You Shouldn't Trust Sam Hilliard, But the Braves Should, Even Once Fully Healthy

Apr 8, 2023; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Braves center fielder Sam Hilliard (14) hits a double
Apr 8, 2023; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Braves center fielder Sam Hilliard (14) hits a double / Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Since Michael Harris II went down with a back injury on April 6, Sam Hilliard has started six of the eight games in CF, and he's been fantastic. On the season, Hilliard has slashed .348/.464/.609, good for an OPS and wRC+ that's better than Ronald Acuña Jr's.

When Michael Harris II returns, the Braves need to find consistent playing time for the 29-year-old. However, this doesn't mean that you should trust him. At least not yet.

Why you shouldn't trust Sam Hilliard

So far into the young season, the OF's outputs have been phenomenal. Half of his hits have gone for extra bases, including this hustle double against the Reds, which showcased his 92nd-percentile sprint speed.

But while it's easy to get excited about a player who the Braves got for a 25-year-old AA reliever, Braves fans would be wise to expect major regression from the lefty. Despite batting .348 and slugging .609, his expected stats are much worse. In fact, he only has a .239 xBA and a .409 xSLG.

Hilliard doesn't have enough batted balls to qualify on Baseball Savant's Expected Stats leaderboard, but if he did, his 0.108 difference between his wOBA and xwOBA would be the 11th highest in the league, in between Phillies' SS Bryson Stott, and our old friend, Adam Duvall (get well soon Duvy).

One reason for the big discrepancy is his sky-high 42.9% strikeout rate. Hilliard doesn't have enough plate appearances to be a qualified hitter, but if he did, this strikeout rate would place him solidly at the highest in the league. In fact, it is 3.6 percentage points higher than the qualified leader's 39.3% clip, owned by Miami Marlins CF Jazz Chisholm Jr.

Additionally, while Hilliard has smoked the ball when has been able to make contact, with a 97.3 MPH average exit velocity that would put him in the 100th percentile for average exit velocity, above teammate Matt Olson and former Braves' legend Joc Pederson, the former Rockie is rocking a .700 BABIP. No one else with 20 or more plate appearances has a BABIP above .600. Last season, the highest BABIP with 250 or more plate appearances was Trayce Thompson at .374.

As incredible as Hilliard's performance has been so far, it is reasonable to expect Hilliard's luck on balls in play to be cut in half. His .239 xBA produces 5.5 hits instead of his current eight hits, so if you were to take away two hits and use his expected slugging, his current slashline turns into a .260/.392/.409, or a much lower (but still good) .801 OPS.

Why the Braves need to continue playing Sam Hilliard, even when Harris returns

Braves fans everywhere have talked ad nauseam about a certain DH/LF who's being paid $64 million throughout the remainder of his contract. We've talked about it here as well.

Whether or not management cuts bait on that player, Snitker needs to continue playing Hilliard once Michael Harris II returns from his injury and takes back over in CF.

While it would be ridiculous to continue to expect MVP-level production from a player who produced -0.6 fWAR and a 44 wRC+ in the most hitter-friendly environment in the majors, his skills are much closer to what he's currently producing than what he put up last year in Colorado.

If he continues to hit the ball like he has been, not only should you expect more homers (after all, his average launch angle is 17.3° and his hard-hit rate is 72.7%), but you should also expect him to have a BABIP that's on the higher side (but, of course, not 70% of balls-in-play high).

But, even more exciting, is that Hilliard doesn't need to hit the ball to get on base. So far into the young season, Hilliard has a 17.9% walk rate, which is the second-highest on the team.

While he hasn't maintained a walk rate this high, he walked at a 11.5% clip with the Rockies last season, and walked 13.3% of the time with the Rockies' AAA team. This plate discipline on display right now is not a new-found skill.

Lastly, the OF has been fantastic with the glove in a small sample size. He's produced 1 OAA in 61 innings in CF, putting him in the 71st percentile in the majors in OAA.

When Harris returns, the Braves should have no problem continuing to give the lefty playing time. If Atlanta moves Hilliard to LF, the team can simply move Rosario to DH if the team wants to continue playing the 2021 NLCS MVP, and can continue playing Kevin Pillar against left-handed pitchers if the team wants to maintain the platoon advantage.

Even when Travis d'Arnaud returns from his concussion, the team has enough flexibility to continue giving d'Arnaud, Murphy, and Rosario consistent plate appearances at DH while still giving Hilliard a few starts a week.

Braves fans shouldn't trust Hilliard to maintain MVP levels of production at the plate, he's demonstrated that he's deserving of playing regularly even when the team is healthy again.