Lancaster, California —— Colorado Rockies outfield prospect Sam Hilliard put together a memorable season in 2017, filling the stat sheet in nearly every way imaginable and, now, helping lead his Lancaster JetHawks to the California League‘s Championship Series that begins tonight at The Hangar against North Division champ Modesto Nuts. We spoke to the lefty swinger very early this year, and marveled then about his five-tool potential and sneaky power/speed combo, but it’s all the more impressive that the outfielder translated those raw tools into sustained offensive production all year: 23 doubles, 21 home runs, 37 stolen bases, 50 walks, a .300/.360/.487/.847 slash line, and the second-most total bases in the Cal League (261), sitting only one base behind the leader—who put together a very special 2017 season in his own right.
Winning matters most, as Hilliard and the JetHawks will set out to prove beginning tonight against Modesto, but personal goals matter, too, for an under-the-radar prospect trying to climb the Rockies’ organizational ladder.
“I knew I was capable of [the strong season], and I went along really well with what this organization preaches, which is just being aggressive,” Hillard told Baseball Census. “My stolen bases came without fear knowing that if I got thrown out, as long as I was being aggressive, no one was going to get mad at it. And one of my goals was to be a 20/20 guy, and I achieved that. It took me to the last game of the season for a few of ‘em [Hilliard hit two home runs on the season’s final day], but I got them, and I was happy.”
Of course, it’s easier to get enough chances to be a 20/20 guy like Hilliard when your teams runs like the JetHawks do. Thirty-seven stolen bases would have led every other team in the Cal League this season except for Lancaster; with Wes Rogers (70), Garrett Hampson (51), Hilliard (37), Mylz Jones (34), Yonathan Daza (31), Wilson Soriano (30), and Chris Rabago (25), the Colorado Rockies pushed their High-A affiliate to run, run, run — even while playing in the most hitter-friendly environment in all of professional baseball.
“That’s the way I want to play, and I think that’s the way you have to play, especially in the minor leagues when you’re trying to see what you can do,” Hilliard said, marveling at the Rockies’ ideas on letting Lancaster run wild. “And especially with guys like Wes and Garrett, it’s fun to have those guys on the team, because it’s a little bit of competition to see who can get more. Of course, I ended up just fighting for third place here at the end. They ran away with it, especially Wes.”
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That’s maybe the most interesting thing about Sam Hilliard, and more generally this Lancaster JetHawks team, as they ready themselves for the shot at a Cal League crown: in a ballpark infamous for doubles and home runs with wind incessantly blowing out, the JetHawks have committed themselves to doing the small things, too. That means situational hitting, moving runners over, starting runners on the bases to jumpstart the offense and, yes, bunting. And that means even asking a 20/20 power hitter like Hilliard to buy into the culture of bunting to move a runner over for a better shot at winning a late-season game.
“We play small ball, and then we have a lot of guys who can hit home runs, and we take pride in doing both,” Hilliard said. “The other night, I was having a good game and I had already hit a home run, and I ended up laying down a bunt with a guy on second base, and [Roberto] Ramos came up and hit the game winning single. At that point, it’s just anything to help the team win, and I think everybody on the team is willing to do that.”
That’s an eye-opener for sure, especially considering the power Sam Hilliard possesses; one would imagine he could have ended the game with one swing before ever needing to bunt ahead of Ramos. But maybe that’s a sign of a championship team, and so it’s not much of a surprise that Lancaster is playing the final series of the Cal League season right now: there’s nothing this club, and Hilliard, won’t do to win.
“Fred [Ocasio], our manager, gave the call to bunt if I wanted,” Hilliard remembered of that walk-off win during the season’s final week against Rancho Cucamonga. “I looked down and the third baseman was playing back and over, and I decided you know what, I’m going to lay down a sacrifice. Maybe I’ll get a hit out of it, but I’m going to make sure I get him over, because I know the guy behind me is going to get the job done. I was having a good game up to that point and I wanted to hit, but even more so I wanted to move him over, and so it was an easy choice to drop the sacrifice there.”
“On the days where the wind is blowing out, anybody can hit a ball out at any time,” Hilliard continued, pointing out towards Lancaster’s power alleys in the outfield gaps, “but we have a plan, and we stick to it, and we play aggressive and smart. If we have to play small ball we will, too. Any way to win a game, that’s what we’ll do.”
Maybe that’s the attitude one should expect from a junior college product who’s always been overlooked in favor of other, flashier prospects. Maybe Sam Hilliard isn’t long for flying under the radar like that, though; probably not after filling up the stat sheet all year in Lancaster, and certainly not considering his abundant physical tools that will continue to produce on into 2018 and beyond. This big summer—and maybe even a ring later this week—will have Sam Hilliard sliding up various prospect rankings and watch lists over the winter. Maybe that’s been a long time in coming.
“I wasn’t really a high draft pick out of college, and I’m really just trying to grind in the minor leagues,” the 15th round pick (2015) summed up. “I don’t really pay attention to [prospect lists], but if Brendan [Rodgers] and Brian [Mundell] get all the attention, they deserve it. Maybe after the season is over I’ll check that stuff out. If I keep putting up numbers, and we keep winning, maybe I’ll attract more attention, but it’s not really going to affect me one way or another.”
Maybe it won’t affect Sam Hilliard, but if he puts up another 20/20 season like he did in 2017, there’s no way the prospect won’t start attracting quite a bit of attention — and that could soon start affecting the Colorado Rockies.