Hill the Homeless Hitman

As has been already been discussed here, the primary reason the Springfield Cardinals are tied for first place in the North Division of the Texas League is their offense, led by utilityman Steven Hill.

All Hill did on Tuesday night for the Double-A club was go 5-for-5, including three doubles and a final at-bat home run for 11 total bases. The 24-year-old scored three times in a 7-4 Springfield win at Midland. The night before, he slammed a pair of home runs.

For the season, which is now 12 games long for the 7-5 Cardinals, Hill has played in ten. The right-handed hitter hit safely in eight of those games. He is carrying a seven-game hitting streak, with multiple hits in five of those contests.

Through Tuesday, Hill is 18-for-38 at the dish, with half of his safeties having gone for extra bases (five doubles and four home runs). He has scored 11 times and driven in 11. Hill has drawn four walks and fanned eight times, though five of the strikeouts were in his first four games.

Behold the majestic batting line when this is all put together: .474/.523/.921/1.444 (BA/OBP/SLG/OPS).

In terms of the Texas League offensive rankings, Hill is first in batting average, slugging and OPS. He trails only Corpus Christi outfield James Van Ostrand in on-base percentage, .523 to .541.

Taken in the 13th round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, Hill came into this season with a career line of .307/.345/.528/.873.

He began 2008 at A-Advanced Palm Beach, but the pitcher-friendly Florida State League was no problem. After hitting .341 in April, he was promoted to Springfield on May 10. Through 26 games, he was hitting .303/.330/.505/.835 with five home runs and nine RBI.

Defensively, Hill is a nomad. He spent most of his Double-A debut at first base (12 games), but also made nine appearances as a corner outfielder. At his most intriguing position defensively, catcher, Hill played in just four games.

Then on June 10, he was hit by a pitch, causing a fracture to the pinkie finger on his left hand. After missing two months, Hill returned for four rehab games in the Gulf Coast League before finishing with Palm Beach.

Hill was sent to the Arizona Fall League where he shined offensively. He hit safely in 11 of his 13 games and his OPS of .991 (in just 46 at-bats) was the best of all Cardinals prospects in the AFL, including top prospect, third baseman Brett Wallace.

The not-so-good includes the fact that Hill played over half his AFL games at designated hitter, not all that useful in St. Louis. He appeared in just four contests behind the plate during the two months, including just one in the final month (November).

There, I spoke with several scouts who like Hill’s bat but feel his release is slow. To wit, in those four AFL games he caught, opponents attempted nine steals against him, and were successful six times.

Coming into the season, his AFL and Springfield manager Pop Warner was quoted as saying that Hill would start behind the plate in 30% of his club’s contests. To date, that is being followed and in fact, slightly exceeded. So far in 2009, Hill has no appearances at first base, three in the outfield, three at designated hitter and four behind the plate.

With two more experienced first baseman on the roster, Mark Hamilton and Andrew Brown, it is not surprising Hill isn’t seeing time at first. Despite the majority of Springfield’s catching load being borne by another converted infielder, Tony Cruz, Hill’s time there has been ample.

The results have been mixed, however. While the Cardinals won all four games, Hill has one passed ball and enemy baserunners are 4-for-4 in stolen base attempts while he has been behind the dish.

Yet it is impossible not to come back to Hill’s hitting.

Through his first 36 games at the Double-A level, 137 at-bats, he has nine home runs and 20 RBI. Over the two partial seasons, Hill’s combined Texas League line is .350/.382/.620/1.002.

It is hard to believe that Triple-A Memphis won’t soon come calling if Hill continues to inflict offensive damage like this.

Programming note
: I will be joining friends and National League Tout Wars competitors Lenny Melnick and Paul Greco on “Talking Baseball Live” on BlogTalkRadio Wednesday evening at 8:10 p.m. Eastern/7:10 p.m. Central. The focus will be fantasy, but the Cardinals will surely come up in the discussion. Call-ins are accepted.