Detroit — Double-A can sometimes be a sink-or-swim situation for a baseball prospect.
Fortunately for Derek Hill, he has some experience in the pool.
Hill said his first favorite sport was swimming, racing by other Iowan kids in the butterfly stroke, working on the athleticism that would one day be his livelihood.
“My first sport was baseball, but my mom wanted me to learn how to swim,” said Hill, the 23rd pick in the 2014 draft at 18 years old out of California. “I loved swimming, and it just kind of took off from there.”
He’s done plenty of diving as a Tigers prospect, as Hill’s acrobatics in center field have been eye-catching throughout his career. Hill’s offense hasn’t been there, and he’s been hampered by injuries along the way.
The offense and health have been in sync so far in Erie, as Hill leads the SeaWolves with three home runs and is hitting .333 through 12 games.
“Right now, I’m just trying to keep everything as simple as possible and just stay as loose as possible, and my teammates are really helping with that,” Hill said Friday on a phone call from southern New York. “Just kind of staying in the moment, not time traveling, just enjoying everything that’s going on around you.”
Hill’s pro past included a 2016 Tommy John surgery after injuring his elbow while throwing the ball from the outfield, along with several tough-luck injuries that hampered his development.
“The injuries that I’ve had have been some weird injuries, honestly,” he said. “Like blowing out your arm in outfield, you don’t really hear about that.”
Playing just an average of just over 70 games in his first few years as a pro, Hill got used to agonizing absence.
“To just check on your team every single night and see how they’re doing and knowing you’re not out there and you can’t help them, that’s the thing that really sucks,” Hill said. “It’s not so much going through rehab or anything like that, it’s that you’re not out there with your teammates.”
When he did play last season, Hill hit .239 with four home runs in High-A Lakeland and was promoted to prospect-rich Erie last month out of spring training. Hill entered this season with just nine home runs in 357 games as a pro.
New Tigers minor-league hitting coordinator Jeff Branson said meeting the 23-year-old Hill in Lakeland this spring was like meeting a veteran.
“It’s just the conversations when you have with him, it’s like you’re taking to a man,” said Branson, who was the hitting coach in Pittsburgh the last five years. “It’s not like you’re talking to a scared young kid coming into the game. It’s a grown-up conversations.”
Hill said he was prepared for life as a pro by his father, Orsino, a minor leaguer for more than a decade.
Hill, who is related to former eight-time All-Star Darryl Strawberry and idolized former Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter as a kid, said his singular focus this offseason at the Results training center in Sacramento, Calif., helped contribute to his start.
“I think I was a little bit more mentally mature and knew how to go about my offseason a little bit smarter, and I feel like it’s paid off,” Hill said. “Knew what I needed to do to take care of my body and all that good stuff. It’s definitely slowly paying off, and I’m loving the results so far.”
Branson, a nine-year major leaguer, put Hill’s growth more bluntly.
“The maturation process, you never know when it’s going to hit guys, regardless of what level you’re at,” Branson said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in A-ball, Double-A, or Triple-A: He challenged himself. He was tired of getting his ass handed to him and said now is time for me to do something about it.
“I think that’s where the maturity set in. Enough is enough. Time for me to get my butt in gear.”
Although he gave up competitive swimming in favor of basketball as a youngster, Hill also hits the pool some in the offseason as he did as a youngster in Des Moines, Iowa, before he moved in high school to California for more scouting exposure.
“I don’t know why I chose basketball over it, but swimming was my best sport, by far,” he said. “It just helps relax the body and it's low impact, so your body is not all beat up after. I love it.”
It’s a small sample size, but the formula is paying off at the plate. In a doubleheader Saturday against Binghamton, Hill had a home run in the opener and a triple in the nightcap.
“The talent is there,” Branson said. “It’s just a matter of solving the puzzle.”
In addition to emerging offense, Hill has long provided hope that he could handle spacious Comerica Park’s outfield with a series of highlight-reel catches he’s made throughout the system.
It’s been noticed. And appreciated.
“In the outfield, he gets to every ball,” said Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez, who played with Hill in Class A short-season Connecticut in 2014 and in Low-A West Michigan in 2015. “When he was in West Michigan, that (Fifth Third Ballpark) field is pretty huge.”
While Hill knows his athleticism is his lottery ticket, his bat has to continue producing for his lucky numbers to hit.
“The offense, it comes and goes with anybody,” Hill said. “Now I’m finally maturing into my offensive game, and I know that I can be that player.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.