Around the Foghorn’s Marc Delucchi chatted with SF Giants prospect PJ Hilson about the outfielder’s path to the pros and how he’s handling 2020.
Minor league prospects have been through a whirlwind over the past twelve months. MLB was already maneuvering to take over minor-league ball before COVID-19 was on anyone’s radar. When the disease spread throughout the United States and caused the cancellation of the minor-league season, players were left in the dust.
Some prospects are training at places like Driveline or other workout facilities their agents have built. For most prospects though, they have to do what they can at home. Outfielder PJ Hilson fits into the latter.
Back in Jonesville, Arkansas, Hilson doesn’t have access to the type of competition or equipment he’d have during a normal year. He’s still making it work, dedicating his mornings to workouts and practice.
While Hilson became the first member of his family to reach pro baseball, he has a long way to go before he’s the most decorated athlete in his family. His mother (Valarie Hilson) and two older brothers (Nick Hilson and Kyle Clemons) all ran track at the Division-1 level. Clemons has multiple world championships and an Olympic gold medal in the 400m.
Hilson carries that track background onto the baseball field. It hasn’t translated into consistent professional success, but he remains one of the toolsiest players in the Giants organization. Hilson is a plus-plus runner with a plus arm and above-average power potential. If he puts it all together, he could be a game-changer.
Not from a baseball family, Hilson’s origin story isn’t as straightforward as most prospects, “I started playing baseball around 5 because my brother started playing… I didn’t play travel ball. I just played regional ball,” he explained in an interview with Around the Foghorn.
In fact, it wasn’t until late in his high school career that he began showing up on scouts’ radar. “I hurt my arm my junior year so I could only DH. I wasn’t really satisfied so I starting playing weekend ball as well. That’s when I started getting looks,” Hilson explained.
With the type of speed and arm to light up stopwatches and radar guns, his stock blew up at showcases the following summer. He soon committed to the University of Alabama and was comfortable heading to the SEC if the draft didn’t play out his way.
The Giants clearly liked what they saw enough to pull him away from the Crimson Tide. After selecting Hilson in the 6th round of the 2018 draft, the Giants signed the Arkansas native for an above-slot $520,000 signing bonus, more in line with the slot of a late-3rd or early-4th round pick.
Having never played against premium talent in high school, the jump to the pros was always going to be difficult. Hilson described the shift, “Coming out of high school, I occasionally saw a guy throwing hard. It was an adjustment when I turned pro and started seeing guys constantly throwing 93-94… My first season was just me taking a lot in.”
Hilson has played exclusively in the Arizona League over the past two seasons. His underdeveloped hit tool has caused his strikeout rate to skyrocket (36.7% strikeout rate), but his OPS improved by 46 points from 2018 to 2019. Even with those struggles, he remains ranked among the top 31 prospects in the Giants system. That’s what big tools can do.
Heading into the season, Hilson was confident things were looking up, “I knew this was going to be a breakout year for me.” He spent the offseason focusing on getting stronger to counteract issues he’s had maintaining weight throughout the season.
At the plate, Hilson focused on locking in his swing, “It took me a while to learn my swing. I could always hit the ball middle-in without an issue, but I could never stay planted because my backfoot would come up and I couldn’t hit outside pitches.” Hilson focused on his balance and approach to leave himself less susceptible to pitches away.
In 2020, PJ Hilson would have been back at rookie ball. If baseball is “back to normal” in 2021, it’ll be interesting to see where Hilson’s assigned. He’ll be the age of a young college sophomore and some strides in his 16-month layoff could lead the SF Giants to challenge him with an assignment to Low-A ball. Granted, that’s only possible if the current minor-league structure remains intact.
It’s undeniably difficult to know where he’s at without stepping on the field. However, PJ Hilson remains focused on controlling what he can. If he progresses at the plate, he has the ability to make plenty of highlight plays at Oracle Park.