GLENDALE, Ariz. – Through the first two weeks of the AFL season, Pittsburgh Pirates outfield prospect Logan Hill sat at the top of the leaderboard in one very interesting category: the hardest tracked batted balls of the AFL.

That leaderboard is a bit misleading. There is only data in two of the six parks, so it’s not recording every hit. In this case, Hill had a double that was 113.5 MPH. He didn’t have a reading on his two home runs from earlier in the season, which may or may not have been harder. And it’s entirely possible that other players have hit unrecorded balls harder than Hill’s 113.5 MPH.

Still, when I saw Hill at the end of last month, I asked if he saw that he had the hardest recorded hit ball in the AFL.

“I didn’t know that,” Hill said. “How hard was it?”

I told him 113-114 MPH.

“Whew! I’ll take it.”

I told him it was the double he hit the week before, and Hill remembered every detail of the at-bat.

“It was a line drive. Not super high, but it was a guy who was throwing really hard,” Hill said. “It was a 1-0 count. He started me with a slider that was a good pitch, down and away ball, so I knew he was probably going to come with something hard after that. So I sold out to fastball, middle-in, got it there, stayed simple, short, compact, and was able to get to the velocity and put the barrel on it.”

That at-bat is almost a microcosm of Hill’s season, and the focus this year on his development. Allow me to break it down.

Staying Simple

Hill talked about staying simple, short and compact with his swing, and the ability to catch up with velocity. That was all possible by an adjustment he made coming into the 2017 season.

“I just simplified everything,” Hill said of his season. “Even when I went to Altoona, I wasn’t feeling great with my swing, but with how simple I made everything, I found a way to where I could go in there and compete every night. The same with coming back from those injuries. Just being simple has led me to be successful here.”

For more specifics, Hill’s hitting coach in Bradenton and in the AFL, Keoni De Renne, broke it down.

“One thing that he did [last] offseason, he actually changed physically,” De Renne said. “He had a big hand pump and kind of a high leg kick. I think he’s toned that down from 2016 to this year. … He’s got smaller, shorter movements, which allows him to see the ball earlier, to be on time a little bit better, create a little more rhythm, but also it allowed him to see the ball, pitch recognition-wise.”

Hill saw a reduction in his strikeout rate this year, and an increase in his walk rate. Both improved as he went up to Altoona later in the season. His power also took a huge jump, and while it dropped a bit in his short time in Altoona, he still showed promise. Further developments are where his approach comes in.

The Cat and Mouse Game

Hill saw that the opposing pitcher started him low and away, and correctly predicted that a fastball was going to come inside right after that. He “sold out” to that, meaning he was swinging for an inside fastball on the next pitch, giving him a big advantage if he guessed correctly.

When talking to both Hill and De Renne, they both mentioned “the cat and mouse game” of pitching. That was a big focus for Hill throughout the season, and continues to be a focus in the AFL.

“The only thing that we really talked to him about more was understanding his approach, what he needs to do when he steps to the plate, what he’s looking for, and then obviously counteract that with how pitchers are throwing and attacking him,” De Renne said. “It’s a cat and mouse game that we can’t stress to these players enough, that’s going to happen until they’re done playing baseball.”

Hill noted that this process was a bit tougher to adjust to in Altoona. He needed to learn to accept his walks — and he saw an increase from 10.2% to 14.6% in his jump to Double-A — while trying to maximize his power output by attacking mistakes. But that’s not as easy as it sounds in Double-A.

“The mistakes get fewer and further in between,” Hill said. “They get better and more consistent, so you have to be ready. Sometimes a mistake is a hanging curveball, so you can’t just be sold out to a mistake fastball. You have to be ready for that pitch when they come. The game where I hit two home runs [in the AFL], I got two hanging breaking balls that they tried to sneak by me. It goes with that approach of just being ready for that pitch in the zone.”

While it seems like this approach would lead to more conservative at-bats, that hasn’t been the case for Hill. He’s still an aggressive hitter, but as De Renne says, he’s eliminating bad pitches down in the zone, and attacking things that are left up in the zone.

“His aggressive mentality is what I really like. He’s just carrying it over, and he’s not going to be passive,” De Renne said.

Returning From an Injury

Hill had his promotion to Altoona cut short when he went down with a broken hand. The return went well, to the point where he could participate in the AFL. That did come after a short rehab.

Hill got his clearance to hit late in the season. He still wasn’t ready to play when the Fall Instructional League started, and began his rehab a week into that league. By the time he was ready for the AFL, he only had 20 at-bats. So when I talked with him at the end of last month, he said that it felt like he was finishing up with Spring Training.

“The experience has been amazing so far,” Hill said of the AFL. “Just competing against these guys, and to really prove that I belong. I felt really good at the plate. I feel strong again. My hand feels good. The way I can describe it right now with the at-bats, I feel like I’m about to break Spring Training and go into the season.”

De Renne said that Hill hasn’t shown any signs of being in pain or tired, and hasn’t voiced any concerns.

“I think he’s in a really good spot,” De Renne said. “He’s a big, physical, strong kid. He’s a confident player as well. I think he likes being here for the fact that he can see who he can compare himself to everyone else. I know he feels that he can play among his peers, and I think that’s a great attribute for him to have, and I think he’s going to keep carrying that over.”

The stats haven’t been great for Hill in the AFL. He does have a few hard hits, including those two home runs in the first game of the year, and a few doubles to follow. He’s still drawing walks, and limiting strikeouts. And you can understand why he’s been inconsistent coming off the injury and a two-month layoff from the game.

The 2018 season will be a big test for Hill. He’s a bat-first corner outfielder as far as his value goes, and will need his big frame and power potential to carry him. He also turns 25 at the end of next May, so he’ll need to move through the upper levels quickly. The 2018 season will give a chance to see if the new simplified swing and learning the cat and mouse game will work for Hill over the long-run in the upper levels. If it does, he could have a similar upside to someone like Jordan Luplow, with a chance for his bat to lead him to a MLB bench role, and maybe being an average starter in the future.

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