As her husband Rich stepped into the batter's box, Caitlin Hill lifted her iPhone, centered the camera and pressed record. She was sitting a dozen rows behind Citi Field's home plate last weekend with their 5-year-old son, Brice. Caitlin joked to Brice that they might see history: Rich's first home run. Instead the video memorialized his alter ego, a man one of his Dodgers teammates dubbed "Psycho Rich."
When Mets pitcher Seth Lugo fired a 93 mph fastball, Hill lunged to bunt. He whiffed, whirled around and unleashed a one-word expletive into the summer afternoon air. The noise perked up Brice's ears.
"Daddy! Why did you yell?" Brice said. He turned to his mother. "Why is Daddy yelling?" Caitlin could only laugh. Over the past two seasons as a Dodger, Hill has earned acclaim for his creativity and his daring, his willingness to improvise within games, shifting the angle of his arm and toggling the shape of his curveball. His artistry as a pitcher may be matched only by his ability to express himself in colorful language.
Mild-mannered away from the diamond, Hill transforms into a snarling, swearing brute on the mound. Sweat pours down his face. He skips after his delivery and stomps toward the plate. Expletives escape his mouth in inventive fashion. His teammates giggle at the sight. The stories they tell are mostly unprintable, tales of Hill chastising himself on the diamond, on the bench, in the tunnel leading to the clubhouse. "I think it's funnier when he's on the mound than when he comes into the dugout," utility man Enrique Hernandez said. "When he comes into the dugout, it's kind of scary."
Hill survived a different sort of scare in Friday's 4-3 loss to San Diego. A 92 mph fastball from Padres pitcher connected with his Adam's apple while he was trying to bunt.
Hill looked stricken when he fell to the ground, but stayed in the game. He finished with nine strikeouts in six innings of two-run baseball, and left in line for a victory. The lead disappeared when Ross Stripling surrendered home runs in the seventh and eighth. Hill was taken to a hospital for tests after the game. Manager Dave Roberts described the visit as "precautionary."
Hill is not the only Dodgers starter to flash emotion on the mound. Clayton Kershaw roils with emotion. Alex Wood sparked a skirmish in June when he threatened to drill a Padre for stealing signs. But the gap between Hill's off-field calm and his cartoonish intensity while pitching amuses his teammates more than the others. "It's not fake," Hill said. "It's genuine. I'm not trying to be anything other than who I am, and be in that moment."
On the four days before he pitches, Hill is an amiable, agreeable fellow. He is open and available with reporters. He traffics in goofy humor — he makes puns and can recite snippets of Robin Williams' standup. He philosophizes about the necessity of conviction, and stresses the importance of "really being passionate about what you're doing."
Hill cast his ferocity as an extension of that ethos, an example of "expressing myself through that intensity," he said. He does not perform for the cameras. On quiet mornings at Camelback Ranch this spring, Hill could be heard cursing at himself during bullpen sessions.
"He's constantly refining and fine-tuning," Caitlin Hill said. "He's always trying to get better. It's always there. It's never enough."
The Dodgers learned this soon after acquiring Hill last summer. Midway through his first start that August, Justin Turner went to the mound to give Hill the baseball after a pair of loud outs. Hill was sputtering with rage. "They're lighting me up!" Hill screamed. "You've got two outs, dude," Turner reminded him.
"You're right!" Hill said. He grabbed the baseball and went back to work. Turner returned to third base, thinking "This guy is awesome."
A few weeks later, Hill took exception when Diamondbacks pitcher Archie Bradley threw a pitch inside to him. Hill was trying to bunt. The ball darted within striking distance of Hill's fingers. Hill was livid as he ran down the line. "Throw the ... ball over the plate!" Hill yelled at Bradley.
In time, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt learned when it was best to approach Hill in between innings. Roberts came to understand that Hill's anger at being removed from games was not personal. "He feels that he can throw 140 pitches every single day," Roberts said. "And that's great. It's never, ever been disrespectful."
The outbursts can create extra responsibility for Hill's catchers. At times, either Yasmani Grandal or Austin Barnes will remind the umpire that Hill is not talking to them. Barnes said he has heard opponents question Hill's sanity on multiple occasions. "I think the hitters sometimes don't know how to react," Barnes said.
That perspective aids Hill's approach. He does not rely on pristine command. His fastball velocity hovers around 89 mph, but he still attacks with it. He does not rely on finesse. "What was it Mike Tyson said?" Hill said. "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face."
Earlier this summer, Roberts wondered if Hill's intensity was backfiring. Roberts felt Hill struggled to refocus after misfortune within games, especially after a seven-run pasting by Cleveland on June 15. Hill disagreed with Roberts' assessment, but he did not idle. He tinkered with his delivery, and the changes have resulted in a 2.33 ERA in his last nine starts.
A few days ago in Arizona, Hill acted as the catcher while a few teammates impersonated him. He fed closer Kenley Jansen, who dropped the baseball and muttered a few expletives.
"OK, one more angry fastball," Jansen said, winding up with his left arm and fluttering the baseball toward Hill. Jansen finished the delivery with an exaggerated leg kick.
Jansen looked like a punter contorting his body to avoid the oncoming rush. Hill chuckled and trotted out of the room. As he left, a reporter asked Hill to rate the impression.
"Oh, I don't know," Hill said, self-conscious as he bounced a ball off a concrete wall. "Hard for me to say."