For this Rox prospect, AFL a whole new ballgame

November 12th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Thomas Harding’s Rockies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- In August, right-hander Jaden Hill became one of several Rockies pitching prospects to disappear from the box scores during a summer full of pain and disappointment -- for an organization that couldn’t afford either.

But unlike the large number of pitchers that underwent surgery, Hill was fine by comparison. His solid work over 11 Arizona Fall League appearances for the Salt River Rafters put him on the list of encouraging pitching developments heading into the winter. Hill -- Colorado's No. 29 prospect -- finished with a 3.18 ERA with 13 strikeouts against six hits, four walks and two hit batters.

At High-A Spokane, in his first full and healthy professional season, Hill couldn’t find consistency (0-9, 9.48 ERA in 16 starts) and by August had nagging back and shoulder pain. The organization pulled him out of competition and sent him to the team’s complex in Scottsdale. The routine he developed paid off in the Fall League.

“We strive to have the best statistics, but at the same time it was a learning year for me,” Hill said earlier this fall. “I was able to develop a lot. Running into the trouble that I did this year helped me mature, helped me grow and learn. The numbers could have been better, but I became a better player and a better person.” 

The Rockies chose Hill, who turns 24 on Dec. 22, out of LSU in the second round of the 2021 MLB Draft. Hill underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow that year. Because of the injury and the pandemic of 2020, Hill was limited to 51 collegiate innings over three seasons. After recovering from surgery, he threw 17 2/3 innings at the end of 2022 at the Rookie level and Single-A and was seemingly ready for a full ‘23.

Hill had a strange stat line at Spokane. He managed 57 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings, but coughed up 54 hits and walked 25. It was as if he dominated at times, and couldn’t get outs at others. He missed two July starts with back tightness, and on Aug. 3 he lasted just two batters in a start against Everett with shoulder inflammation.

The Rockies decided to address not just the back or the shoulder, but everything.

“He had taken so long off from ‘T.J.’ that the lower half was inconsistent from outing to outing, and really from pitch to pitch at times,” Rockies coordinator of pitching strategies Flint Wallace said. “He came down here and worked hard at getting that dialed in. Basically, it’s getting his stuff in the zone more often. He was falling behind in counts early, but his stuff is electric.

“His changeup is a ‘plus-plus’ [well above Major League average] pitch. The slider, now that he has cleaned up some stuff, is getting back to where we saw pre-injury and on video when he was at LSU. We also know the fastball velocity is elite at times. And the improved delivery is helping him recover quicker.”

Going into the ‘21 Draft, Hill was projected in the top 10 and in the top handful of pitchers. Despite the injury, he was worth the early second-round selection and a $1.7 million bonus -- in other words, the type of pitcher the Rockies tend to explore all possibilities with as a member of their future rotation.

However, club officials have said they will discuss a shift to the bullpen, which could mean a quicker path to the Majors -- possibly with an important role. 

The Fall League was a tough read. Outings were spaced three or four days apart until the end, when he struck out three and yielded a hit on Tuesday, then threw a clean inning on Thursday. Hill toyed with his slider grip to positive results, and showed more confidence in moving his fastball around the strike zone.

Hill also could be a test case for the effectiveness of a program Wallace and the organization instituted this year. Using ArmCare Technology, pitchers’ strength, fatigue and recovery data were shared with Wallace and the Minor League coaches and officials, and the information was used to lead each pitcher to an individualized routine. 

The Rockies’ addition of “The Lab,” which is being built at the training center in Scottsdale and is due to open in early December, will allow Hill and other Minor and Major League pitchers to work under controlled conditions and record data that can be used to assist in performance and health throughout the season.

For all that, Hill appreciated being pulled out of Minor League action with a month to go in the season. His month-plus in Arizona justified the decision.

“I had two months [out of competition] to reflect and see what I needed to get better at,” Hill said. “I could be frustrated about it, or I could work to go back and somewhat redeem myself by putting to work the things I was working on.”