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One Big Question: How many innings can Rich Hill provide?

Entering his age-42 season, it’ll be an open question all year.

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Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Rich Hill.

The Question: What role will Rich Hill have in 2022?

I kept this question broad on purpose. It remains to be seen what kind of role Hill will have on the team, and just generally how many innings the veteran will be able to pitch this season.

In the coming year Hill will be entering his third stint with the Red Sox, and he will do so entering his age-42 season. Currently, the Red Sox have Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, and Nick Pivetta as rotation locks. They also have Garrett Whitlock, Tanner Houck, Michael Wacha, and Hill as other potential options. If the team stays healthy through spring training, — a big if every year — I’m not sure where Hill will sit in the pecking order. It’s possible, and gaining likelihood with the lockout, that the Red Sox could open with a six-man rotation. In that case, Hill could pitch for his spot in the rotation. Last season, he averaged just over five innings per start, so he may be paired with a long reliever, like Wacha or possibly one of Whitlock or Houck in a sort of piggyback setup.

The main concerns with Hill are his age and injury history. As far as age goes, you just hope that he will not have a steep decline, which would be quickly apparent during whatever form of spring training that occurs. Even if his fastball sits in the 87-89 mph range, though, he should be just fine.

As far as the injuries go, you just hope he can find a way to keep it together. Last season Rich Hill made 31 starts with the Rays and Mets and managed to pitch 158 13 innings innings, his highest total since back in 2007 and the second-highest total of his 17-year career. In 2020, the southpaw faced elbow and shoulder injuries in a shortened season. The previous season, Hill was placed on the 60-day injured list for a left forearm. In 2018, the veteran was placed on the 10-day injured list twice, once for left hand inflammation and the other time for reoccurring blisters. There really is nothing to predict or fix as far as injuries are concerned, he just has to prepare physically and hope his body holds up for what will almost certainly be a shortened season.

Hill leans heavily on his curveball, which he throws as often as his fastball. He changes the angle of his curveball often to keep hitters off-balance, which has allowed the 42-year-old to continue to produce late into his career. He also just generally does a great job of limiting damage, with his highest batting average against any individual pitch last season at .269, off of his four-seam fastball. His offspeed pitches were all hit at a .224 clip or less. His sinker, meanwhile, had a whiff rate of 47.4 percent, which seems impossible to repeat but is extremely impressive.

Overall, even at his age Hill is still a very polished and reliable pitcher that could account for five to six innings out of the back of the rotation or provide high-end depth in a long reliever/swingman capacity. With a 88 mph fastball, he’s not exactly Whitlock or Houck in terms of a being a potential multi-inning strikeout-heavy reliever, but he can limit hard contact and put the ball in play. Chaim Bloom’s ability to upgrade the defense will be a large factor on Rich Hill’s production, whatever his role may be.

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Mets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

After a relatively healthy 2021, it would interesting to see if Hill could lock down a spot in the rotation and approach 160 innings in back-to-back seasons in his 40s. I would imagine Alex Cora would manage Hill in a similar fashion as Martín Pérez in 2021. Last season, Cora would almost always pull Pérez after facing the order twice, and that logic would also make plenty of sense here with another veteran lefty.

It’s unclear if Bloom acquired Hill to be a projected starter or pitching depth, an area he has frequently talked up as extremely important. Since Hill is far removed from have minor-league options, it would make sense that Hill will have every opportunity to start; he has not been primarily used as a reliever since 2014. That said, he could theoretically slide nicely into a long relief role on a pitching staff loaded with rising talent. If Whitlock and Houck make the rotation, Hill could become an odd man out, along with Wacha. Those two could essentially takeover their younger counterparts’ roles last season, though the young duo left big shoes to fill.

Regardless of his role, you just have to hope that Hill still has plenty of production left in the tank for 2022. There are a few areas that Hill could provide value this season, and he will have plenty of opportunities to provide value for a pitching staff in flux this season.