The outfielder has had some peaks and valleys, but he was able to see Lou Gehrig Day come to fruition
After playing in just 36 games in 2020, Hilliard had some goals coming into 2021.
Hilliard was drafted in the 15th round of the 2015 draft and steadily moved up through the Rockies’ minor league system until his MLB debut on Aug. 27, 2019. Since his debut, Hilliard has been up and down — both statistically and literally. Because of that, he said his number one goal was to prove his consistency at the highest level and help the team every single day. Unfortunately, that was not the case for much of the early 2021 season.
“Obviously [I] didn’t get off to a great start,” Hilliard said. “I had to learn how to deal with some different things like limited playing time, coming off the bench, facing some really too much pressure on your at-bats.
“It’s hard, you know, and so you’ve got to learn the process,” he continued. “Failure is a great teacher. I had no shortage of that at the beginning of the year so I learned a lot and obviously feel a bit better now.”
During his first stint with the Rockies, Hilliard slashed a meager .108/.154/.324 in 20 games before being sent down to Albuquerque on May 5. In 39 plate appearances, he recorded four hits (three extra-base hits), six runs and four RBI. He struck out 48.7% of the time and walked just 5.1% of the time. While in Albuquerque, Hilliard slashed .237/.322/.543 in 52 games. He struck out just 28.9% of the time and walked 10.9% of the time. But it did take him some time to acclimate to Triple-A and recover from the “failure” he’d faced at the Major League level.
“It was hard,” Hilliard said. “It was the most failure I’ve ever had to deal with in this game and it took a toll on me. I went down to Triple-A and it was hard to stay positive, but you know I’m still going to play the game I love for a living every single day so I just tried to go out there and have fun and be myself.”
“And it took a while,” he continued. “It took about a month for me to feel comfortable again, even in Triple-A — a league I’ve had success in before. So it’s definitely frustrating but I figured out some things, learned how to deal with it eventually, started to turn around and have felt pretty good ever since.”
In his first month back with the Isotopes, Hilliard went just 13-for-79 (.165) with four doubles, three homers, nine RBI, 10 walks (12.7%) and 28 strikeouts (35.4%). In June and July, Hilliard then went 31-for-107 (.290) with seven doubles, two triples, 11 home runs, 22 runs scored, 27 RBI, 13 walks (12.1%) and 33 strikeouts (30.8%) before being recalled on July 16. During his time in Albuquerque, Hilliard made some adjustments to his swing.
“The main physical adjustment I made was with my hands and shortening my leg kick and just trying to simplify everything by getting my hands a little closer to my body and working kind of inside the baseball more than trying to hit the inside of the ball to the left-center gap,” he said. “Whenever I stay there, it gives me the best change to recognize off-speed [pitches] and not chase out of the zone.”
Hilliard also said he worked on some mental adjustments, since he was so discouraged by the lack of success that he experienced at the beginning of the MLB season.
“The mental adjustments were huge for me and I turned the corner,” he said. “It’s really hard to let go of the results in this game but once you do that, I think you can play a lot more freely and be 100% committed to the process but not invested in the result. I believe that’s the best way to play so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
After returning to the majors in mid-July, Hilliard slowly raised his slash by hitting .300/.373/.667 with 10 extra-base hits in his first 21 games back through August 10. Unfortunately, since then he has been struggling again. In his last 19 games, Hilliard has been slashing a measly .113/.217/.208 with just one home run and one triple. His strikeout rate has also increased again, up to 43.3% from the previous 26.9% from July 16-August 10.
But as he continues to work on his consistency at the major league level, Hilliard cited Charlie Blackmon as his inspiration.
“The first thing I think about [when I wake up] is, ‘what can I do to be more consistent in this game, be more like Charlie Blackmon doing the same thing every single day, day-in and day-out?’” Hilliard said. “He rarely chases. He’s a professional up there, he takes great at-bats, and that’s what I want to be like.”
Hilliard said he has been seeking out Blackmon for advice since his first big-league camp in 2018.
“I ask him every single time I’m about to face a pitcher that I’ve never faced and say, ‘Hey, what’s this guy got? What’s your approach on this guy?’ and pretty much just try and do exactly what he tells me because obviously he’s a great guy to look up to.”
Blackmon himself had glowing things to say about the young outfielder.
“Sam is an incredible talent,” Blackmon said. “He’s bigger, faster, stronger than just about anybody I’ve seen. That puts you in a situation where you have incredible potential and I’ve seen him make some adjustments that are really hard to make, that I struggle to make myself. And then he just goes up there and he’s able to do it at-bat to at-bat or pitch-to-pitch, even.
“But the hard part about playing in the big leagues is that you’ve got to be able to do that consistently every day, and that’s where Sam is right now,” he continued. “He’s trying to navigate those peaks and valleys just like every player. But he wants to be a good teammate, wants to play well and wants to come through in a big spot. So I believe in him and I think he’s going to be a good big-league player.”
One major milestone for Hilliard in 2021 was the first annual Lou Gehrig Day, celebrated league-wide on June 2 to honor the Hall of Fame Yankees first baseman and raise funds for ALS — the disease that took Gehrig’s life at age 37. Hilliard’s father, Jim, was diagnosed with the disease in 2018 and his mother, Tamara, was on the Lou Gehrig Day committee. To see everything come together was “incredible,” Hilliard said. Unfortunately, he was in Albuquerque for the big event and wasn’t able to witness it in person. But the players in Denver were thinking of him.
“I was in contact with a bunch of guys up here,” he said. “They were sending me pictures of the jerseys with the patch on them, they had the ALS wristbands and they were like, ‘We’re playing for you today, man.’ So that was really important for me and it was special for me to see the guys in the big leagues thinking about me like that.”
On top of his own personal goals, Hilliard expressed his desire for Lou Gehrig Day to solidify itself as a league-wide celebration, “similar to Jackie Robinson Day.”
“Just the fact that Lou Gehrig was such a huge icon in this game — the Iron Horse — felt like it should have been a thing a long time ago, to be frank with you,” Hilliard said. “But it’s just amazing the recognition that the disease is getting. I feel like MLB giving it the day and the recognition that it’s giving, it’s going to broaden the awareness of the disease because a lot of people just don’t know about it. It’s an underfunded disease and if it gets more awareness and receives more funding, then hopefully we can get one step closer to a cure.”
The Hilliard Family has their own foundation to raise funds for ALS research: Team Hilliard (als.net/teamhilliard, Twitter: @TeamHilliardALS, Instagram: @hilliardfamilystrong). On their site they sell merchandise and have a space to donate, but this year they are doing something special in honor of Lou Gehrig Day.
“I had some custom cleats made for Lou Gehrig Day,” Hilliard said. “They’re purple with a bunch of cool designs on them and say ‘LG4’ on them. And I wore them on [Lou Gehrig Day] and I got a couple of knocks so I was like, ‘dang!’ I’ve been wearing them a lot up in the big leagues just because I missed my opportunity and I keep getting hits so I’m like, ‘I’ve got to keep wearing them!’ But we’re going to auction them at the end of the year to ALS research.”
Hilliard has proven he can produce in short bursts, but he needs to find that consistency in order to become an everyday outfielder or perhaps take over for his mentor, Charlie Blackmon. Regardless, Hilliard is taking in every moment and working with his family to raise funds and awareness for the disease afflicting his father and thousands of others across the United States while trying to make it as an everyday major league baseball player.