Baseball has not always been the focus of High-A Lynchburg’s left-handed starting pitcher Juan Hillman. The 6’2”, 200 lb. second round pick of the Indians in 2015 out of Winter Haven, Florida, spent most of his time playing quarterback. He knew very little about baseball.
“I picked up a baseball one day and a friend of my mom’s asked if I wanted to try and play,” he recalled about his first time taking the mound to Did The Tribe Win Last Night. “I just knew you had to throw it to the catcher every time. I was throwing pretty hard back then.”
He began his high school baseball career in Haines City, Florida, where he was living, but he decided to transfer. His family had always been close to former Major League pitcher Tom “Flash” Gordon, who pitched 23 years as a professional, mainly with the Kansas City and Boston organizations. Gordon now lives in Orlando, and encouraged Hillman to transfer to high school there.
“He’s my guardian, so I am pretty close with him,” said Hillman. “He was like, ‘Our school is an A+ school and a great baseball program so you are always welcome to come here.’ It took me a few weeks to make the decision, but I felt like that was the best fit for me.”
After making the transfer to Olympia High School in Orlando, Hillman would play against much steeper competition than what he had faced in Haines City. Players such as Brendan Rogers, Adam Haseley, and Foster Griffin were featured on opposing teams, plus his own squad had Nick Gordon, Tom’s younger son, who would go on to become a first round selection of the Twins in 2014, and is currently playing at AAA Rochester.
With a constant flow of scouts at games, Hillman and his hard throwing left arm became a point of focus as well. He had committed to the University of Central Florida during his sophomore season in high school, and maintained that commitment, but was also open to pursuing the pro route if drafted. Hillman traveled to Perfect Game showcases, and watched as his friend Nick went through the draft process. This helped him make the decision to go pro when his name was called in 2015.
“Honestly it was all open,” said Hillman about who he thought might draft him. “I talked to a good amount of teams, from home visits and questionnaires. Cleveland happened to draft me and I’m glad I’m here.”
Longtime Cleveland scout Mike Soper, a former Indian farmhand himself, signed Hillman. He recalled them getting along well, making it that much easier to complete the signing process with the Indians.
“I met him during the home visits, he would come by the house,” said Hillman. “Always a nice guy, always talkative. I love someone who is talkative, cause I can talk as well. We just had a great connection.”
Now in his fifth season as a pro, Hillman spent his first two seasons in Rookie ball in Arizona and then with the New York-Penn League affiliate of Cleveland, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. His pitching at both these stops was solid, but unspectacular. He recorded a WHIP of 1.43 while racking up 47 strikeouts in 63 innings for his season with the Scrappers in 2016.
For Hillman, the biggest adjustment that he made at this level involved his pitch selections.
“In Rookie ball, everyone can hit a fastball,” he said about his first season in the professional ranks. “You’ve got to find other ways to get guys out. It’s like you’re facing that top high school guy every batter.”
Hillman would progress to Low-A Lake County, where he pitched for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. He spent the time there working on developing his pitching acumen, and the four pitches that make up his arsenal – four-seam fastball, change-up, slider, and curveball. For the past two seasons, he has worked with current Hillcats pitching coach Joe Torres, who Hillman credits as the development staff member who has had the most impact on his pitching.
“He’s a lefty as well, he’s seen it all, and he works with me and the process,” said Hillman. “I trust him to help me stay focused. I’m listening to him. It’s all part of the process.”
At Lake County, Hillman started 26 games each season, posting an overall 13-22 record, improving his strikeout-to-innings-pitched ratio from his first to second season. The more significant progress that he made was in reducing his home runs allowed from 22 to seven. He has kept up that trend this year with the Hillcats, having only allowed seven homers in 18 starts.
“Keeping the ball down in the zone, keeping the ball down on the ground instead of allowing those deep fly balls that can turn into home runs,” he shared about what has improved this season. “Sometimes I give up a deep fly and think, ‘Ahhhh…’, and then they run it down and I’m like ‘Thank you boys!’”
The defensive prowess of Hillcats outfielders such as Jodd Carter, Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez, and Trenton Brooks, supported Hillman in posting a 3.99 ERA, so far the lowest in his career. He is also on pace to equal or better his personal best in strikeouts, which is 110 in 2018 with Lake County. He struck out a season-high ten batters on Saturday against Frederick in a quality start and no-decision that once again kept him out of the win column, something he has been unable to accomplish since May 27.
What makes Hillman an intriguing prospect to watch is that he has twice been recognized for his on-field success as a Mid-Season All-Star, including this season for the Hillcats.
“I think six of us went that year,” Hillman said about the 2016 All-Star game in the New York-Penn League. “I’m still very close with every single player I went with that year. It was a fun experience, and hopefully I’m trying to get to the next one.”
In 2016, he joined fellow Scrappers Todd Issacs, Tanner Tully, Gabriel Mejia, Erlin Cerda, and Andrew Calica at the home of the Hudson Valley Renegades. His performance this year earned him a spot on the Carolina League’s Northern Division All-Star squad, along with teammates O. Gonzalez, Nolan Jones, and Adam Scott. Now, he is back to the daily routine – focus on each game, learn to make adjustments, and pitch to the best of his ability.
“He’s been able to mix his pitches and throw them all for strikes, keeping the hitters off-balance,” said Hillcats manager Jim Pankovits. “That’s the number one priority for any pitcher, keep the hitters off-balance and not let them look for any particular pitch at any one time.”
This is reflected in Hillman’s improved ERA, and his declining career home run rate. At 22 years old, Hillman has time and opportunity in his favor. It will be fun to watch him toe the rubber as the Hillcats team strives to capture the Carolina League’s second half Northern Division crown.
Photo: Lindsay Carico/Lynchburg Hillcat (MiLB.com)