Lancaster, California —— The first time I saw Sam Hilliard swing the bat, he hit a ball out onto Highway 14 past the huge net that rings the outfield of The Hangar, the Lancaster JetHawks’ home ballpark.
Lancaster’s reputation is one of a hitter-friendly ballpark to the extreme, yes, but there’s only so much help the high winds can give to a ball once it gets up in the jet stream in right-center field; you have to hit it pure to get it there in the first place. And as tall as the netting is beyond the outfield wall, wind or not, you need some incredible raw power to hit a ball out into traffic past right field.
“It feels pretty good to hit a ball and watch it go out onto the highway,” Hilliard told Baseball Census after his impressive batting practice show, smiling. “But that’s not really what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to hit it hard.”
Speaking of reputations, Hilliard’s is one quickly gaining steam here in wind-swept Lancaster, too. After a solid summer with the Colorado Rockies’ Low-A affiliate Asheville Tourists in 2016—he slashed .267/.348/.449/.797 with 23 doubles, 17 home runs, and 30 stolen bases, but also 150 strikeouts in 127 games—the Texan is in High-A now, and things are starting to come together.
He’s entering Wednesday night’s game fresh off being named the California League’s Player of the Week for the first week of May. He slugged two more home runs on a three hit night against the Modesto Nuts on Tuesday, too—the perfect showcase for his plus power tool that could push Hilliard quickly into the upper minors and onto the Colorado Rockies’ radar.
Lancaster, then, ought to be the perfect place to put up big power numbers and push him up on top prospect lists around the game.
“The temptation is definitely there to hit it out at this ballpark, but it’s just about staying disciplined, staying in my approach, and trying to stay professional,” Hilliard admitted. “I expect my discipline to carry over from last year. Being a middle of the order guy, I know I need to get a bunch of walks, I want to cut down on the strikeouts, and my main goal is just to get on base. Every time I get on base I’m trying to steal a base.”
That’s the fascinating thing about Hilliard, even more so than the fact that you can watch him hit baseballs out onto the highway. The outfielder has a legitimate shot at being a future 20/20 guy on account of his plus speed in addition to that raw power. Put bluntly, those aren’t skills you find coupled together in most players, but in Sam Hilliard, the Colorado Rockies have a little bit of both—and yes, he’s already swiped ten bases in the first month of 2017.
“I feel like stealing bases is about being aggressive, and relying on my speed and trying to get good jumps,” he said about his unique skill set. “It’s not like batting practice, stealing bases is something that really only happens during a game, and it’s tough to practice it when you’re not playing. So once you get out there during a game, I think you have to be aggressive and take some chances.”
At 6’5”, 225 lbs., it’s not often you see a player like the Wichita State University product so focused on stealing bases. But that’s the value here: if he doesn’t get to second by way of his bat alone, a single (or a walk) and a stolen base accomplish the same thing. Scouts salivate over tools like that, and in Hilliard there’s an added piece: the Minnesota Twins drafted him out of junior college as a pitcher—he didn’t sign—a year before the Colorado Rockies eventually made him an outfielder.
Power, speed, and a cannon of an arm in the outfield? This is shaping up to be Sam Hilliard’s breakout year, right?
“It’s going to be a long season, I had a slow start last year and I got pretty frustrated, but I battled back to have a pretty good year,” Hilliard said. “Knowing what I went through that last year, it’s a little easier for me to take things slowly this year. I expect to grind.”
That’s the way it’s always been for Sam Hilliard, who went to three different schools and was drafted twice before finding his fit with the Colorado Rockies. On-field adversity has always been around him, no matter the physical tools.
“I’ve been through ups and downs going through three different schools and dealing with a whole bunch of adversity,” he acknowledged of his time with two junior colleges before getting to Wichita State. “Being in a junior college program, that wasn’t glamorous or anything, but it really prepared me for professional baseball and the hardships I’ll face here. That’s helped.”
Baseball is a brutal sport, and so more on-field adversity is undoubtedly on its way to the Colorado Rockies’ outfielder, but his life experience should have him prepared for when it inevitably arrives again. Until then, though life is good in Lancaster—and it sure looks like Sam Hilliard is in the middle of his breakout season.
To read our scouting report on Colorado Rockies outfielder Sam Hilliard, please click here.
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