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The Transformation and Evolution of Jaden Hill

April 24, 2024

A trying season was winding down for Jaden Hill when the call came. He had not pitched in a game for High-A Spokane in about a month and wouldn’t in the brief time remaining in the season, so his unsightly numbers were frozen in time. But Hill was far enough

A trying season was winding down for Jaden Hill when the call came. He had not pitched in a game for High-A Spokane in about a month and wouldn’t in the brief time remaining in the season, so his unsightly numbers were frozen in time.

But Hill was far enough along in his recovery from shoulder tightness and back spasms for the Rockies to formulate a plan for him with an eye toward the 2024 season.

It was Rockies Director of Player Development Chris Forbes who called. He had good news for Hill. He would be going to the selective Arizona Fall League (AFL) and compete where prospects abound. And he would pitch in relief, beginning the transition to the bullpen and his new role going forward.

“I was really excited to go back out there and finish the season on a good note,” Hill said.

He did just that. Indeed, what happened in the AFL was transformative for Hill.

He was more consistent pitch-to-pitch in the AFL. In part because his delivery, which became more consistent as the season went on, didn’t sabotage Hill. Quite the contrary.

“Early in the year, inning to inning it would change,” Rockies Pitching Strategist Flint Wallace said of Hill’s delivery. “Later in the year, it was more outing to outing. If he had it dialed in, it was good for the whole outing. If he was off, he’d kind of bounce back and forth during the outing. But earlier, if he was off from the get-go, it kind of stayed off the whole game.

“He got to where the feel got better. Then by the Fall League, it got really consistent. I think it finally clicked, and the consistency factor came for him. And that helped with the rest of the results we saw from the Fall League.”

Those results were most notable in Hill’s slider. Clearly his third pitch during the season, the slider was a point of emphasis for Hill in the AFL. There it greatly improved thanks to a suggestion from Wallace just before he went to the AFL. The blowup inning that was all too common at Spokane? It didn’t happen in Hill’s one-inning AFL relief stints.

In those horrendous innings, Hill’s pitches too often would leak over the middle of the plate. And hitters would square him up. It was altogether different in the AFL.

“There was a confidence and swagger during the AFL where he was really trusting his stuff, and he was just letting it play,” Rockies Assistant Director of Player Development Jesse Stender said. “He was probably facing better competition than he was in the Northwest League, and he was making guys look silly. He was locating his stuff better. He was crisp with his stuff. He wasn’t leaving it over the plate. And obviously it led to a lot of success.”

A burly right-hander, Hill is 6-foot-4, 238 pounds. He is a very intriguing prospect, one the Rockies have brought to Major League Spring Training as a non-roster invitee even though he has little professional experience.

With his vastly improved slider, Hill profiles as a potential three-pitch reliever. The rest of his arsenal includes a changeup considered the best in the Rockies’ organization and a mid- to upper-90s fastball.

Some members of the Rockies’ organization saw Hill as a relief pitcher when the Rockies selected him out of LSU in the second round (44th overall) of the 2021 First-Year Player Draft. That’s because of how little he had pitched in college. Plus when that draft was held in July, Hill was in the early stages of recovery from Tommy John surgery (which he underwent in April 2021), so he wasn’t going to begin his professional career until well into the 2022 season.

In its scouting report prior to the 2021 draft, Baseball America said Hill “was seen as a potential top-five pick coming into the 2021 season.”

Before he got hurt during his junior year, Wallace said Hill “was on everybody’s radar. It was that good of stuff, so we think we got a top of the first round talent in the second round.”

The slot value for the fifth pick in the 2021 draft was $6,180,700. The Orioles had that fifth pick and went well below slot to sign outfielder Colton Cowser for $4.9 million. Slot value for the 44th pick was $1,689,500, the exact amount Hill received. Rather than think about what he lost because of his elbow trouble culminating in Tommy John surgery, Hill focuses on what he gained.

“Now I’m with a great organization with the Rockies,” he said. “If I didn’t have those injuries, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am now. So it definitely all happened for a reason.”

The Rockies deemed at the outset of his career that starting would be best for Hill’s development. He needed time on the mound. Starting would allow Hill to pitch more innings, experience more situations, face more challenges and, hence, learn more about his craft and its nuances.

But ultimately the decision to have Hill relieve involved some chronological considerations. Given how little he has pitched, and because he is 24 years old, Hill can reach the Majors much quicker as a reliever. And he can be more effective with a two-pitch repertoire out of the bullpen if his slider doesn’t become a reliable pitch. He would be at a huge disadvantage trying to succeed with two pitches as a starter.

Also, ramping Hill’s innings up to where he might be ready to start in the Majors would be a somewhat lengthy process. To date, Hill has thrown just 61.1 professional innings and 51.1 innings in college.

He made two starts totaling 10 innings in 2019, his first season at LSU, before elbow soreness caused his season to end and Hill to undergo platelet rich plasma injections. His 2020 season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic after four games and 11.2 innings. And the elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery limited Hill to 29.2 innings in seven starts in 2021.

Because he was recovering from that surgery, Hill didn’t make his professional debut until July 12, 2022. That year, he pitched 10.1 innings in seven starts in the Rookie Level Arizona Complex League and 7.1 innings in three starts for Single-A Fresno.

Last year, Hill threw 43.2 innings in 16 starts with Spokane. So his professional total to date is 61.1 innings.

Rockies Minor League Pitching Coordinator Doug Linton said if Hill remained a starter, he might have a limit of 75–80 innings this year. So to build him up to 150–160 innings, ideally a level he should approach to handle the rigors and challenges of starting in the Majors, could take three years, barring setbacks.

It might be a developmental reach and is certainly the best-case scenario, but Hill conceivably could reach the Majors late in the 2024 season. That’s assuming he builds on his AFL experience and does well enough in Spring Training to begin the season at Double-A Hartford.

He will gain valuable experience — and be able to jump-start Minor League Spring Training and his 2024 season — in Major League camp. Even if Hill returns to Spokane to start the season, a fast start there could bring a quick promotion to Hartford and put him on that same full-speed-ahead timetable.

Of course, it’s quite possible Hill doesn’t make his Major League debut this year. Which likely won’t detract from his prospect status.

“I think he’s in a good place,” Wallace said. “I think he’s healthy. I think he feels like he can let it loose and still bounce back, so we’re looking forward to (seeing) the guy we drafted. I think we’re all thinking that’s (who is) going to show up this year for us. I think by the Fall League he was back to what we think he can be.”

The AFL is a somewhat controlled environment where Hill knew ahead of time when he would pitch. Spring Training is the same. The regular season is entirely different. Hill won’t know when he will pitch. Relievers have no set schedule. Far from it. Durability is imperative. So is being ready.

“You’re in the bullpen, you could pitch back-to-back days,” Linton said. “This is a blank canvas that we’re running into because we just don’t have this experience yet with this kid. He’s never pitched back-to-back days. We don’t know how he’s going to recover. So this will be what we’re going to find out this year in affiliate ball.”

AFL statistics are hardly as revealing as those compiled over a much longer season. And a fatigue factor after the regular season can affect pitchers and hitters in the AFL. Hill avoided that pitfall since his Spokane innings total was so low, and he was sidelined for nearly the final six weeks.

Regardless, in 11 AFL games, Hill totaled 11.1 innings and went 0–2 with a 3.18 ERA. He allowed 4.8 hits and 3.2 walks per nine innings while averaging 10.3 strikeouts. He did not allow a home run.

At Spokane last year, Hill went 0–9 with a 9.48 ERA in 16 games. Since he was on a limit of four innings or roughly 70 pitches (and worked up to those ceilings), Hill was never going to qualify for a victory by pitching the requisite five innings. Those inning/pitch limits rose during the season as Hill built arm strength. And had his season not ended on August 3, he might have worked up to five innings. But that didn’t happen.

He reached 70 pitches three times — on July 1 when he threw 70 pitches in 2.2 innings, July 20 (76 pitches, 4.0 innings) and July 27 (73 pitches, 3.1 innings).

Hill threw four innings in four starts, going that distance on 63 pitches on May 26 and on 52 pitches on both June 23 and July 8 in addition to his July 27 start.

Last season, Hill allowed 5.2 walks and 11.1 hits, including 2.3 home runs, per nine innings, and averaged 11.7 strikeouts. He also hit eight batters and threw five wild pitches.

Asked how difficult the season was, particularly mentally, Hill said, “It was, but there’s no excuses. I definitely had a season that I wish I could go and get a couple games back … I believe that because I experienced those failures, I had to learn more about myself. It was difficult, for sure. But it was a learning experience. It made me a better person. I’m thankful that it happened. I think it’ll help me moving forward.”

No one in player development wants to see a player do poorly. That said, how a player responds from adversity, how he deals with the failure that is never far away is a vital part of the development process and gives insight into a player’s makeup, resilience and fortitude.

Hill dealt with injuries at LSU, and having to endure a lengthy rehabilitation like Hill did is a trying and, at times, a seemingly endless experience. But failing the way he did last season, failing far more than ever before was a very different and very formidable challenge.

“I think he learned a lot from it and matured from it,” Wallace said. “And it was obvious he took some things from it into the Fall League and put it into use and started turning things around.”

During the season, Hill “threw maybe four or five different sliders.” He was searching. The pitch ranged from 82–88 mph and averaged 84 mph. Velocity wasn’t the problem.

It was a very inconsistent pitch that often would back up and be very hittable. To some in the organization, Hill’s slider flashed average. To others, it flashed plus. Either way, there was a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t reliability to the pitch.

Hill’s quest for a third pitch even led him to try throwing a cutter very sparingly last season.

“It was more of a get-me-over pitch that I was just trying to learn as I was learning the slider,” Hill said. “Those are things that I was having to do to try to get through the season that I had to learn.”

Before Hill went to the AFL, he threw during the Rockies’ instructional league program at their complex in Scottsdale, Ariz. It was there that Wallace helped Hill make a small adjustment with the grip of his slider. He had been throwing his slider like a fastball but with a twist of his wrist as he released the ball. Wallace said that created inconsistent spin because the timing had to be perfect.

“We took the same pitch,” Wallace said, “and we focused on getting his thumb behind the baseball at release instead of trying to just spin the ball like with breaking his wrist. So his goal now was to just get the thumb almost directly behind the baseball. That put his wrist in the right position for the ball to come out consistently and with the right spin, direction, and stuff way more. So it gave us the right shape we wanted and made it a consistent shape.”

During the AFL, Wallace and Hill had a couple conversations about the slider, which Hill said was going very well. After offering this explanation about the change Hill made with his slider, Wallace lauded Hill for the work he put in on the pitch.

“I just gave him the suggestion and told him what to do,” Wallace said. “He gets full credit for making the adjustments and going from there.”

Hill said his slider was a point of emphasis in the AFL. He went from throwing “maybe two to three” a game as a starter in Spokane to throwing “six to seven to 10 an inning” in the AFL.

“My slider became my number two pitch in the Fall League,” Hill said. “I really didn’t throw the changeup that much in the Fall League.”

Wallace said Hill took to the slider grip adjustment very quickly, and the results were encouraging in the AFL — and going forward.

“What I saw in the Fall League, I would give it at least (a) Major League average slider, which is still a really good slider,” Wallace said. “And I think at times, it can be a tick above (average), especially if it’s in the right location. If he gets it down to the extension side (namely down and away to a right-handed hitter), it seems to have a little bit more bite and depth.”

Hill is a pronator, which is to say his index finger on his right hand twists to the left or pushes inward on the ball. That makes getting around the ball to the right to throw a slider difficult. But with his thumb behind the ball per Wallace’s suggestion, Hill had a eureka moment in the AFL with his slider.

“I struck someone out on it,” Hill said. “And I was like, ‘Whew, it could be a good pitch for me.’ And so I just really focused on it, worked on it. I believe it can be a really good pitch for me moving forward. It’s going to take a lot more work to make it good, but we’ll see where it goes.”

Hill said he didn’t record one strikeout with his slider during the season.

He did hit 100 mph during the season with his fastball and averaged 96 mph with that pitch. However, despite its high velocity, Hill does not get a lot of swings and misses with his fastball. The pitch is fairly straight and lacks run.

Nonetheless, it’s easy gas, not some grunt-and-groan offering.

Hill’s high-end velocity and three-quarter arm slot help his stunningly effective changeup. It’s most definitely a swing-and-miss pitch ranging from 82–87 mph and averaging 84 mph.

“It falls off the table.” Stender said. “It’s got late action, and it’s tunneled well off the fastball. When he’s throwing it with consistency, it’s a pitch where you know it’s coming, and you still can’t do anything with it.”

Hill said when he was about 10 years old, his brother, Kentrell, a former outfielder who is nine years older and played three seasons in the low Minors in the San Francisco Giants’ organization, showed Hill a changeup grip while they were playing catch at their home in Ashdown, Ark., a city in the southwest corner of the state with a population of about 4,200.

“I just kind of stuck with it, never changed grips,” Hill said. “I’ve been throwing (with) that same grip since I was 10.”

There has never been a reason to do otherwise. Hill’s confounding changeup has unusual and extraordinary action.

“It looks like there’s almost two separate movements in the flight of the pitch,” Wallace said. “It moves arm-side, and then it drops afterwards. Sideways and then drops. And that’s kind of what makes Jaden’s changeup so effective in my opinion.”

In baseball parlance, a Bugs Bunny changeup is derived from the cartoon sequence where the rabbit lets a pitch go, and a batter takes three swings and strikes out on that same oh-so-very-slow pitch.

“The changeup, it’s up to 10–12 miles off his fastball at times,” Linton said. “It’s a Bugs Bunny changeup. It puts on the brakes when he throws it. And for a guy that’s throwing an upper 90s fastball, it’s unbelievable.

“It’s got good spin. It has some fade and some drop when it’s down in the zone. (Major League pitchers) are usually 8–10 (mph) off the fastball. But he can go up to 12. Like I said, the pitch puts on the brakes, and guys don’t see it well.”

If his slider continues to develop and with his plus changeup, Hill’s fastball just might be a pitch to set up his other offerings.

As a starter, Hill couldn’t hold his velocity. Some games, his fastball was 91–94 mph. Other games, it was 95–97 mph. But in the Fall League, it was 95–99 mph. Subconsciously or otherwise, Hill lifted any self-imposed restraints.

“Sometimes I would try to be too perfect (as a starter),” Hill said. “Sometimes I would try to let it go. I think (it was) just a mixture of me trying to figure out who I am as a pitcher, where do I have success at. And I just think it was a lot of different things that I went through.

“And then in the Fall League as a reliever, I knew that I was coming out at the end of the inning, so I knew I was able to go full speed and not necessarily have to pace through innings.”

Hill’s delivery became more consistent as the season went on and was very consistent in the Fall League. The inconsistency arose, Wallace said, from Hill’s lower half. By putting too much weight in his quad when he was loading on his back leg, instead of getting more into his glute, it caused Hill’s upper body to be more rotational as he continued his delivery.

And that affected his command, causing him to miss arm-side high or spiking the ball glove-side low.

That delivery issue and the damage to a pitcher’s command is fairly common, Wallace said, for pitchers who have undergone Tommy John or shoulder surgery forcing them to endure lengthy rehabilitations and not be in competition.

“The whole rehab time you’re working on your arm, but you’re not really having to use your lower half to create force,” Wallace said, “because you’re not throwing with enough intent yet to engage that. And you get in bad habits really easy when you’re throwing at sub-max effort a lot, because your lower half can do whatever it wants to do.”

Overcoming that delivery issue is no longer a hurdle for Hill, as he proved in the Fall League. The innings limit from last year and pitch count? Gone. There will be new challenges in his different role this year.

Hill will get better at anticipating when the bullpen phone rings for him. He will hone his warm-up routine to be able to get ready as soon as possible, wasting not a moment with time at a premium. Hill already knows about hard-knocks lessons. So if he doesn’t pitch well, he will glean the teaching tools, the useful information, he should take from a poor outing and, most importantly, not dwell on what went wrong. In other words, he will develop the short memory relievers say is vital to succeeding.

Coming out of the bullpen to pitch more than one inning? That could happen, if the Rockies decide that’s best for Hill as he gains confidence and experience. A late-inning niche? Very possible as Hill’s resolve yields results.

Hill is excited for the season, excited to get fully comfortable in his new role. He is in the steep portion of the learning curve. And that’s far better than where he was when preparing for his season a year ago.

“We think he’s in a good place going into Spring Training and (are) looking forward to him being just consistent,” Wallace said. “Because when he’s on, it’s elite-level stuff. It’s just the consistency factor with his delivery that will help him be on with his pitches and location.”


The Spokane Indians are the High-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies located in Spokane Valley, Washington, and play at historic Avista Stadium, home of the MultiCare Kids Bench Seat. The Indians were recognized with the 2023 CommUNITY Champion Award by MiLB. Parking at all Spokane Indians games is FREE. Ticket packages are available now at or by calling (509) 343-OTTO (6886). The Spokane Indians Office is open Monday through Thursday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. The Spokane Indians Team Store is open Monday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.