Hilliard to refine new approach in winter ball

September 11th, 2021

The last two seasons have been anything but typical for Rockies outfielder -- and those peculiarities will continue into the offseason.

That's because the 27-year-old plans to play winter ball, likely in Mexico, in preparation for the 2022 regular season. It's an unusual move for a big leaguer on the heels of a full season, but Hilliard has made some adjustments on the fly in recent weeks and could benefit from the additional reps.

Hilliard entered Saturday's game against the Phillies hitting .193 with a .704 OPS this season. That said, he recently retooled his approach -- another uncommon move in the middle of the season.

Hilliard didn't necessarily change his swing itself, but he altered some of his pre-swing mechanics. His hands are now much lower as the pitcher comes to the plate, and his foot path toward the ball has changed slightly.

"I'd like to think my path through the zone is the same," Hilliard said. "It's just a different way of getting there and a more efficient way of getting there."

Those alterations have paid off over the last couple days. Hilliard hit a towering 434-foot home run to provide a crucial insurance run in the ninth inning of Thursday's 4-3 win, then added two more hits -- including an RBI single to open the scoring -- in Friday's 11-2 victory.

Though he began the month in an 0-for-13 funk coming into this series, Hilliard had actually shown signs of improvement prior to his big two games in Philadelphia. Albeit an incredibly small sample size, Hilliard has lowered his strikeout rate to 21.7% this month -- down drastically from his 38.7% mark through August.

"I'd like if Sam continues to have pretty good at-bats like he's had the last week or so -- even though he hadn't gotten a ton of hits," manager Bud Black said. "He's doing something new with his swing -- it's a little bit of a new setup -- so we'd like to see how that unfolds, even though that's very difficult to do in-season. But I think that's important to look at."

Hilliard was sent to Triple-A Albuquerque on May 4 after hitting .108 with a .478 OPS through his first 20 games this season. These changes, however, have taken place since his return to the Major League level on July 16 -- something that has to be taken into consideration when evaluating his numbers down the stretch.

"He understands what he needs to do and he's trying to make that adjustment against 95 mph fastballs, big league changeups, big league breaking balls," Black said. "It's paying off here recently, and hopefully, that will continue."

While Hilliard admits it was "definitely difficult" at first, the revamped approach has started to feel more and more comfortable with each game -- hence the decision to continue that work in winter ball.

"This is a throwback winter ball-type commitment from Sam to get more at-bats and get more playing time," Black said. "He's got the raw ability, we all see that. The five tools are all there. Now, we've just got to make more consistent contact, get the ball in play and let his strength help his game."

The recent decrease in strikeouts was the first sign things may be trending in the right direction. Thursday's no-doubt homer was another indication. Friday's multi-hit effort -- a 102.1 mph single and a 107.3 mph double -- only added to the optimism.

"This year has been weird for me. It's been ups and down -- mostly downs, for sure," Hilliard said. "But if you finish strong, that's all that matters now. Hopefully, I finish strong and have some momentum going into the offseason, and build that foundation even further this winter coming in for next year."