Sometimes, role players get a chance and run away with it. Sometimes, they get a chance and fall flat on their face. Neither really happened to Sam Hilliard: he made hay when given the opportunity, but then the opportunity dried up, and so did his relevance.
Hilliard was acquired over a year ago, in the first trade of the 2022-2023 offseason. The move sent minor league right-hander Dylan Spain to Colorado in exchange for Hilliard’s services.
What were the expectations?
Hilliard’s acquisition could be seen in two ways; one was what he had done so far in the majors; the other was what the Braves hoped to get out of him.
In terms of what he had done, in 639 PAs spanning four seasons in Colorado, Hilliard had managed just 0.9 fWAR, with a 76 wRC+ and slightly below average aggregate defense, along with some very good baserunning. From this perspective, he looked like a generic, 0-0.5 WAR, fourth or fifth outfielder, the type of guy you throw into the mix in case of injury, but not someone that could justify starting to cover more than a short injury stint from one of your starters.
But, the Braves probably had some other ideas. Hilliard’s xwOBA as a Rockie was never good, but his xwOBACON (his expected damage on contact) was consistently above average, at times approaching elite. In 2022, the year before he was traded, there were some signs that he may have been (albeit not in a holistic way) changing his approach to try to swap power for contact. The Braves, big fans of not doing that, may have thought that getting Hilliard coached up in a way that emphasized his strengths (big damage when he connects) while not fretting about his obvious weakness (really awful contact ability) could have paid dividends.
That’s not to say that the Braves were expecting more than a backup outfielder that didn’t even profile as a strong bench contributor, only that it was a possibility. And, in the end, things didn’t really work out that way.
Hilliard’s season, broken down into chunks, had a lot of variability. He made the roster out of Spring Training, partly because he had no minor league options. After about a week of play, Michael Harris II hit the shelf with a back issue, and Hilliard was thrust into a starting role.
Things went great! Over the span of Harris’ time on the Injured List, Hilliard put together a 138 wRC+ in 59 PAs. Sure, he was outhitting his xwOBA by nearly .050, but a .323 xwOBA while manning center field is about what you can ask from a backup outfielder, and the extra ball-in-play results were just gravy (or something else that is actually positive, becase gravy is gross). He had an insane strikeout rate over 40 percent while filling in as a regular, but when your xwOBACON is .536 in any span, it gets livable.
But then Harris returned, and Hilliard’s playing time was not the only thing that dried up. From May through mid-July, Hilliard got a whopping 18 PAs... in which he collected one hit, didn’t garner a walk, and still struck out over 40 percent of the time. Those 18 PAs were so bad (xwOBA and wOBA each under .100) that they dipped his seasonal line to a 93 wRC+ and .272 xwOBA. Ouch.
Hilliard’s final game of the year was July 18 — it was his second consecutive start, but also the second time he had started a game since late May — and he hurt his heel running out a groundout. He ended up missing the rest of the year with that heel contusion, and ended up being claimed on waivers by the Orioles on November 1. His final tally: 0.0 fWAR in 78 PAs, despite appearing in 40 games. He did apparently make it back to the team to participate in the postseason workouts, but never recorded another official appearance.
What went right?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, what went right is that the Braves probably got Hilliard to do what they wanted him to do. Even though his season was limited to just 78 PAs, he posted the highest single-season average exit velocity of his career to date (92.4 mph), tied his best career hard-hit rate (without the benefit of Coors Field), and again posted an xwOBACON well north of .400 (again, without the benefit of Coors Field). His batted ball profile showed a huge shift towards hitting the ball in the air, which, for a guy with his contact quality — duh.
Oh, and he sometimes used his speed to good effect, like tying the game here in extras:
There was also the time he absolutely demolished an 0-2 hanging curveball, one of two homers he hit in this game:
In the end, what went right was that Hilliard gave the Braves a boost when Harris went down with injury.
What went wrong?
The lack of playing time for Hilliard wasn’t really a thing that went wrong for the Braves, but it was probably a bummer for him. Coupled with the heel injury, his season really got cut off before it ever got going.
Despite the impressive oomph of his batted balls, and his successful-in-a-small-sample focus at getting them in the air, however, Hilliard never really overcame the problems that got him jettisoned from Colorado. Hilliard tried to be more patient, with a career low z-swing that suggested he was really hunting for a pitch he could hit hard, but a combination of low z-swing and abysmal z-contact is just brutal. Combine that with an insanely bad o-contact rate with a below-average but not stellar propensity to chase, and you had Hilliard missing on over 40 percent of his swings.
Among the 512 players with 70+ PAs in 2023, only 18 had a lower o-contact rate than Hilliard, and only five had a lower z-contact rate. Only eight players had a higher whiff rate.
On top of that, Hilliard didn’t really do anything defensively or on the bases that added any value. It’s hard to blame him for this, because again, we’re talking 78 PAs that came largely as a platooned injury fill-in... but in the end, 2023 was largely a waste for Hilliard, and he posted the second-lowest seasonal xwOBA of his five-year career in the process.
Here’s a clip I found funny: Hilliard not missing a pitch off the plate... in the same game where he’d later hit two of his three homers. Go figure.
It remains to be seen whether Hilliard will stick with Baltimore into, or through, Spring Training. Someone else will definitely snatch him up on the waiver wire, though — the tools are just too interesting, even after his 2024. But, that’s all they are at this point: the Braves tinkered with his approach, and didn’t get anything out of him, with the blaring caveat that we’re still talking about 78 PAs here. The contact issues may just be too large to overcome, even in an environment where contact is a secondary concern.
Hilliard is still in that fourth or fifth outfielder group. He’ll need to have an extended run like he did as an injury fill-in in April to move out of it.