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Rich Hill is a remarkable baseball weirdo

Rich Hill has been bought and sold, broken and fixed, in and out of the majors. And now he’s starting one of the most important Dodgers games of the last 30 years.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ian Snell, Scott Olsen, and John Maine didn’t pitch in 2016. There’s at least a fair chance that you’ve forgotten about them, and that’s if you’ve even heard of them in the first place. After all, the three have combined to make four appearances since 2010.

Another connection: All three have thrown more career innings than Rich Hill. All three were rookies in 2005, too, just like Hill. To put his remarkable comeback in perspective, just substitute one of their names into an otherwise unremarkable sentence about the Dodgers' starter for Game 3 of the NLCS.

To no one’s surprise, the Dodgers will turn to Ian Snell in Game 3 of the 2016 NLCS.

That sentence makes my brain sound like its timing belt is going out, and yet somehow it’s normal that Hill is an established, rotation-solidifying starter in a crucial postseason game? Play around with the rookie pitchers from Hill’s debut season. Pick a couple who had a few promising moments and disappeared from baseball forever.

To no one’s surprise, the Dodgers will turn to Gustavo Chacin in Game 3 of the 2016 NLCS.

You did not click on this link expecting a Gustavo Chacin reference. But it’s the only way to appreciate just how odd this all is. Please, I beg of you, don’t let your guard down.

Rich Hill is a baseball weirdo. Don’t get used to him.

* * *

Julio Teheran, Sonny Gray, and Danny Duffy did pitch in 2016. All of them are in the mid-20s, and all of them have bright futures. If a team wants to acquire any of the three, they’ll have to offer packages of their best prospects and young players, and that’s if they’re available in trade at all.

All of them have thrown about as many innings in their careers as Rich Hill has, if not far more. Take Gray, for example. He’s made 96 starts in his career, which is about as many as a healthy starting pitcher will make over three full seasons. He’s pitched 608 innings in his career to Hill’s 610.

I don’t know about you, but I still think of Gray as a youngster. His struggles this season suggest growing pains, as if the season is a hurdle he’ll need to clear in his evolution as a major leaguer.

Technically, Sonny Gray is about as much of an MLB veteran as Hill.

So we have another way to put Hill’s remarkable comeback in perspective. Take any of the above pitchers, have them average 23 innings over the next eight seasons. Disappearing for years at a time isn’t just allowed in this scenario; it’s preferred.

When the pitchers come out on the other side, they’ll be just forgotten enough to help their team win a pennant in Buster Posey or Paul Goldschmidt’s retirement season.

Seriously, don’t get used to Rich Hill. He’s the player that baseball is using to normalize itself and make you trust it. Do not trust baseball. Think about how weird this guy is. Sit and think of nothing else for several hours. It’s the only valid way to prepare yourself for a Hill start in the National League Championship Series, possibly with the hopes of his billion-dollar team on the line.

* * *

On second thought, the Sonny Gray comp is a bad one because Gray has already been an All-Star. Pretend instead that it’s Wily Peralta who disappears for eight years, then comes back to start in the NLCS against the best team in baseball.

It’s 2024, and Wily Peralta is trying to get the Mets or Twins or Orioles to the World Series. His unlikely, remarkable baseball story helps you tune out what Curt Schilling just did in the presidential debate.

Wait, come back. I have 38 other ways to put Rich Hill into the proper perspective.

* * *

Hill had a solid year for the first-place Cubs in 2007, throwing 195 innings of above-average baseball. Just over a year later, he was sold to the Orioles. I’ve always wondered how it felt getting traded for money.

From there Hill is released, released again, a free agent, a free agent again, a free agent for a day, a free agent shortly after that, a free agent again, released yet again, sold again, released, a free agent, released, and a free agent again. There are stories like this all over baseball, and you’re right not to pay attention. That doesn’t mean that it’s not stunning to see it all laid out in a single sentence.

Hill pitched in both games of a doubleheader for the Angels in 2014. They were the only two games he pitched for them, and he didn’t retire a single batter. He gave up a single and three walks, and he was released a couple days later.

It wasn’t a story anyone paid attention to. Just like no one wrote 1,000 words last year about how that might have been the last we saw from Tim Stauffer, Eric Stults, or Everett Teaford. Veteran pitchers come and go like that, bringing a wisp of "Oh, yeah, I remember this guy" into a couple of games and vanishing just as quickly. They keep trying to stick because they don’t know what else to do, and it’s not like they can change their mind in 10 years. Might as well try while the calendar is at least a little willing.

Over this stretch, Hill had labrum surgery and Tommy John surgery and stiffness and swelling and strains and problems with his flexor pronator mass. He’s pitched as much in the majors as Sonny Gray because of his poor luck with body roulette, not because he was working on a novel.

In 2015, Hill was pitching in the Nationals’ system, and he walked 21 batters in 21⅔ Triple-A innings. He was released to the only team that would have him, the Long Island Ducks, where he was teammates with Sean Burroughs, Lew Ford, Prentice Redman, J.C. Romero, nine players who had appeared in the majors, and 43 players who hadn’t.

Hill struck out 21 of the 39 batters he faced in the Atlantic League. And that piqued the interest of the Red Sox, who had already signed the Massachusetts native and let him go four previous times.

He was 35. Older than both Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale when they retired.

* * *

The best part about Hill’s comeback isn’t that it happened at all, or that it’s a symbol of just how strange baseball can be. The best part is that it’s the living embodiment of an ad at the bottom of the internet.

Get Your Baseball Career Back With This One Weird Trick

The Boston Globe detailed it in a feature about Brian Bannister:

"We talked about a different perspective of looking at pitching," said Hill. "I remember it clearly. We talked for a good hour, hour and a half the first day.

"It was so refreshing, talking about shaping pitches, shaping the breaking ball. We talked about other pitchers — Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw — specifically about how they can shape their different breaking balls that they throw.

"All of those things took me from four pitches to maybe 12. It was like I had 12 pitches because of changing speeds, changing shapes, changing locations ...

"He gave me the freedom of creativity. That’s the best way I can put it. My creativity went through the roof after these conversations."

Hill took his curveball, and he turned it into several curveballs. If that doesn’t help you visualize what happened, give all of them a different name. This one’s a curveball. That one’s a blingle. That other one’s an Uncle Tupelo. That one’s a forceball. They all have their uses and places, and they’re devastating when Hill mixes and matches with the 90-mph fastball he can still surprise you with.

Hill didn’t come back stronger than ever because he went through a training montage. He didn’t come back with a new delivery. If he’s in the best shape of his life, he’s been pretty quiet about it. He sat down with a respected pitching savant and talked about pitching.

Say, that great pitch you throw. Have you ever thought about throwing it more, and doing more things with it?

One Weird Trick. Which is oversimplifying by a factor of 1,000, but I don’t care. It gives me hope that Barry Zito will come back in two years.

I looked for the last time Hill was in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook, expecting to find a passage that discussed him in fifth-starter terms. Instead, he was described like this:

One Cubs official says Hill may have the best stuff in the organization. The problem is that he has little command of it.

Even with a fastball in the low-90s, at best, he had superlative stuff. And he kept that curveball the whole time, through sickness and in health. He’s starting in the NLCS because he figured out how to do a whole lot more with it.

It’s probably too glib to suggest there’s irony in Hill facing the Cubs, who sold him for cash money. They needed a roster spot, he needed a home, it happens. Don’t duct tape him to a billy goat, set the goat’s tail on fire, and send it careening through the auditorium. That’s just not necessary.

No, focus on the bigger picture. There will be a lot of baseball players who will bounce in and out of your consciousness for as long as you follow the sport, and they’ll all get sucked into the Sarlaac of age, one right after the other. Occasionally, though, one of them will put up a fight. And he’ll fight long and hard enough to make the world pay attention to him, and that’s when you get to point to that guy and remark on just how awesome it is.

That’s Rich Hill. He’s a baseball weirdo, and we should probably get at least a little used to him.