'Grind your face off until you get there': Tigers' Derek Hill still relishes the journey

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – Derek Hill looked at the day’s hitting assignments, did a double-take, shook his head, looked again, and then raised his arms in an exaggerated, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me kind of shrug.

This was Monday. First official full-squad workout. First live batting practice session. And Hill, the Tigers’ first-round pick in 2014 competing in his first big-league camp, drew right-hander Nolan Blackwood – he with the wicked sidearm delivery where every pitch to a right-handed hitter looks like it’s coming at the side of your head.

Derek Hill

“Thanks for that,” Hill said with his usual sheepish grin, knowing if that was the worst thing that happened to him that day, he’d be just fine.

That Hill has been in the organization since 2014 and is in his first big-league camp tells you a little something about his journey. It’s been long and it’s been fraught. He’s been on the injured list seven times with an assortment of leg injuries early in his career and then, in August 2016, he had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

For all the promise when the Tigers took him with the 23rd overall pick and paid him $2 million to keep him from enrolling at the University of Oregon, Hill has played more than 100 games in just two seasons (the last two) and hasn’t played above Double-A.

And yet, he just turned 24 and played well enough at Erie last season for the Tigers to put him on the 40-man roster and bring him to camp.

“I was sweating that a little bit,” Hill said of the possibility of the Tigers releasing him this offseason. “But at the same time, you worrying about it isn’t going to change anything. You just control what you can control, and I went out there last year and did everything to the best of my ability.

“Thank God it worked out for me, but if it didn’t, another path would’ve opened up.”

Before you doom Hill to the pile of failed first-round picks, understand that he may be, right now, the best defensive outfielder in the Tigers’ camp. Check out the highlight reel he produced at Erie last season. He also may be the best base stealer in camp – though he’d get a good fight from JaCoby Jones, Niko Goodrum and others.

The bat and the injuries have slowed his ascent through the system but he’s doing his level best not to let that define him.

“Everybody’s journey is different,” Hill said. “You can’t really look to your next door neighbor or anything like that. You keep your blinders on and whenever you get there, you get there. Keep your head down and just grind.

“Grind your face off until you get there.”

Derek Hill

Not for nothing, Torii Hunter spent seven years in the minor leagues before firmly establishing himself in the big leagues. Baseball is hard.

“Obviously, it’s been a long road with the injuries and whatnot,” Hill said. “But I feel like the last couple of years I’ve progressed pretty good. … I’ve probably made more progress in the last two years than I did in the four previous years. But I still have a long way to go.”

Hill has been healthy. He’s grown stronger, more confident. He hit 14 home runs at Erie last year, one more than he hit in his previous five years combined. He’s not fighting the expectations of others as much as he used to, not bearing the weight of the Tigers’ poor draft grades in past years.

He has, in short, matured.

“I feel like it’s just something you have to go through and figure out yourself,” Hill said. “People can tell you how to do it, but unless you go through it, it won’t matter. The injuries and everything I went through helped me grow mentally.

“Coming in I thought I was mature, but not very, very mature. I feel like those injuries helped me grow up. I had to really learn responsibility.”

At 18, 19, 20, if Hill didn’t feel like stretching before a game or practice, he didn’t. If he didn’t feel like doing a drill or taking extra batting practice, he didn’t.

“Before you just showed up and played,” he said. “I didn’t need to stretch or whatever, blah, blah, blah. And then you get a couple of injuries here and there and you aren’t playing every day and it’s like, ‘OK, I need to kind of get my act together.’

“I feel like I really have.”

His mettle was tested severely during his 18 months of rehab following Tommy John surgery. He refused to let himself go dark.

“You can’t just focus on the bad,” he said. “Every single day during rehab, it was like, one day closer. That’s the mindset you’ve got to come in with. If you think about like, man, it’s still 10 months out (from getting back), you can start spiraling.

“But if you keep thinking you are one day closer every single day, then you get through.”

It’s not clear where Hill will start the season. Assuming Jones, Cameron Maybin, Victor Reyes, Christin Stewart and possibly Jorge Bonifacio go north with the Tigers, Hill would be contending with Daz Cameron, Jose Azocar, Travis Demeritte, Troy Stokes Jr., Jacob Robson, Danny Woodrow and Cam Gibson for outfield spots at Triple-A Toledo.

“Where ever they tell me to go, I will just go out and showcase what I have and go have fun with my guys,” he said.

Bottom line, he’s put himself back in the organizational plans and after all these years, all the pain and frustration, he still loves the game.

“I’m getting paid some money to do what I grew up loving,” Hill said. “I know everybody says that, but at the end of the day I get to come and play baseball every single day. And when you take all the major injuries that I’ve had and you have all the time away from the game where you can’t do anything – it puts it in perspective to where you don’t take it for granted.

“It’s really hit home for me. Every day you better come and play like it’s your last, because it might be. You are always one injury away from playing your last game.”

That is wisdom. Hard-earned wisdom.

Twitter @cmccosky