‘I feel like myself again’: The difficult decision that helped Sam Hilliard find himself

Braves center fielder Sam Hilliard (14) celebrates his run with teammates at the bottom of the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, at Truist Park in Atlanta.
 Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Braves center fielder Sam Hilliard (14) celebrates his run with teammates at the bottom of the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, at Truist Park in Atlanta. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In late August last year, when the Rockies optioned Sam Hilliard to Triple A, he reached a breaking point.

“In a way, I abandoned everything I’d been working the last two years,” Hilliard said, “and went back to what I felt like got me to the big leagues in the first place.”

This was a difficult decision. Hilliard’s nature is to do what he’s told, no matter what he thinks of it. For years, he followed the instruction of different coaches, implementing their adjustments and tweaks with precision.

Hilliard lost himself in the process.

Finally, he made the call: If he were to fail in the future, he would do so on his own terms, doing what he believed was best for himself. Not rebelling, but following his own heart.

“Every coach I’ve ever had, had my best interest in mind. I truly believe that. They were trying to help me,” Hilliard said. “I certainly struggled (with) the way I used to hit and we made some adjustments along the way. Over several years, we made some adjustments that worked briefly, stopped working. Before you knew it, a year and a half later, I was like, ‘I don’t even feel like the same hitter anymore. I don’t feel like myself. I forgot what I used to be.’ It took forever for me to kind of find that again.

“I feel like I’m on the right path. I feel like myself again. At the very least, I can say that, if it doesn’t work out, then I’m going to do it my way and I’m going to feel like myself. But I’m happy with the way it’s going. I think I’m in a good spot.”

With Michael Harris II on the injured list with a lower back strain, Hilliard has played almost every day and has made the most of his opportunity. He is hitting. He is playing outstanding defense. He is providing speed on the bases. The tools you always heard about with him? We’re seeing them – and with consistency.

When the Rockies sent Hilliard to Triple-A Albuquerque toward the end of last season, he got back to himself. “Just kind of tried my best to have my brain get out of the way and let my body just be athletic and get into the move and the position that felt most comfortable to me, and kind of build on that again,” Hilliard said. He immediately saw success and felt more comfortable – and more athletic – in the batter’s box. Finally, he could compete and be an athlete instead of thinking about, for example, where his hands were or what his lower body was going.

“I was never trying consciously to think of that,” Hilliard said, “but I never felt truly comfortable in the box, so it was kind of impossible to free my mind, basically.”

Now, he was free.

In Triple A, Hilliard worked with Jordan Pacheco, who helped him a lot. (The two still keep in contact.) In 21 games for Albuquerque to end last season, Hilliard hit .333 with a 1.213 OPS. He hit one double, two triples and nine home runs while driving in 20 runs. He also walked 12 times.

He had found himself again.

“It was in Triple A, so, like, this is the big leagues, pitching is a little bit different,” Hilliard said. “I felt like it was going to translate, but I knew that was probably going to be the thought of other people: Will it translate? So it was definitely a good feeling. A lot of pressure was off me at that time. I felt like, If I’m going to get sent down to Triple A, I’m going to do it my way. I’m going to go out my way.”

Atlanta Braves center fielder Sam Hilliard (14) gives a thumbs up after making it safely into second base in the third inning of the game Tuesday, April 11, 2023 at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado / For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

Hilliard is out of minor-league options, meaning the Braves would need to designate him for assignment, and thus lose him, if they took him off their roster. And that won’t happen because he’s been too valuable for them early in the season.

After making the Braves’ opening day roster, Hilliard was batting .348 with a 1.073 OPS over 23 at-bats. Before Harris went down, Hilliard only received one plate appearance over the first six games. Now he’s making a case for playing time in left field after Harris returns.

In 28 plate appearances entering Sunday, Hilliard had put seven balls in play at over 100 mph. Three left his bat at over 110 mph.

Hilliard said he’s more athletic in the box. For him, that means standing up tall, with his hands free and loose. He’s not in his own head.

“Not feeling like a robot up there,” he said. “I know I probably never really looked like a robot, but that’s what I felt like. My hands weren’t at the right spot, I felt like my timing was off and I had no rhythm. Now, I don’t even think about where my hands are – they just go to where they go, on time, and I have rhythm, and I’m just out there competing. Obviously, I have a detailed approach depending on who the pitcher is, but I have clear intent and I’m just letting myself be an athlete. I’m not thinking.”

We might be witnessing the beginning of a breakout season for Hilliard, who has pushed to stick in the major leagues since debuting in 2019.

“I think failure is the best teacher, and this game has no shortage of failure in it,” Hilliard said. “I haven’t had a huge amount of success in my time in the big leagues. I’ve had it here and there, but it’s been a grind. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to learn and grow, and I feel like I’ve got a big library of stuff I can reach into and lean on whenever I need some fuel, some confidence.”

Added Braves manager Brian Snitker: “You root like heck for guys like (Hilliard) that are really good people, and just how skilled he is. And you just never know when guys may get a hold of it. You really respect the talent and the tools this guy has and how hard he works, how dedicated he is to it, and the whole thing. …You hope you’re around and he’s part of your team when it clicks.”

Every player feels the same: The more they play, the better they perform. Rhythm and repetition are important in baseball. It’s a small sample size, but Hilliard is maximizing his opportunity.

“I don’t know if I can speak for everybody, but I see myself as one of those guys that should be an everyday player. It’s just confidence in myself,” Hilliard said. “I know that’s not my role right now, but I believe that’s what I’m capable of and I think I can really help the team in that way. I see myself as a middle-of-the-lineup, everyday player. If that’s my goal and that’s how I see myself, then I’m not going to be surprised when the opportunity comes.”

Months later, standing in the visiting clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, Hilliard reflects on the difficult decision he made last fall.

He seems certain it was the correct one.

“It would’ve been brutal if it didn’t work out for me and I never even at least tried to do what I felt in my heart and in my gut was the right thing to do,” Hilliard said. “Glad I did that. It didn’t take too much courage, but it was a big decision. The way I’m built, I’ve always been, ‘Be a team guy, do what the coaches tell me to do.’ It took a little while for me to get to that point, but I finally had enough, I guess, and made that decision.”