So, the last few days put the spotlight on the fact that this collection of bullpen arms has been overachieving all season. There are some good arms down there, no doubt, but they don’t throw enough strikes, and given the amount of mid-90s fastballs down there, they don’t miss as many bats as you might think. This isn’t a championship caliber bullpen, unfortunately, and if the M’s are going to make a run this year or next, they’ll need to change a few faces around.
Internally, there are several candidates that could help the relief corps down the road. Everyone knows about Josh Fields and Phillippe Aumont, the organization’s pair of hard throwing first rounders with strikeout stuff, working on their craft in Double-A West Tennessee. However, they have a teammate that you probably don’t know that much about, but could beat them to the majors and might even be more important to the pen.
His name – Nick Hill. A lefty with a good college career, he was the team’s seventh round pick in 2007, though on talent, he should have gone quite a bit higher. Teams passed on him because he attended college at West Point, and as a member of the U.S. Military Academy, teams were unsure of whether he’d be able to obtain the necessary waiver to avoid active duty during wartime to pursue a career in baseball. Eventually, he was able to get the waiver, and he joined the Mariners organization that summer.
He starred for Everett in his pro debut, allowing 2 earned runs in 35 innings while striking out 45 batters. Even as a relief pitcher in the Northwest League, a 0.51 ERA will get you noticed, so the M’s tried him out as a starter in High Desert last year. That didn’t go so well, as he wasn’t able to hold his velocity in the rotation, and his fastball dipped down to 83 at times. Plus, it’s High Desert, so his numbers were pretty mediocre. This year, the M’s shifted him back to the bullpen full time, stuck him in West Tennessee, and have seen him take off.
His fastball is back in the 86-90 range, and while he doesn’t light up radar guns, it has serious sink to it. He’s posting a 56% groundball rate this year, just barely down from his 57% mark he’s put up as a professional. It’s a nasty two-seam fastball that gets a ton of groundballs. His change-up, which was just fringe-average coming out of school, is now a solid offering bordering on a plus pitch, and what he’s done with it this year is remarkable.
Remember, he’s a southpaw with a two-seamer, so he fits the profile of a guy who is going to run a big platoon split and get battered by right-handed hitters. Instead, this is what he’s done against RHBs:
86 batters faced, 19 hits, 1 walk, 22 strikeouts, 54.7% GB%.
That’s the kind of line you expect to see from a side-arming ROOGY. That’s Sean Green with good control. But he’s a lefty, and that’s nothing short of insane. His change-up might just grade out as just a good pitch, but whatever deception he’s getting with his arm action must make it extraordinarily tough on opposite handed hitters. His two-seam fastball and curveball, plus his short-arm delivery, are always going to make him tough on LHBs (career 22% K% against lefties), but his ability to destroy RHBs this year makes him far more interesting. And, he throws strikes, which is a refreshing break from the throw-hard-with-no-command types that populate the team’s bullpen right now.
Hill has always gotten rave reviews for his work ethic and competitiveness, which allowed him to out-pitch his stuff. Well, now that his stuff has gotten back closer to where it was when he was a potential first round pick in college, his pitchability helps even more. The M’s could really use a good left-handed reliever, and Hill has the makings of being an excellent one. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him in Seattle by years end, and if he continues to roll through the minors like he has, I’d bet on him breaking camp with the team next spring.