Surgery not yet ruled out, but Tigers' Derek Hill is prepared to keep rolling with punches

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Call it the curse of the Tigers’ center fielder.

It’s not a baseball season in Detroit if the center fielder doesn’t sustain a season-ending injury. Or at least that’s been the trend. JaCoby Jones had his 2019 and 2020 seasons ended prematurely and now the same fate has befallen Derek Hill.

No. 54 Derek Hill, center field — R-R, 6-2, 190. Age in season: 26

Think about it. If Hill didn’t tweak his hamstring last week, he would have opened the season at the club’s center fielder and the Tigers wouldn’t have felt any urgency to make the trade for Meadows. The expectation is Hill could be ready to return in a couple of weeks, which will force a tough roster decision. 

2021: .259 BA, 92 wRC-plus, 0.3 WAR

2022 salary: $700,000

“It’s a long season and this is part of it,” Hill said before the game Tuesday. “When you play a certain way, like me and JJ, things are going to happen. There’s no reason to be frustrated. You play the game hard and things are going to happen. You just have to deal with them as they come.”

Hill’s season ended Saturday night in St. Petersburg, Florida, when he spun and fell hard after crossing the bag at first base. The initial diagnosis is a left knee sprain. Manager AJ Hinch said Monday that tests are still being run and opinions being sought.

“There’s some concern with the meniscus,” Hinch said. “There’s some concern with the bone bruise. But structurally, I don’t think it’s in great shape.”

Surgery, as Hill confirmed, has not been ruled out.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

But if you think he’s sweating it, forget about it. They don’t come more Zen than Derek Hill.

“Not at all,” he said. “I will talk with the team, talk with my team and then go from there.”

By all accounts but his own, this was a breakthrough season for Hill. He made his usual batch of incredible, highlight reel-worthy plays in center field and helped solidify the Tigers’ outfield, but he took his offensive game to a higher level, as well.

He hit .259 with an OPS-plus of 95, even showing some power with three home runs, three doubles and three triples in 150 plate appearances.

“I’ve always been confident at the plate,” Hill said. “It’s just been going my way this time and not the other way. That’s how baseball works. Just in all aspects, defensive, offense, the mental game, the whole nine — it’s been a really fun year.”

If you press him on where he got better, he will begrudgingly say the mental part of the game.

“That’s where I feel I improved most this year,” he said. “I’ve always had physical ability. When I was in the minors I’d go on stretches where I’d be playing just as good, if not better, than I am now. It’s just being able to consistently do that over and over again.

“I feel like this year I was consistently able to do that on a daily basis.”

As far as establishing himself at the big-league level, though, or being locked in for next year, he doesn’t feel like he’s done that.

“I don’t think anyone is ever locked in,” he said. “I’m pleased with some things I did and not pleased with some others. I’m always trying to get better and help the team win as many games as possible. Whatever I need to do, I’m going to do that.”

Told that he was being hard on himself, Hill laughed.

“That’s how I got here,” he said. “Not going to change now.”

Runnin' Robbie

Base running was not in Robbie Grossman’s profile coming into this season. He’d never stolen more than nine bases in a season. But in a year where he’s produced career numbers in hits, runs, triples, home runs, RBIs and walks, his 18 stolen bases in 23 attempts is also a career best.

Did we mention it was his age-32 season? 

“He’s just really smart,” Hinch said. “He’s aggressive enough without being erratic. He watches, he studies, he’s patient, his heart rate is low when he plays the game. It allows him to make really good decisions on when to take opportunities.

“With most people you talk about speed and how they can outrun things. Robbie’s not the fastest, but he’s fast enough and his IQ on the bases is pretty sharp.”

So, what came first? Did Grossman approach Hinch and say base running was part of his game that hasn’t been tapped into yet? Or did Hinch say, we’re going to play an aggressive, pressure-type game and we need you to be part of it?

“Both,” Hinch said. “We established pressure as being a key element of our environment and culture and quest for winning. What comes with that is, you learn about your players. Who can handle the pressure of putting pressure on other teams. Once Robbie picked up on a few things, and we could challenge him a little more, he started to have some success.

“You pour the foundation with a team and how you like to play, and then you apply it to the game with the skills of your players.”

Around the horn

… The Tigers welcomed first-round pick Jackson Jobe, a right-handed pitcher from Oklahoma City, at Comerica Park on Tuesday. “Takes me back to my roots,” said Hinch, who is also from Oklahoma. “He lives not too far from where my mother lives. He’s anxious to get into a game, and rightfully so. That’ll come some time next spring. He’s a super talented kid.”

… Jobe, whose father is professional golfer Brandt Jobe, spent time with pitching coach Chris Fetter and fellow Okie Michael Fulmer.

… Right-hander Joe Jimenez (COVID-19 IL) will be activated before the game Wednesday. The original plan was for Jimenez to make a rehab appearance with Toledo, but weather and logistics made that problematic. Right-hander Drew Carlton was optioned back to Toledo after the game Tuesday.

… Double-A Erie manager Arnie Beyeler has joined coaching staff for the rest of the season.

White Sox at Tigers

First pitch: 1:10 p.m. Wednesday, Comerica Park, Detroit

TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM

Scouting report

RHP Reynaldo Lopez (3-3, 3.00), White Sox: He made 10 starts in Triple-A before getting called back up in July and has toggled between long relief and shorter-inning starts all season. He’s coming off his worst out of the year, tagged for six earned runs and two homers in four innings against the Angels.

RHP Casey Mize (7-8, 3.64), Tigers: Always fun to see how Mize uses his three innings. In back-to-back starts against the Rays, he was 50% sinker-slider the first time, 49% four-seam fastball the second time. This will be his fourth crack at the White Sox, the last coming on July 2 when he was predominantly sinker-slider again.

Twitter: @cmccosky