Focused on subtle adjustments, Hilliard ready to take the next step

March 16th, 2022

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A subtle lowering of 's hands at the plate was the most visible adjustment that led the Rockies center fielder to hit 12 of his 14 home runs last season in his final 199 plate appearances.

Hilliard, 28, is like many Rockies who spent the early portion of their career developing -- painfully at times -- in the Majors. DJ LeMahieu and Trevor Story in the recent past, Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe before them, and Charlie Blackmon on the current squad all worked out early kinks before seeing their hard work pay off with All-Star campaigns.

While the downside of a system dependent on young players blossoming is that a good number of them never really do, the upside is that players like Hilliard always have the chance to make those early struggles worthwhile.

“That’s great for a player in my position,” Hilliard said. “Hopefully, I do get all the opportunities this season. If I do, I’ll capitalize on them. Because for me, it always seems to come down to reps. Whenever I play more, I seem to do a lot better.”

Hilliard has made the Rockies' Opening Day roster the last two years, and started the opener in left field in 2020. Each time, though, he scuffled his way into an option to the Minors, with last season’s being a lengthy one (53 games) at Triple-A Albuquerque.

Yes, Hilliard still has a Minor League option remaining -- but he'd much rather not have to deal with that. In order to avoid another trip to Triple-A, Hilliard must spark an uptick in his career batting average and on-base percentages (.225 and .301, respectively) and cut down on the strikeouts (152 in 439 career plate appearances). Improve those, and his slugging percentage (.492) could reach impressive levels.

“There’s a lot of upside to Sam,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “He is really earnest in trying to make some swing adjustments and some swing decisions. That’s his goal. That’s his challenge. And we all think he can do it -- him, especially.

“He just needs incremental improvement.”

Hilliard could be supplanted by a free-agent signing. The speculated options -- mostly Kris Bryant, but also Kyle Schwarber and Michael Conforto, and possibly even Joc Pederson -- either don’t play center field (Schwarber), have only dabbled at the position (Bryant and Conforto) or haven’t played primarily center field in years (Pederson).

Hilliard must convert the subtle changes into notable production in order to ensure his playing time -- and he's working on it.

Through mindful breathing exercises with mental skills coordinator Doug Chadwick that increased as the season progressed, Hilliard said, he moved “the focus out of my head and into my gut” -- his way of saying he no longer let thought drown out athletic action.

Hilliard has plenty of muscle in his 6-foot-5 frame, although his trim 230-pound Spring Training report weight was not by design. He’s usually closer to 240 this time of year, regularly dropping 10-15 pounds during the season.

“My body feels good after doing all my training in Fort Worth, but when I went to the Dominican [Winter League] I actually got a stomach virus and lost about 20 pounds,” Hilliard said. “I had to hurry and gain a bunch of that weight on, but I’m working with the dieticians and strength coaches.”

While his pitch selection philosophy mirrors time-honored fundamentals, he decided that his propensity to flail at up-and-in pitches was a case of unnecessary wonderment at Major League pitching.

“They're gonna try and throw me in, when they've made that very clear throughout my career in the big leagues,” Hilliard said. “But I used to give those pitchers too much credit. Coming in the big leagues as a young guy, watching these guys on TV for years, you think they're probably a little bit better than they are.

“They're eventually going to miss. If I can be disciplined and stick with that, I know it's going to be good for me.”

Blackmon’s early-career plight may be most analogous to Hilliard’s. Both were pitchers at two-year schools and became primarily outfielders later at major universities. Blackmon struggled through injuries, appearing in just 151 games between 2011-13 before taking the starting center field job in 2014 and overcoming a slow spring to earn his first All-Star selection.

“He’s super young still, super talented, and so explosive -- every rep is an investment into that kid, and he’s a great person and competitive,” Blackmon said of Hilliard.

Hilliard is also well accustomed to being motivated, both on and off the field. Last season, Hilliard struggled as his father, Jim, lost his battle with ALS -- inspiring Sam to focus on finishing the season strong in his memory. Hilliard and his mother have since developed their Team Hilliard Foundation, which will make distributing funds for ALS research and supplies more efficient. A golf tournament and a baseball camp in Denver are planned.

Rested, confident and focused on the path in front of him, Hilliard is ready to fully unlock his baseball energy.

“I’m going to get the opportunity, and I’m ready,” Hilliard said.