Until two weeks ago, when he took a few days off for the birth of his first child—a daughter named Paige Victoria—27-year-old Aaron Hill had played in all but one of the Blue Jays' games this year. Hill has a lot of gaudy statistics this season, leading all major league second basemen in homers (32) and RBIs (97) through Sunday, but his games played might be his most impressive stat. That's because Hill spent most of last season unable to play baseball or even perform the lightest exercises.
In the seventh inning of a game at the Oakland Coliseum on May 29, 2008, A's catcher Rob Bowen lifted a pop-up into shallow centerfield, and as Hill and shortstop David Eckstein raced back to try to catch it, Eckstein's elbow collided with Hill's left cheekbone as they converged behind second. The blow briefly knocked Hill out and left him with a Grade II concussion that he thought might keep him off the field for a few days.
Days, though, turned into months. Hill went to bed each night hoping that his constant headache and grogginess would abate by morning, but they didn't. Eventually, he felt well enough to attempt some easy running, but each time he did, he became dizzy. That A's game would turn out to be his last of the season, and he couldn't fully work out again until November. "It was something that you wanted to take Advil for," Hill says, "but it just wouldn't work."
There were those who thought that Hill's big first half in '09 (during which he slugged 20 homers) might be a fluke and that Hill was destined to regress as the season went on, but that hasn't happened. His home run rate has risen since the All-Star break, from one homer per 19.5 at bats to one per 17.4 at week's end.
September 20, 2009
"I'd say there are three or four elite second basemen [in the AL], and he's one of them," says Yankees starter A.J. Burnett, who played with Hill in Toronto from 2006 through '08. "I'd say Robbie [Cano] is up there, and that kid from Boston [Dustin Pedroia] is up there, and [Texas's Ian] Kinsler. The only thing that kept [Hill] from putting up similar numbers last year was that concussion."
Hill's breakout season has been overshadowed by his team's collapse—the Blue Jays are 38--64 since May 18. That Toronto still ranks 12th in the majors in runs scored can be attributed to him and to Adam Lind, who've picked up the offensive slack left by the club's supposed stars Alex Rios (whose .680 OPS is third-worst among major league outfielders, and who was traded to the White Sox in August) and Vernon Wells (whose .716 OPS is fifth-worst among outfielders).
Hill's not exactly sure how a player who had hit 28 home runs over his first 475 major league games has exceeded that total in 139 games this season. "There's nothing I can really put my finger on," he says. "I'm holding my hands a little higher, I guess." Or perhaps it was, as Burnett says, "just a matter of time."
AROUND THE HORN
Under the Radar II
Hill is not the only player who's putting together an outstanding season that has escaped notice because of his team's poor play. Herein, SI's 2009 Overshadowed All-Stars:
C: A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox MLB's premier agitator has a .795 OPS, fourth among qualified catchers.
1B: Russell Branyan, Mariners Finally a full-time player at 33, Branyan led Seattle in homers (31) and RBIs (76) before a herniated disk shelved him on Aug. 28.
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians The 23-year-old has blossomed in his first year as Cleveland's shortstop: He was hitting .313 with 63 RBIs and 16 steals through Sunday.
3B: Mark Reynolds, Diamondbacks He seems a lock to become the sixth player in history to hit 45 homers and steal 25 bases in the same season. He could garner some MVP votes, even though he's certain to break the single-season strikeout record (204), which he set last season.
OF: Adam Dunn, Nationals Dunn was hitting .281 at week's end, 15 points above his career best, and that average, combined with his 37 homers and 103 walks, has done much to silence those who would dismiss him as a two-outcome hitter.
OF: Shin-Soo Choo, Indians He's emerged as an all-around threat in his first full season as a major league starter, hitting .299 with 15 homers and 19 steals.
OF: Nyjer Morgan, Nationals Morgan exploded after being traded from Pittsburgh in June: In 49 games as a National he hit .351 with 24 stolen bases. The 29-year-old speedster, who also has a terrific glove, broke his left hand sliding on Aug. 27, but the Nats appear to have found their leadoff hitter of the future.
SP: Wandy Rodriguez, Astros The southpaw is in the midst of a true breakout season at age 30. His 2.76 ERA through Sunday was fifth best in the NL, and he had allowed more than one earned run in just two of his 13 starts since July 2.
CL: Andrew Bailey, A's He might not win the Rookie of the Year award, but his 24 saves, 2.03 ERA and 0.94 WHIP should not be overlooked.
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Tom Verducci presents his all-decade major league team at SI.com/bonus