At 15 years old, Kyle Hill faced the dilemma of whether to undergo major shoulder surgery. At 18, Hill had to decide whether he still wanted to come to Baylor after the coaching staff that recruited him was fired. At 19, he had to deal with the doubts that naturally fester after a particularly ragged freshman year.
So, do you really think the “pressure” of getting three outs at the end of a ball game is going to bother him? Especially now that he’s a grizzled old veteran of almost 22?
Baylor’s senior closer is resilient. He’s a tough Hill to climb. He has proven that throughout his college career and his life in general.
“You want to talk about a person who I have the utmost respect for, and watching his diligence and his work ethic, how he leads this team and how he talks to our guys,” Baylor coach Steve Rodriguez said. “As a coach, that’s what makes you proud, because when you see him his freshman year, he’s a very mature kid for his age. Then you see him now, and you kind of go, ‘Wow, there have been some big jumps in his life, with who he is as a person.’ That’s what makes a coach happy.”
In order to get under Hill’s lid and see what makes him tick, you’ve got to first travel back in time, to a juncture when his hat size was a lot smaller than it is today. He was born in Baton Rouge, La., and lived the first eight years of his life there until his father Bobby was promoted within his company, Valero Energy, to a position in Corpus Christi, Texas.
As an 8-year-old who had built up a close network of friends in Baton Rouge, Kyle had zero interest in moving to Texas.
“At the time, (it was scary). It kind of seemed like we were leaving everything behind,” Hill said. “But looking back, moving to Corpus was probably the best thing that could happen to not only me but my family. It opened up opportunities for my dad and his job, my mom and her life. My brother and me. It was a good move, looking back now. But at the time it was the worst thing in the world.”
Fortunately, they still had sports in Corpus. Hill tried everything, playing pee wee football and baseball before picking up basketball and track and field in middle school. But his athletic career hit a painful speed bump when he tore the labrum in his right shoulder playing football in his sophomore year of high school at Corpus Christi Calallen.
Hill’s parents took him to a doctor in San Antonio, who presented the budding young athlete with two options.
“He said, ‘You could get surgery, you could not. You being so young, it might be a good idea to get it, because you’re going to have pain the rest of your life,’” Hill said. “The recovery rate is not that high for shoulder surgeries. So I was 15 at the time, got the surgery, recovered great, and here I am.”
Hill pitched well as a junior at Calallen, and college coaches took notice. Then-Baylor assistant coach Trevor Mote helped draw Hill to Baylor, and the pitcher signed in November of 2014.
The next May, Baylor fired head coach Steve Smith and his staff.
“I was actually at the lake with some friends and got a phone call from Coach Mote, saying, ‘Hey, Kyle, want you to know that I won’t be your coach anymore. We’re getting fired from Baylor, not sure exactly what your future holds.’ It was kind of an eye opener to me,” Hill said.
He wrestled with the idea of enrolling at a junior college. Ultimately, he chose to stick with his decision to come to Baylor, despite not really knowing anything about Rodriguez or pitching coach Jon Strauss.
To say that first year came with a learning curve would be an understatement. It was that way with many of Baylor’s players. For Hill, it was amplified. He was a mystery to his new coaches in more ways than one.
“That year he got thrown into the fire as a starter, and he was not ready. There’s no way he was ready,” Strauss said. “But … I thought if he could get through it he’d be better for it.
“Honestly, I had no idea how to use his stuff when he got here. He would pitch well early, he would pitch up in the zone, which I just never thought was right, so I would try to get him to throw the ball down. Then he would get hit. So, finally, after a year we figured it out, ‘No, you need to pitch up in the zone.’ It completely changed the way he goes about it, the way he works, the things that he can do.”
Hill made 15 appearances as a freshman in 2016, including eight as a starter. The right-hander struggled to get batters out at the rate he wanted, giving up 49 hits in 44.1 innings and finishing with a 1-4 record and a 5.28 ERA.
Hill also got off to a sluggish start in the classroom, as he had to learn proper time management in his first experience living on his own. So when Hill thinks back on that year, he labels it “not fun” and a “wake-up call.”
And, perhaps, entirely necessary.
“Looking back, I wouldn’t have done anything differently, because it made me who I am today,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Freed up by Strauss to use his superior spin rate to work higher in the zone, Hill put together a breakthrough year as a sophomore in 2017. He made 30 appearances out of the bullpen, finishing with a 3-3 record, a 2.98 ERA, and 54 strikeouts in 42.1 innings.
Still, it took Hill a quick minute to make his peace with coming out of the bullpen.
“In high school, most college pitchers threw seven innings every time they pitched,” he said. “So coming to campus, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a starter.’
“Started a few games my freshman year, didn’t have much success at all. Got in the bullpen my sophomore year and at first, I saw it as a bad thing. I was like, ‘Dang, they don’t think I’m good enough to be a starter, they just stuck me in the bullpen.’ Wish I would have never thought that, because the bullpen is a big part of the game.”
Hill learned that lesson last year from the likes of Alex Phillips, Joe Heineman, Drew Robertson and Troy Montemayor. Baylor’s “old guy” bullpen, as it became known, proved integral to the team’s overall success, which included a run to the Big 12 tournament title and a second straight NCAA regional berth.
Hill excelled in a setup role, limiting batters to a .185 batting average. And in the most hellacious of fires, he was the “break glass in case of emergency” extinguisher.
“He was the guy,” Strauss said. “Troy was great, but when we were in trouble, that was the guy we went to. On the top of my chart, I had Hill’s name all the time. Because I knew if we were in trouble, there was no doubt I was going to go with him.”
Strauss had little doubt that Hill would be able to make a smooth transition to the closer role this year. The coach’s only concern was this – “I don’t have another Hill to get to Hill,” he said. Fortunately, pitchers like Daniel Caruso and Luke Boyd have stepped up as able setup men, alleviating the coach’s concerns.
As for Hill, he’s been a one-man power outage – because he’s been lights-out in finishing games. He leads Baylor in both wins (6) and saves (6), while holding opposing hitters to a meager .122 average. He has whiffed 30 hitters in 25.2 innings, using his electric spin rate and high release point to befuddle batters up in the strike zone.
Then there’s this little gem: Entering Baylor’s final home series of the season, Hill still hasn’t let a single run score – earned or unearned. His 0.00 ERA stands out as an apparent misprint in BU’s statistics.
But it’s completely real. Though it does beg the question – is it possible to go through an entire season while giving up no runs?
“You know, I’ve never looked that up,” Hill said. “But I’m going to try. It’s funny you ask that, when I was at the nine or 10-inning mark this year, I was kind of laughing about it, saying, ‘Someone needs to score, to get that zero mark off the scoreboard.’ Everyone in the ballpark looks at it, I look at it, I knew it was there. It’s kind of hard not to. But the way I look at pitching, if I don’t give up runs, that means we’re going to win.”
Hill has the makeup of the perfect closer. He’s not afraid to challenge hitters, and doesn’t get rattled in pressure-packed situations. He carries a bulldog mentality to the mound, which he said is genetic.
“I kind of learned that from my dad,” Hill said. “He never played baseball, but he’s always been in management-type positions with his occupation. He always taught me the mental side of things. It’s attack, leave everything out there, and show no fear.”
Hill hasn’t been drafted in the past, but Strauss thinks the pitcher should get his chance to pursue professional baseball as a career this June. If that doesn’t happen, Hill will pursue a career in business, but he’s hoping to play baseball as long as possible.
There’s a lot more baseball to play before that ever happens. Baylor still has aspirations of winning a Big 12 championship, of hosting an NCAA regional, and making a trip to the College World Series in Omaha.
And if the Bears need three (or more) big outs to get there, Hill is more than happy to oblige.
“I had my last class today, my last college class. I’m sure I sound old, because I’m graduating college, but I feel like I’m 17,” he said. “I don’t know, I’m anxious to see how the weekend goes, and my future. But if I could spend four more years at Baylor, I would. I love this place. It’s been awesome.”
Bear Facts: Last year, Baylor swept Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan. … BU coach Steve Rodriguez said that junior third baseman Davis Wendzel, who has an oblique strain, remains “day to day,” and that senior Cole Weaver would likely get some more time at third. “It’s frustrating, but at the same time I know that our guys are prepared to overcome those things because we’ve done it all year,” Rodriguez said. … Rodriguez also said that junior pitcher Hayden Kettler (shoulder) could pitch for the Bears down the stretch, though his pitch count would continue to be limited.