A lot of people are asking themselves the same questions about the Colorado Rockies right now.
How have they gotten off to a 15-10 start despite incredibly low pre-season predictions? Is it all inevitably going to fall apart when the road trips come? And what are the indicators that they might be able to hang on in, so far, the toughest division in MLB?
One thing that the club itself keeps pointing to is the number of contributions they’ve gotten out of just about every member of the roster.
Look no further than their recent series win which saw their two least productive bats from April, Brendan Rodgers and Garrett Hampson, knock in seven runs in the deciding game.
So, you might be inclined to look at Sam Hilliard’s relatively pedestrian numbers so far and reach the conclusion that he is now the one most in need of breaking out. Hitting just .182 and slugging just .273 on the year, he is still looking for his first home run and hasn’t been anywhere close to the feared slugger he was becoming at the end of last season.
Or has he?
“He’s really improved,” Bud Black told me about his approach for each plate appearance. “He’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone, seeing more pitches per at-bat, and taking his walks.” The power? “It’ll come,” he says.
Hilliard has drawn nine walks so far giving him a .321 on-base percentage which would be a career high if he can maintain it. And with remarkable displays he put on for the second half of last season, he knows he is going to have to be patient if he wants pitchers to challenge him.
“It’s important,” he says. “I want to be a complete player at the plate. I don’t want to be a one-dimensional power hitter who’s all or nothing. I want to do more things to get on base, help my team score runs, and ultimately win games.”
With four runs scored and three RBI in 16 games played, almost none of them back-to-back, Hilliard is trying to make the most of his spotty starts while not feeling like he has to prove everything that he can do every time he steps to the plate. Now, he feels much more comfortable when his name is called.
“I think, for me, it’s the amount of time I’ve spent in this role,” he says. “I’ve faced inconsistent playing time and it’s really hard to deal with right at the beginning but you figure out what works for you to get you ready physically and mentally. Almost everyone in this locker room has been there at one point, so talking to them and seeing what works for them and taking bits and pieces and applying it to my game I think has been helpful.”
Getting advice from some of the old and new veterans is a good way to improve your game but Hilliard, like every other member of the roster I have spoken to in 2022, sees a ton of benefit for himself and the entire clubhouse thanks to a shift in culture.
“I think it starts from the top,” he says. “The vibes that you get from the veteran players in the clubhouse, from the coaching staff, and from the front office, have been great, positive, and relaxed. It allows everyone else to feel that way. For young players, it allows us to feed off that energy and just be ourselves. You don’t feel like you have to be someone you’re not. It allows you to play your game easier.”
Those moments are especially helpful when things are down. And in a baseball season, there will be times when everyone is down. Take, for example, Colorado getting drubbed in Philadelphia and looking nothing like the ballclub they want to be. But, Hilliard says, with this group, they feel like they can get over those things quickly.
“We talked about it. We’re gonna flush that,” he says. “Weather was bad. We clanked balls on defense. We didn’t hit well. But we felt like we were coming back home, we still have a winning record, we can put ourselves back on top. That’s the mindset everyone has. And you can feel its not fake, everyone feels that way.”
That mindset may or may not have led directly to a dominant homestand. And say what you will about the Reds and Nationals, those are not “gimme” series’ even for quality teams of the Rockies past.
Then, Hilliard crystalized the entire new-look, new-feel Rockies in one sentence: “When you’re having more fun in the clubhouse, it makes it more fun to be on the field.”
The Rockies are having fun. The Rockies are playing fun. Let’s see if when Hilliard (and a few others) start hitting home runs, if it keeps being fun for the Colorado faithful.