuted in ‘21, and first basemen Elehuris Montero (Rockies No. 4) and Michael Toglia (Rockies No. 6) -- who will be trying to grab playing time at their positions and DH.
“It’s all about the bat with Sam,” Schmidt said.