For much of the past three seasons, outfielder Derek Hill can regularly be found on either the highlight reel or the disabled list. Now in his third tour with Class A West Michigan, the Tigers' eighth-ranked prospect doesn't let the potential for injury affect how he plays the game.
"The way I see it, if I don't act aggressive, I feel like I'm going to injure myself," Hill said. "Honestly, every time a ball goes up in the air, until it touches the ground I'm going 100 percent. I don't care where it's hit, who hit it. I'm going 110 percent to get to that ball."
Since his assignment to West Michigan for the start of the 2015 season, the 21-year-old has made six appearances on the DL and been limited to 157 games over that span. Despite his limited exposure, Hill has made a lasting impression with his acrobatic outfield defense.
"That guy has put me on SportsCenter more than I can count," said Dan Hasty, play-by-play announcer for Whitecaps' radio broadcasts who began during Hill's first year with the club.
"When it's hit and you see him take off for the baseball, it would surprise me almost on any ball if he doesn't make the play, no matter the degree of difficulty," Hasty said. "That's what we've gotten used to the last couple seasons."
Video: Derek Hill shows outfield skills
Persistent quadriceps issues caused Hill to miss 24 games over two separate stints on the DL in the first four months of 2015 before being shut down for the rest of year on July 11.
He went down for 10 days with a concussion in May of last year and made it a week into August before experiencing elbow soreness after a throw in a game against Bowling Green. The Sacramento, California native eventually needed Tommy John surgery, and recovery from the procedure pushed his 2017 debut to June 23, where he had a 14-game stint in the Gulf Coast League before rejoining the Whitecaps on July 12.
Though the time missed has hindered Hill's opportunity to climb the organizational ladder, he has learned a valuable lesson about Fifth Third Ballpark as well as the other fields he might encounter in the Tigers' system.
"Besides Erie, pretty much all our fields are pretty big going from Connecticut all the way up to Comerica," Hill said. "The ball doesn't really travel, so I like taking away the little bloop base hits."
The strategy of starting shallow and using his above-average speed to go back on a ball is one that he works to perfect while shagging fly balls during batting practice. The first-round pick in the 2014 Draft even refers to the practice as "silly," given the unlikely nature of actually needing to make the type of over-the-shoulder catch that he rehearses in batting practice during the game.
"It's kind of just positioning your body in difficult ways to make a catch, but it helps you out in a game a lot," Hill said. "It's always been just more of an instinct to me. I work pretty much every single day on my defensive footwork and putting my head down and retracking it once I look up in the air."
Hill has fit in at the top of the lineup for West Michigan, and in the 11 games since his return he is hitting .200/.327/.375 with three RBIs and three stolen bases. But in his short time with the team this season, his defense has already made jaws drop on two occasions.
Video: West Michigan's Hill makes diving catch
The first was in support of right-hander Tom De Blok in the seventh inning of a game against Quad Cities on July 16.
"Oh yeah, I definitely remember that. The best play I've ever seen live," De Blok recalled.
De Blok left a fastball up and over the plate to Daz Cameron and the No. 10 Astros prospect pulled a fly ball into the gap in left-center. Hill went back on the ball and made a full-extension diving catch on the warning track.
"Derek was there to save the day," the native of the Netherlands said. "It was a no-doubt double, maybe a triple. But I thanked him a lot for it."
It took less than a week for Hill to display some more heroics in center field.
On Sunday in Wisconsin, the Whitecaps were locked in a 4-4 stalemate with two outs in the 11th inning. Brewers No. 25 prospect Mario Feliciano was on first representing the winning run and right-hander Zac Houston left a 2-1 fastball up to Weston Wilson, who smacked a line drive to the gap in right-center.
"I spun around and as soon as I saw it I immediately thought it was going to get down," Houston remembered. "I didn't think it was going to be a home run, but I thought it was going to be a wall-banger."
Hill ranged into the gap, left his feet and again made the catch with his body perfectly parallel to the warning track. The Whitecaps eventually came out on top in the contest, 6-4, in 13 innings.
"When he laid out, I was amazed. I didn't even know what to say, I gave him a big hug right before he came back into the dugout," Houston said. "It's not really a surprise when he makes those catches every other day."
Video: West Michigan's Hill makes great play
Though he can look back fondly on his ever-expanding greatest-catch collection, Hill's favorite was one he technically did not make.
In the ninth inning of a game against Wisconsin on May 7 of last year, he was in right field with the bases loaded for Brewers No. 18 prospect Jake Gatewood, who lofted a fly ball that sent Hill in a full sprint with his back to the infield. The ball landed into Hill's outstretched glove but his momentum took him crashing into the wall.
Feeling the immediate effects of the collision, Hill attempted to flip the ball to a surprised Cam Gibson but it got away from the center fielder. The flip also confused the umpires, who did not see the ball land in Hill's glove and Gatewood was credited with an inside-the-park grand slam.
"I tried to toss it … and they thought it came out," Hill recalled. "Guess it's kind of tough with a two-man crew."
The play resulted in the concussion that landed him on the DL for the first time last season.
First-year hitting coach Mike Hessman said Hill's defensive exploits are reminiscent of his former teammate and big league All-Star Billy Hamilton. The Minor League homer king also praised Hill's fearlessness in the outfield as a trait that stands alone.
"I think there are some guys that get a little tentative after they've been hurt a little bit," Hessman said. "He goes out there and he'll put his body on the line and dive for balls. He goes hard every time he's out there. It's fun watching a guy play with that type of intensity."
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Hill's tenacity and willingness to patrol the outfield seemingly with reckless abandon stems from an attitude that refuses to overlook any situation in any game. Although the play against Wisconsin last year resulted in the Timber Rattlers going ahead, 10-2, Hill knew the situation had called for only one thing: go get it.
"It's a blessing to be able to play baseball," Hill said. "I just look at it like, 'Wherever I'm at. That's my big leagues.' I treat it that way coming into every single day and just focus on what I'm trying to do that day."