Thrown for a curve (cont.)
Posted: Monday May 7, 2007 2:15PM; Updated: Monday May 7, 2007 3:00PM
The curve that batters have seen late in 2006, and early this season, is not the same pitch Hill was throwing at Michigan or in his initial stint with the Cubs. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild explained that the club worked with Hill on "tightening up" his breaking ball and adjusting his release point. "He's been able to spin the ball most of his life," Rothschild said, "but we just took some of the loop out of his curve and made sure it came out in the same spot his fastball did."
Hill's old curve remains part of his arsenal; he uses it occasionally, like a changeup, to mix speeds and planes within his breaking pitches, or to sneak in a strike on a 0-0 count. But he knows the newer, nastier curve -- thrown at about 73-75 miles per hour, 3-5 mph faster than the original one -- has been a key to his breakout season. "To make hitters see something coming out of your hand that looks more like a fastball and breaks late, as opposed to a big, loopy breaking pitch, that's helped me a lot," he said.
Much of Hill's deception comes from his exaggerated pitching motion, which Barrett described, appropriately, as "funky." Everything is normal at the beginning, as Hill has a good, but not huge, leg kick and stays balanced over the back of the rubber. Once his hands split, the mechanics become distinct, almost Andy Pettitte-esque: Hill's bent front arm rises up so that his elbow points to the sky at a 45-degree angle, while his glove hangs down off of his hand. Simultaneously, he rears back with his throwing arm, loading up force to create an over-the-top, downhill delivery in which the ball is revealed to the hitter much later than it is by the majority of MLB pitchers.
While the Cubs bumbled through the early weeks of 2007, struggling to a 7-13 start with Piniella and a payroll of about $110 million, Hill was one of the team's few hot starters. He threw seven innings of one-hit, one-run ball for his first win on April 6 against Milwaukee, and then didn't allow a run in each of his next two outings, wins over Cincinnati and Atlanta. He came back down to earth, dropping his next two starts, but maintained his end-of-April ERA at 1.77 and rebounded to beat Washington on Sunday for his fourth victory.
For a pitcher who was 0-4 at this time in 2006, Hill, one would expect, would be as pleasantly surprised as Cubs fans are about his spring surge. Yet the less-obvious component of his success -- his dedication to sports psychology books such as Taosports' tome Thinking Body, Dancing Mind and Harvey Dorfman's The Mental ABCs of Pitching -- preclude him from expecting anything else.
"Maybe a few years ago, I would have thought, this isn't supposed to be happening," said Hill. "But now, with a positive mindset and a positive thought process, you have to think that, this is the way it should be happening."
Hill was first given the books in the winter of 2004, when he was training in Massachusetts with Craig McLaughlin, a coach at prep school Buckingham Browne & Nichols, and Matt Hyde, a scout for the Yankees. Hill devoured them then, but it still took him the better part of three seasons -- multiple call-ups, the verbal sparring with the Sox, and an agonizingly long wait to get his first W as a big-leaguer -- to put the whole package together. "The more you control your behavior, the better off you are," Hill said. "How you behave on the mound usually dictates how you think, and that translates into everything else."
It translated into a stellar start, and in due time, the Cubs as a whole caught fire, winning five straight and eight of their past nine games to pull over .500 for the first time all season. If they are to catch up with red-hot, 21-10 Milwaukee in the NL Central without the aid of masterful performances from Zambrano, Chicago will need to keep getting help from Hill at the other end of the rotation. For that he'll need to remain, as he has been lately, in control -- of mind, body and curveball.