The Post-Sabermetric Value of Aaron Hill

In the modern era, Major League Baseball abhors that which cannot be easily measured or quantified.

The 2015 Kansas City Royals were a perfect example of that. PECOTA said they’d be a losing team. Fangraphs said they’d be a losing team. ESPN, well, you get the picture. Only, something funny happened: the Royals instead rolled to a World Series title, largely on the strength of their dominant bullpen. This year, PECOTA once again thinks the Royals are headed for last place, even as they start the season 5-2. Our understanding of what makes a ballplayer valuable, and a ballclub good, might be orders of magnitude more advanced than it was at the turn of the century–but clearly, to suggest that we’ve “cracked the code” would be just plain wrong.

Aaron Hill provides Brewer fans with another example of how these new-age models can sometimes unfairly exclude a useful ballplayer. The rest of the team’s offseason acquisitions had a theme of bargain-hunting to them, but Hill bucked the trend in one major way–he’s old. As Spring Training wrapped up, he celebrated his 34th birthday. By the time Milwaukee fields a competitive team next, he very well might be out of baseball. Still, he was a bargain that was too good to pass up–not only did the Brewers not have to part with anything extra to get him added to the Jean Segura trade, the Diamondbacks saw Hill as such a leper that they gleefully picked up the tab for over half of his 2016 salary to entice Milwaukee into taking him on.

It’s not Aaron Hill’s fault he’s got so little trade value at this stage of the game. After the infielder posted a career year at age 30, then-Arizona GM Kevin Towers inexplicably inked him to a three-year, $36 million contract extension that kicked in during 2014, Hill’s age-32 season. Hill, to his credit, did the only thing you can do when fate throws that much money in your face–he signed on the dotted line, tried to do his job to the best of his ability, and celebrated financial security. But through that contract extension, Hill became the symbol for everything the Towers regime did wrong. During the first two years of the extension, Hill was worth less than a single win above replacement level. Brewer fans who wanted to compare him to Roger Dorn during spring training had plenty of ammunition to do so.

By pretty much every modern measure of a ballplayer, Hill isn’t very good anymore. He’ll never hit .300 again, he’ll probably never again touch ten home runs in a season, and he inexplicably stopped taking walks in 2014. Despite the small-sample-size caveat his 2016 offensive numbers are, well, offensive: three hits and three walks seven strikeouts in 37 plate appearances so far. Hill doesn’t have an extra-base hit to his name yet. If you’re thinking “bad luck,” well, Hill’s batted ball speed numbers don’t paint a pretty picture, either.

When the Brewers acquired Hill, the fan base automatically assumed that he would be a short-term rental–and understandably so, given his age and the team’s recent M.O. But in light of his slow start, we have to wonder–what contender would possibly have a use for Hill, who just might be past his days of being a replacement level ballplayer?

And if Hill is going to play out his contract in Milwaukee, for a team that isn’t concerned with winning in the short term, is that necessarily a bad thing?

The Kevin Towers Diamondbacks were widely ridiculed for their emphasis on old-school adjectives like “tough,” “scrappy,” and “gritty,” in constructing their roster, and also for pooh-poohing pretty much any statistical measure that wasn’t in wide usage back when manager Kirk Gibson still played. And so, they–and the players they valued–became a narrative stand-in for the antiquated notions of those stuck in the past. With Joe Morgan off the airwaves, somebody had to fill that role. And it is here that the Roger Dorn comparison falls apart, because there was no Arizona Diamondback who personifies “gritty” quite like Aaron Hill.

For most of his career, Hill has been a second baseman. The Blue Jays played him at third 35 times in his rookie year of 2005, and the Diamondbacks slotted him at third 45 times over the past two seasons–but that accounts for just 6% of his defensive innings at the Major League level. Regardless, Hill’s adjustment to the hot corner has been nothing short of impressive.

He made his impression felt right away, in the top of the first inning on Opening Day.

In the grand scheme of things, this stop meant very little. The Giants would, before long, decide that keeping the baseball in the park and keeping the game close was an irritating inconvenience. But that’s the beauty of Aaron Hill. Even when it might not matter, he still feels the need to go full extension and get his uniform a little bit dirty.

Just two days later, Hill closed out the first inning against the Giants yet again–and this play made his Opening Day Web Gem look downright routine:

In the fifth inning, with the Brewers protecting a one-run lead, Hill struck again with his glove. Knowing that pitcher Jeff Samardzija was going to lay down a bunt, Hill charged aggressively–just like they teach you to do all the way back in Little League–and played the ball almost instantaneously off the bat. Samardzija, to his credit, laid down a near-perfect bunt–but Hill’s play wasn’t near-perfect, it was perfect:

Last Monday, against the Cardinals, Hill showed what he can do at the hot corner yet again. Naturally, it was the fourth inning of a 9-0 game–the perfect time to just coast through the game for everybody not named Aaron Hill. Hill succesfully fought off the sun to track a high Stephen Piscotty popup, and managed to snag it despite a strong last-second gust of wind carrying it hard towards the mound. Words really cannot do justice to it: the play as a whole had a difficulty grade of about 15/10. Just a heads up–if you played the infield at a windy field in high school, grab a paper bag to breathe into–this replay will bring back horrible, repressed memories:

If you’re expected to win games, playing a guy like Aaron Hill is a recipe for disaster. When it is the third week of the season, and a one-time slugger has 40 plate appearances and ZERO extra-base hits, the writing is on the wall. Hill has been a below-replacement-level player for the Brewers, and if that changes it’s not going to be by much. Surely, there are more capable players the team could employ in the short-term.

But that’s the key here. The Brewers are NOT expected to win games. They do NOT care about short-term capability, unless that can be rerouted into a favorable deal. What this organization cares about is 2017 and beyond, and that is where Aaron Hill’s true value lies.

With a new front office and the kind of large-scale personnel turnover that the franchise underwent this offseason comes the potential for a complete whitewashing of the team’s culture and collective attitude. Those rookies that the future is tied to will have to learn how to be professional ballplayers from somewhere. Prior to the trade with Arizona, the team didn’t really feature a “role model” kind of veteran like Aaron Hill. His regular presence on the infield ensures that the team’s young blood learns to play the game hard, to not take plays off (even in blowouts), and to make the most of their talents. These are seeds you must sow now in order to maximize your chances of bringing in a title in a few years.

While there is no standard metric to measure “effort,” there is no doubt that it affects the game. For example, Derek Jeter’s famous Division Series flip–the quintessential example of the “hustle play,” was worth .36 wins by itself. It’s an extreme example, but every game features at least a few similar, if less dramatic, moments–where a fielder’s maximum exertion is the difference between a great play and a near-miss. Over 162 games, those moments add up, even if you can’t pick them out easily like you can with an OBP or a K percentage.

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