Yogi Berra's oft-quoted observation that "90 percent of baseball is half-mental" is certainly one that Rich Hill, selected as MiLB.com's Breakthrough Performer of the Year, would agree with.
Hill, a 25-year-old southpaw in the Cubs organization, entered Spring Training for the 2005 season never having pitched above Class A ball. That all changed in a hurry, as Hill made a dizzying journey through the professional ranks that included stops at four different levels, including two stints with the Chicago Cubs.
According to Hill, his successful season was largely due to an increased emphasis on the mental side of the game. "I've always had good stuff, but control was an issue. I was walking too many batters, and getting stressed out by it."
Two of Hill's offseason workout partners introduced him to Chungliang Al Huang's Thinking Body, Dancing Mind, a book that incorporates Eastern philosophy into approaches for optimizing life experiences. It produced immediate results.
"There was an instant change in the way I performed from Spring Training on," Hill said. "I learned to relax and accept things as they come. I take the game seriously, but not as a matter of life or death. There's a good sense of balance now."
His improved state of mind led Hill to the best numbers of his career. Across 22 Minor League appearances (one with Class A Peoria, 10 with Double-A West Tenn and 11 with Triple-A Iowa), he went 11-4 with a 3.31 ERA. Overall, he issued just 35 walks while striking out 194 in 130 2/3 innings.
"It was fun to play with guys at different levels, seeing where they were at, and understanding where they came from," Hill said.
He is also grateful to the pitching coaches who helped along the way. "From Mike Anderson in Spring Training to Alan Dunn in Double-A, Rick Kranitz in Triple-A, and Larry Rothschild with the Cubs, everyone understood what was needed and was a great help."
It was Kranitz who, along with Iowa manager Mike Quade, got to give Hill the news he had been waiting his whole life to hear.
"I had a bad blister underneath the nail on my middle finger, and was supposed to start the next day," he recalled. "They called me into the office and said 'We don't think you'll be able to pitch tomorrow.' I was about to disagree, but then they told me I wouldn't be able to start because I was getting called up to the Cubs. I didn't sleep at all that night."
As successful as 2005 was for Hill, he knows he has a long way to go.
"I'm not a big goal-setter," he said, "but I'd like to make the Cubs rotation out of Spring Training. I can see that happening if I keep the same attitude."