Changes put Tigers ’14 first-rounder Hill on right path

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Derek Hill

Not always, maybe not even often, is baseball in the bushes a happy time.

Road trips on buses that turn hours into days. Games every 24 hours. Food that isn’t always ideal, either in taste or in nutrition.

And failure. Inevitable failure that flows from a game Derek Hill confirms can be cruel, even as he delights in a breakthrough June that suggests the Tigers’ first-round draft pick from 2014 is on a steadier path.

Hill is batting .386 in his last 10 games at Single A West Michigan and .319 in June. On the season, he is at .261, which isn’t exactly spurring thoughts of promotion, but ranks as serious progress for a 20-year-old outfielder with a quiver full of skill.

“He’s definitely being more aggressive at the plate and not missing the fastball,” said Whitecaps manager Andrew Graham, who oversees an outfield stocked with Hill in center, the talented Jose Azocar in right, and hotter-hitting Cam Gibson (.333 in his last 10 games) in left.

“The other day he showed some power (home run and double to right-center), and he’s coming along. His approach is better. It’s early to say much, but he’s been hitting .350 or so, and last month he was .200. So something’s different.”

Hill says it’s a matter of changes made alongside Whitecaps hitting coach Edgar Alfonzo.

“I’ve lowered my hands a little, and I’m loading a little more on my backside,” Hill said Sunday as the Whitecaps got ready for a game in Lansing against the Lugnuts. “There’s a little more separation.”

Tigers minor-league report: Cam Gibson heats up

And, yes, Hill says Graham is “definitely” correct about a difference in a right-handed hitter’s approach.

“I was always behind in the count and always guessing on pitches,” said Hill, who had just wrapped up a high school career at Elk Grove (California) High School when the Tigers took him in the first round, 23rd overall, in 2014. “Now that I’ve changed my mindset, I’m hunting the fastball and getting my pitch and hitting it into the gaps, stretching my legs a bit.”

Those legs. They’re a serious tool. Hill, who is 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, has 19 stolen bases in 52 games. Graham says Hill might be leading the Midwest League in swiped bases had it not been for some time missed in May when Hill was following concussion protocol following a head-on collision with an outfield fence, which is the sort of thing that can happen when you cover ground as rapidly as Hill.

He has his share of highlight video from 2016, which explains why the Tigers aren’t concerned about Hill’s glove, routes to fly balls, or his track-star speed on defense or on the basepaths.

It’s all a matter of the bat. It always is for a position player, particularly an outfielder, with plans for playing in the big leagues.

“He was putting himself in non-hitting counts earlier this season, kind of freezing,” Graham said. “He was taking the first couple of fastballs. But now, even if it’s an outside fastball, he’s taking his swings and getting opposite-field hits.

“He’s finding holes,” Graham acknowledged, explaining why Hill’s batted-balls-in-play average is around .500. “And with his speed, it doesn’t take much of a hole. But the majority of his hits lately have been line drives over the infielders’ heads, and a lot of deep fly balls.”

Hill’s first two full seasons in the Tigers’ system had been something of a dud, at least until recently. And health was his nemesis. He had a quad injury that wiped out half of his 2015 season. Then, this spring, the concussion watch set him back.

Now, the Tigers scouts who insisted Hill’s bat would be a match for his speed and blue-ribbon glove, are at least looking as if they have a case.

“Just consistency – that’s the main thing we’ve got to see,” Graham said. “Can he play a full season without getting hurt and sustain offense like we’ve seen the last month?”

Questions. In baseball, particularly during those minor-league years, questions are a prospect’s constant companion.

Hill hopes he’s at last answering the big query – will he hit? – and that future debate won’t be necessary.