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Sam Hilliard pulled his first home run Wednesday into the right-field stands. He drove the second one into the left-field seats. Good signs, a young hitter hitting with authority to all fields.
Both home runs at Coors Field came off Mets starter Noah Syndergaard, the first landing in the second deck above the Rockies bullpen on a 97.8 mph sinker and the second on a 97.5 mph four-seam fastball. In each case, Hilliard had two strikes, another good sign for a young hitter.
Hilliard, 25, is an intriguing outfield prospect for the Rockies. He has tremendous power. He has size, listed at 6-5 and 238 pounds. He is a good defender, capable of playing all three outfield positions very well. He has speed and knows how to use it, having stole 22 bases in 27 attempts this year at Triple-A Albuquerque.
“He’s got the tools to be impactful,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “Now, it’s going to be up to Sam whether they translate into a big league game over time.”
While there is much to like about Hilliard, there is also one major concern. He strikes out often. And a contributing factor can be the leg kick Hilliard reverted to late in the 2018 season at Double-A Hartford.
Hilliard came into professional baseball with a leg kick when the Rockies drafted him in the 15th round out of Wichita State in 2015 and signed him for $100,000. Hilliard used the leg kick that summer at Rookie level Grand Junction, but in 2016, in his first full professional season at Low Class A Asheville, Marv Foley, the development supervisor with that team, had Hilliard scrap his leg kick.
“I understand why he did it,” Hilliard said. “I was striking out a bunch. My timing was kind of raw. He just wanted to simplify things and make it less complicated and easier. He had my best interest at heart.”
At Hartford last year, Hilliard hit .262 in 121 games with nine homers, 40 RBI and a .716 OPS. He went back to the leg for a very basic reason.
“It’s just something that feels real natural to me,” Hilliard said. “I feel dangerous when I’m using it. Obviously, it can be a little bit tougher to time pitches. But it’s something that you got to time up when you’re on deck. It’s just something that I feel I can unlock my hips and just be an athlete as opposed to (just) putting my foot down. I feel a little bit restricted doing that.”
At Triple-A Albuquerque this year, Hilliard hit .262 in 126 games with 35 home runs, 101 RBI and a .893 OPS. His strikeouts rose from 151 at Hartford to 164 at Albuquerque, although his strikeout rate dipped sightly from 31.2 percent of his plate appearances to 29.6 percent this year.
Hilliard lives in Mansfield, Tex., where one of his friends was on the staff of Cooperstown Cages, a baseball facility in nearby Fort Worth where former Rockies outfielder Brad Hawpe has some involvement. That connection led Hilliard to Cooperstown Cages where he worked with Shawn Morgan, one of the company founders. Hawpe, a left-handed hitter who had a modest leg kick and who hit 99 homers with the Rockies from 2006-2009, the four best seasons of Hawpe’s career, has given Hilliard some valuable pointers about implementing the leg kick.
“One of the things he emphasized in the off-season was staying on my back leg,” Hilliard said. “In turn, that’s going to keep my body still and my head still, because you can’t hit a 96- mile-an-hour fastball if your head’s moving around. That was the thing that kind of clicked for me, and I hit the ground running with that. I felt natural.”
Hilliard hit a home run in his major league debut Aug. 27 and hit his second homer two days later to become the fourth player in franchise history to homer in each of his first two starts. Hilliard was in a 1-for-25 slide when he singled on each of his two at-bats Monday against Mets starter Marcus Stroman – he limited the Rockies to four hits in seven scoreless innings – and followed that up with his first career multi-homer game Wednesday.
Hilliard is hitting .222 (10-for-45) with four homers, seven RBI and an .869 OPS in 18 games (11 starts). He also has 16 strikeouts in 51 plate appearances, a rate of 31.4 percent.
“His overall at-bats are pretty good,” Black said Wednesday after a 7-4 loss to the Mets. “He’s not chasing a lot out of the zone. It looks like he’s seeing the ball (well). …He’s not swinging wildly.
“He’s got power. It showed up again today. Now moving forward, when he faces more big league pitching and gets more comfortable, I know there’s some things that he’s working on that I think will help him against big league pitching. But he’s holding his own.”
Rockies hitting coach Dave Magadan said Hilliard reminds him of Texas slugger Joey Gallo, who made his major league debut in 2015 when Magadan was the Rangers’ hitting coach. Gallo utilized a big leg kick at the outset of his career, Magadan said, but found a comfortable solution between no leg kick and a massive one.
“I think that’s what we need to find for Sam is that happy medium where, yeah, it’s a leg kick,” Magadan said, “but I’m ready to hit any pitch whether it’s 99 (mph) or 79 (mph), and all I really have to do is a barrel the baseball up and it’s going to be a homer.”
Hilliard uses a slightly open stance and occasionally strides into the plate rather than creating some distance between his feet and striding toward the pitcher.
“When it’s a leg kick where you’re crossing over,” Magadan said, “that to me is a big concern because you’re closing off really a part of the strike zone that makes it tough to get inside the ball. You got to try to beat the pitch to the spot, and that makes you susceptible to the back-foot slider, back-foot curveball. You can’t really stay inside the ball to get it in the air, and you end up hitting a lot of topspin line drives or you hit a lot of ground balls to the pull side. And we’ve talked to him about it, to stay more square.”
The left-handed hitting Hilliard will compete for an outfield job when the Rockies gather for spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., next February. All-Stars Charlie Blackmon in right field and David Dahl (whose season was ended by a high right ankle sprain Aug. 2) in center field will hold down those spots. Both hit left-handed as does Raimel Tapia, who will likely split time in left field with right-handed hitting Ian Desmond. Utility man Garrett Hampson, who bats right-handed, has played center field as has right-handed hitting Yonathan Daza. But Hilliard’s package of plus power, speed and defensive ability make for a very unusual and very alluring package.
“He’s got some adjustments to make, and he’ll make them,” Magadan said, “because he’s very athletic and he’s open and he’s coachable. And he wants to be better. To make that transition to finished product and to being a major league player, he’s got to clean up some stuff he knows he needs to clean up. And the sky’s the limit.”