Last November, the Colorado Rockies decided Sam Hilliard was worth protecting.
With 16 home runs and 47 RBIs already before June in his Triple-A debut with the Albuquerque Isotopes this season, the 25-year-old outfielder hasn’t made them regret the decision for a second since the Major League club placed him on the 40-man roster in November to protect him from Rule 5 Draft consideration.
And while he’s never in his professional career put up power numbers like he is now for the Isotopes, who lost 12-5 on Monday at home to the Sacramento River Cats, it seems the Rockies knew what they were doing. His surge comes as no surprise to him or his manager, Glenallen Hill.
“He hasn’t done that before in the past, but he’s a five-tool guy,” said Hill, when asked Monday about the statistical difference Hilliard has had this season compared to his past four professional seasons.
“This year, he seems to be putting together some consistency and learning how to shrink the strike zone.”
It seems he’s managed to find a way to shrink some of the Pacific Coast League ballparks he’s been feasting on, as well.
Hilliard launched his 16th home run in Monday’s ‘Topes loss, the team’s third in a row and seventh in the past eight games. He’s tied for third in the PCL for home runs and has more than doubled his previous season high through May 27 in that category.
Through the same date in 2018, Hilliard had four home runs for Double-A Hartford and finished with 21. In 2017, it was seven through May 27 and 21 for the season. In 2016, it was four by May 27 and 17 for the season.
So, 16 through May 27 has to be at least a little surprising for him, doesn’t it?
“No, not really,” Hilliard said. “I always knew that I had a swing with some power. It’s just a matter of me making the decision to stick to my approach and not trying to do too much. Whenever I do those things, good things tend to happen.”
Hilliard, who at just 25 years old is already in his fifth professional season, says there are some youthful tendencies that were hard to get rid of in the past that he feels he and the Isotopes staff have helped him to control.
Namely, quit giving up on an approach to hitting after a short slump. Give it time.
“It’s an immature thing to do to not stick to your approach,” Hilliard said. “Earlier in my career, I would struggle with that all the time.”
Hill says sometimes the only way to realize that is through time and experience. And when a player gets to the point of trusting the process and repeating it every day, the results start to show up every day.
“Consistency,” Hill said. “You never stop learning how to make adjustments and fine-tuning those adjustments, and really appropriately analyzing your experiences is where players tend to make the biggest jumps when they get here. But consistency is the big step.”
Hilliard, a native of Texas where his mom was the 1984 Miss Texas and dad played football at the University of Texas, was drafted in the 31st round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of Crowder College in Neosho, Mo. He went the following season instead to Wichita State, where he was then drafted in 2015 in the 15th round by the Rockies.
Though the calendar hasn’t yet even reached June, Hilliard is already enjoying a great season for power numbers, though his season average (.245) is down compared to his career number (.278, including hitting .300 with his season-high 21 home runs in his 2017 season at High-A Lancaster).
But none of those past numbers matter to him now. And, while he’s happy with what he’s done so far with the Isotopes this season, Hilliard isn’t about to try and get caught up in the numbers and let those distract him from the steady progression toward the big leagues that got him to this point in the organization.
“The year, to me, feels like it just started,” said Hilliard. “But I’m not trying to look back. I’m trying to look forward.”