The Fascinating Career of Aaron Hill

Let’s face it, baseball is weird. Basketball and football have their fair share of oddities, but there’s nothing quite like baseball. So-called “can’t miss” prospects never make the major leagues and players at their peak drop out of thin air, while unheralded and seldom noticed bench players turn into stars overnight. For every Brien Taylor and Allen Craig, there’s a J.D. Martinez and Corey Kluber. Guys go from hero to zero and zero to hero every season. It’s one of the best, most interesting parts of the game and truly makes baseball unique. This funny side of baseball is perhaps best exemplified with the glorious and devastating career of Aaron Hill, who has experienced some of the highest of highs and lowest of lows — and is still only 33 years old

As of 2016, Aaron Hill’s career stats are unremarkable. He’s been worth 20.2 WAR as a major leaguer — a fine number by most standards — and his 1393 hits, 151 home runs, and .268 batting average are okay. In a league saturated by so many interesting players, Hill’s just another face in the crowd. But in reality Hill is one of the most fascinating players since debuting in 2005, and not many people realize that.

Hill was drafted 13th overall in the first round of the 2003 draft as a shortstop, though he only ended up starting 61 games at the position in his major league career. Baseball America said Hill had a “Beautiful swing, above-average speed and control of the strike zone. He doesn’t have plus home-run power, but he can hit the occasional longball and line balls into the gaps.” The interesting thing about this report is that nearly all of it was correct at one point in Hill’s career, while also being wildly optimistic and pessimistic at certain times.

What makes Hill so interesting is his series of peaks and valleys as a major leaguer. In 2012, Hill had the finest season in his 11-year career, accruing 5.3 WAR. The 18th best mark among hitters, Hill also had the best batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage of his career; his slash line was .302/.360/.522. When a player has a season like this — a career year — many people say that player managed to “put it all together.” But, Hill didn’t put it all together in 2012. He came close, but never managed to reach his upside in every facet of the game for a single season.

In terms of power, 2012 was among the best showing of his career. He hit the most doubles and triples that year and his 26 home runs were tied for his second highest total. He hit his most home runs in 2009, with a remarkable 36. Those 36 home runs were ninth best in the league — an elite showing by any measure. This performance is surprising for many a player, but it was a downright shock coming from Hill.

That was Hill’s fifth season in the major leagues. In his prior four seasons, Hill hit a total of 28 home runs. In his three years in the minor leagues, Hill combined for 24 home runs. Although 2008 was cut short by an injury, Hill was on pace for just five home runs over the course of the season. With that in mind, obviously his 36 home runs came out of nowhere, and blew people away. It was one of those occurrences that defied common sense. To make it better, Hill had 108 RBI and 103 runs scored. His previous high mark for runs batted in was 78. The most runs he had scored before then was 87.

Hill’s jolt of power was incredible, but so was his outburst of speed in 2011 and 2012. Generally, speed isn’t the kind of thing that players develop. Their speed and, in turn, stolen base totals are highest as a young player, and slowly diminish with age. Hill never really looked like a player with speed. He stole a mere nine bases over three minor league seasons, and followed that performance up with 23 steals over six seasons in the big leagues. The man who averaged under four steals through the 2010 season wasn’t seen as a stolen base threat in the slightest…until he had 21 steals in 2011. That’s not a typo. Apparently that year Hill decided to become a speedster. Hill followed that up with a solid 14 stolen bases in 2012.

It’s easy to get giddy about the kind of player Hill could have been if he had “put it all together.” A player with a .302 batting average, 36 home runs, 21 steals, 103 runs, and 108 RBI’s is MVP material. And this doesn’t even take into account Hill’s defense. He has turned in a number of impressive defensive seasons, most notably in 2006 — when he had 26 DRS and a 14.8 UZR at second base. The former was second best in the league, the latter 11th best.

Alas, Hill isn’t a perennial MVP or All-Star candidate. There’s a reason for that: as shocking as his best seasons are, his worst ones are just as alarming. Hill’s elite power did show up for a bit, but that power has also been nonexistent at times, like in his early seasons and last season, when he hit just six home runs. Hill’s career high for home runs is 36, but his career low is two. This contrast also applies to Hill’s speed. He followed up his 21 and 14 steals in 2011 and 2012, respectively, with just one steal in 2013 and four steals the next season. As quickly as the speed appeared, it went away.

Aaron Hill’s average is just as fleeting; he’s hit as high as .302, but also had the third worst batting average in the MLB in 2010. Hill’s .230 average last season was quite poor as well. We’ll cut him some slack in 2010, though. That season, Hill had arguably the worst luck of all time. That’s right, not only has Hill had a wild rollercoaster of a career, but bad luck has followed him as well. Aaron Hill holds the record for the lowest BABIP of all time: his 2010 mark of .196 is the lowest since the stat began being calculated back to 1913. Since the turn of the century in 2000, the next lowest BABIP sits at .214 from Vernon Wells in 2011. Hill was absolutely brutalized by bad luck: there’s not much you can do when seemingly every ball, hard hit or not, finds the glove of a defender.

Hill’s had an incredible career, in both good ways and bad and it’s not over yet for Hill. Traded to the Brewers this offseason, he now has a starting job in Milwaukee. If the past two years are any indication, Hill might be a boring player. However, anything can happen from the player whose best WAR total is 5.3 and worst is -0.9. Maybe Hill’s speed and power aren’t gone…maybe he shocks the world again. For such a fascinating player, this wouldn’t be an impossible event.

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