Atlanta Braves: Could Sam Hilliard Surprise Braves Fans?

Arizona Diamondbaccks v Colorado Rockies
Arizona Diamondbaccks v Colorado Rockies / Dustin Bradford/GettyImages

I know what you're thinking. What in the Sam Hill(iard)? Why would Sam Hilliard surprise Atlanta Braves fans?

I am not sorry for that opening line.

I am also not sorry for thinking that Sam Hilliard could surprise Braves fans in 2023. Now, I am not saying that Hilliard is going to turn into an All-Star or maybe even a consistent starter in Atlanta. I do think there is plenty of opportunity for Hilliard in a Braves uniform.

This is a guy that could not become a consistent hitter in Coor's Field. Why would leaving a hitter's paradise help a player's career? In 200 plate appearances, he hit .184/.280/.264 with 2 HR, 26 R, 14 RBI, 5 SB with a .251 wOBA & 44 wRC+. How do we turn that around in Atlanta?

To start, the Braves immediately grabbed Sam Hilliard in a trade right after the World Series. Maybe the Rockies were looking to make room on the 40 man roster, but the Braves immediately found room for him on the 40 man. To me, that tells me that the organization sees something they value in Hilliard. The Braves could have tried sneaking Hilliard through waivers and stashing him in Gwinnett. Like they tried doing with Lewin Diaz (unsuccessfully) and Hoy Park (successfully). The organization has a reason, at least currently, to hang on to Sam Hilliard.

It is also important to note that maybe it is for the best that he is getting out of Colorado. I know that is crazy seeing as that no longer means half of his games will be played in Coors. However, the Rockies do not have a great track record of developing prospects in recent years. Even with the friendly hitting conditions, who have the Rockies developed into a solid hitter in recent years? Take away Trevor Story and who else can we name?

The Rockies are also not currently a well ran organization. That is a topic for another discussion though.

Another reason Hilliard could surprise fans in Atlanta is there is plenty of opportunity. As Braves fans, we are blessed that we look to have six of the nine positions locked down for the next several years. Designated Hitter is best when several guys can fill it, so really the question marks are at shortstop and left field. There were questions on whether Vaughn Grissom could turn into a left fielder if the Braves had another answer at shortstop. After an offseason spent with Ron Washington, with glowing reviews, it appears the Braves are going to give Grissom every shot at claiming shortstop.

That leaves left field. Where the incumbents struggled in 2022 and no high profile offseason acquisition was brought in that solidified the spot. That means it looks like a Spring Training battle between Eddie Rosario, Marcell Ozuna, Jordan Luplow, Kevin Pillar, and Sam Hilliard to carve out some sort of role.

As we know, Rosario won over Atlanta with an incredible stretch that saw him not only become a postseason hero but a Braves legend. However, that two month stretch is an outlier in his career. Plus his 2022 was one to forget with a -1.1 fWAR. The eye situation certainly did not help but he never looked right last year. He is probably best served in a platoon role but might be considered the early favorite to get the majority of time in left field in 2023.

Ozuna is the other returning candidate for left field. However, I do not think there is much consideration for him to play much in the field. Looking past the offseason troubles for Ozuna that have plagued the past two years and his struggles at the plate, he really struggles in the field. There just really is no reason for a guy who in limited time had -6 DRS & -3 OAA to be in left. He would need to play really well offensively (some metrics like him) to justify giving him a glove and sending him out to the field. Even then, he is better fit at Designated Hitter.

Finally, the new guys. Luplow comes to the Braves from Arizona after a year that saw him put together a 78 wRC+. He is here to be a lefty killer with a career 125 wRC+ against southpaws, however, he only had an 85 wRC+ against LHP in 2022. He is serviceable defensively and his arm strength graded in the 96th percentile.

Kevin Pillar is another intriguing option, being brought in on a minor league contract with a Spring Training invite. He has struggled in recent years due to injury but brings some upside especially defensively. He may not contribute much offensively, but a healthy Pillar in the outfield with Michael Harris and Ronald Acuna Jr would be a pitcher's delight.

That brings us to the man of the hour (article), Sam Hilliard. There was an article on Fangraphs that came out a few weeks ago about the possibility of Hilliard becoming the Braves starting left fielder.

So what is there to like about Hilliard? Well, to start, he is a physical specimen standing in at 6'5 236 pounds and ranks in the 86th percentile in sprint speed. As mentioned in the Fangraphs article, he also hit a ball 115 mph which was in the 97th percentile for max exit velocity. The potential is there.

Hilliard is also extremely patient at the plate and took a step forward in 2022. HIs O-Swing% was 20.6% lower than the league average of 25.3%. He also walked 11.5% of the time, much higher than the league average of 8.4%.

Now, with a guy that patient who can knock the cover off the ball, why did he struggle at the plate last year? Well, he got shifted quite a bit. However, it was not that he grounded into the shift often, it was the opposite. He tried going the other way and it was a disaster. 402 players hit at least 40 fly balls in 2022, Hilliard ranked 345th in pull rate, meaning he tried to go to opposite field a lot. In theory, that sounds good but when it resulted in a hard contact rate that ranked 209th and a wRC+ on fly balls that ranked 360th, something is not working. For context, the league average on fly balls in 2022 was .222/.217/.646 131 wRC+. Hilliard hit .159/.159/.386 29 wRC+. In 2021, Hilliard hit .313/.313/1.125 254 wRC+ on fly balls. In 2021, he pulled the ball 42.5% of the time, while he only pulled the ball 36.1% in 2022.

Fangraphs summarizes that the Braves should immediately tell Hilliard to stop trying to go the opposite way as much. Pull it and let it fly. He might strike out a good bit, but with a high walk rate and good power, he could be a solid contributor if used correctly. I agree with the article.

Adding to that, Hilliard had a 92.1 average exit velocity, above league average of 88.4. He also has a 48.7% hard hit rate, above league average of 35.8%. He hits the ball really hard! Pull the ball Sam! The Chophouse will be your friend! Also, the new shift rules will help power lefties. Even if Hilliard hits the ball in the ground, he has so much power that he can still potentially hit it past the infielders.

Another factor that could lead to Hilliard surprising Braves fans. He grades phenomenally defensively. At least according to DRS. In 377 innings, he had 11 DRS! Maybe it was an outlier but this is a really athletic guy, it is possible he could cover plenty of ground. He also grades in the 89th percentile in arm strength. Put him next to Michael Harris and Ronald Acuna Jr and it could be difficult for opposing hitters to get a ball to fall.

Even if he regresses defensively, he will be better than Rosario and Ozuna in the field. If he improves with the bat, he might be able to overtake Rosario. At least as the primary left handed platoon option for left field. Which in turn could mean Ozuna loses opportunities as a Designated Hitter if Rosario gets pushed out of left field.

There is no guarantee Sam Hilliard becomes the Braves left fielder. There is not guarantee Hilliard survives Spring Training. If he struggles, the Braves could easily cut bait. However, the Braves were quick to scoop him up. I trust the Braves player development and scouting. Hilliard is an extremely toolsy player and Alex Anthopolous and company might have found something they love about his game. They have done a good job of identifying player's strengths and highlighting them in the past few seasons. Maybe they can do the same with Hilliard.

It was an under the radar move that the Braves made in early November. One that was extremely low risk as they did not give up much to acquire the athletic outfielder. It could end up being a profitable move that could go a long way in helping the Braves chase a sixth straight NL East crown and potentially another World Series. Hilliard may not become a super star, but if he becomes a reliable option in a platoon, it could be a phenomenal pickup by the Braves. One that could suprise, not only Braves fans, but the entire league.