DENVER – Nobody has a crystal ball, so projecting how young baseball players will eventually turn out can oftentimes feel a bit like throwing darts at an ocean-sized board.
One such Rockies prospect makes the other 29 MLB teams consider what could have been. There is still a chance we all look back one day on the career of Sam Hilliard and wonder how he flew so completely under the radar.
Make no mistake. To some degree, we have seen this movie before with a plethora of toolsy Colorado outfielders over the years. Tim Wheeler comes to mind as a guy with size and speed and awesome numbers in the minors who just didn’t translate to the big leagues. The same caveats that applied to him also apply to Hilliard and really to all players who have yet to take that final step.
At some point, he will have to prove he can consistently catch up to Major League fastballs, handle Major League sliders, wait back on Major League change-ups and curves, and lay off that junk out of the zone.
Or, at least, he will need to be able to do so just enough that the rest of his obvious talent is allowed to shine through.
At 6’5, 238 lbs, with plus speed that allowed him to steal 124 bases in his minor league career and range to eventually transition to playing center field, he has all the physical abilities that can’t be taught. Oh yeah, he also has a cannon for a throwing arm, easily the best in the organization.
The raw power is clearly there, shown by 89 MiLB home runs and the six he has hit in his first 20 games in the Bigs that have been absolutely crushed.
So why wasn’t he drafted until the 15th round? Why has he never been considered a Top 100 prospect?
First and foremost, baseball has always been a skill game and Hilliard was and remains a bit raw in this regard. He strikes out a lot, though that is nowhere near as rare in the modern game of baseball, and until this season he was always a corner defender which made it easy to overlook his speed and power combo on account that neither is necessarily elite though both are well above average.
His defensive skillset always played up but was going to be limited in the corners. While the power is there to mash a ton of homers, one needs to make enough in-game contact for that to matter at all.
Averaging around 20 home runs a season is nice but it doesn’t put you anywhere close to the top of the league, especially these days with spry infielders like Ketel Marte hitting 30+ home runs while playing up-the-middle defense.
In this way, Hilliard has often looked from the outside like he may actually be less than the sum of his parts; however, the opposite has been proven true through the newest twist to his tale.
He has made himself a legitimate candidate to play center field.
And he began this journey in an unusual place as Colorado’s affiliate in Albuquerque features a sloped section out in center the way Houston used to have.
“The very first time I had an opportunity to make a play on the slope,” Hilliard tells BSN, “I tripped and the ball almost hit me in the head and I didn’t catch it. Another thing that with time, you get better at it. I ended up making some cool plays.”
So, there was a little bit of an adjustment period.
“It’s no secret, I felt a little bit…I don’t know if uncomfortable is the right word but I wanted to get a few more games under my belt,” he says of the work he has put in this year. “I’m starting to feel more comfortable out there.”
Comfortable enough, apparently, that the club felt confident putting him in center field for his MLB debut. He let one ball drop deep in the left-field gap out of a miscommunication with Ian Desmond but also made a sensational catch, crashing into the wall to rob an extra base hit.
Normally, the wall gets the better end of that exchange, but with a guy Hilliard’s size? “I think we can call it a draw,” he joked.
“It’s kinda felt natural to me. In my opinion, you get the best reads off the bat in center field, the ball stays more true. But there’s definitely a lot more ground to cover. I just need to keep working on it and getting in the reps. This organization preaches, if you’re out there every outfielder is a center fielder.”
Every day is a battle for self-improvement, he says, even with the tool he carries that ranks atop the organization.
“My arm feels good right now,” he says, “I just gotta work on finding the seams and making more accurate throws, keeping it down and hitting the cut.”
When asked if he was looking for an opportunity to truly let one loose and show the world what he can do with that thing, he fought back a chuckle, smiled and said, “I’m not going to do anything crazy. I’m gonna hit my cutoff man… but I’m gonna hit him hard.”
The Rockies, more than any other team in baseball, need to convert the highest possible percentage of balls in play into outs. They took a big step in the wrong direction at the beginning of 2019 by putting Ian Desmond in center. There was reason to believe this would work, but it didn’t and the team admitted as much when they came out of the All-Star break declaring that it was time for the youth movement to take over the spot.
David Dahl will be the man for the job as long as he is healthy and available, but Hilliard throwing himself into the mix with an incredibly strong defensive showing in his first year at the position gives the Rockies a ton of flexibility.
They can lessen the wear-and-tear on Dahl (or anyone else for that matter) by playing Hilliard or Garrett Hampson at times in center or, if the All-Star truly cements himself there, can maximize their outfield defense because their only other options in the corner will have center-fielder abilities.
We talked to several former MLB outfielders for their initial reports on how Hilliard has handled center field and the consensus is that he has made himself into at least an average defender there. If he can take to the nuances of Coors Field, wherever he ends up, his athleticism will be a major value and he will bring a far scarier bat than Raimel Tapia or Hampson into the mix.
But he also has far less polish than those two players which puts the Rockies in an interesting position.
Either way, Hilliard represents a sudden boost in position player depth for Colorado that almost none of the pundits saw coming, including the top minds in baseball for those other 29 teams.
He has all the things you can’t teach. He could legitimately be one of the few guys in baseball who can challenge for 25+ home runs and 25+ stolen bases while being a commodity on the bases and in the field.
Much like David Dahl did back in 2016, he has shown it in just a few weeks at the highest level of baseball in the word.
“The whole time, I’ve been telling myself it’s the same game,” he tells us. “I don’t know if the surrealness is gonna die down… it’s still pretty awesome. But it’s the same game, I keep telling myself and playing hard and good things are going to happen.”
Good things happening for Hilliard will mean great things happening for the Colorado Rockies.
Let’s be clear, Sam Hilliard hasn’t proven a thing at the MLB level yet. We’ve seen flashes like this before. Anyone can catch lightning in a bottle for a month.
But those who have consistently bet against him have consistently found themselves with less money in their pockets.