Sam Hilliard initially was considered a pitching prospect in college – like Charlie Blackmon.
Hilliard eventually made his mark at Wichita State as an outfielder – like Blackmon at Georgia Tech.
And both of them wound up being drafted by the Rockies.
It remains to be seen if Hilliard can continue to follow the path of Blackmon, who turned into an All-Star caliber centerfielder on a Rockies team that has advanced to the post-season in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history.
“I had a long conversation with him, in spring training, in the dugout one day,” said Hilliard, an invite to the Rockies big-league camp last spring. “He told me all about his background, his journey through the big leagues, and it was interesting. We’re pretty similar.”
There is even a bit of an unusual twist to how they both wound up Rockies draft choices. Blackmon was the Rockies' second round in 2008, following his senior year at Georgia Tech. Hilliard, meanwhile, was selected in the 15th round in 2015, after his junior year at Wichita State.
Rockies special assistant Danny Montgomery was at Georgia Tech to check out a highly regarded pitching prospect back in 2010 when Tech coach Danny Hall told him to check out Blackmon, a left-handed situational reliever the previous season who converted to the outfield in summer ball.
Hilliard? His was more blind luck than Blackmon. Having transferred to Wichita State for his junior year, Hilliard had an impressive resume as a top pitcher in junior college, which drew scouts from every team to Wichita early in that season, including Brent Baldwin, who was a first-year scout with the Rockies, assigned to cover nine Midwestern states.
“I’m not saying it was dumb luck, but I was a first-year scout,” said Baldwin. “The other scouts knew him as a pitcher. I went in and saw a hitter. He was a big guy who could run. As the spring went on he didn’t pitch that well at all.”
While others were backing off Hilliard because of his struggles on the mound, Baldwin kept thinking about his ability to swing the bat, and he sought a second opinion from fellow Rockies scout Jesse Retzlaff, who was based out of Dallas, and was considered by Baldwin “to be my mentor.”
Wichita State had a series at Dallas Baptist, and Retzlaff was on hand to see Hilliard unload a long home run off Chance Adams, who that spring was a fifth-round draft choice of the Yankees, and Retzlaff liked what he saw.
“After that, I realized I was not crazy thinking he can play a little,” said Baldwin. “Then, at the Missouri Valley tournament, he hit a big home run against Illinois State. The ball went completely out of the stadium at Wichita State.”
It wasn’t until the 15th round in that draft, but Baldwin got his guy, the first draft pick of his career.
“You could say, he was hidden in plain sight,” said Baldwin.
He is being seen now. He’s no longer the son of a former Texas football player and a former Miss Texas, who was runner-up for Miss America.
Now, he is a rising prospect in the minor leagues, ranked among the 10 best players in the Rockies system.
Hilliard’s steady improvement in his four years with the Rockies led the Rockies to select Hilliard as one of three position players they assigned to the Salt River Rafters in the Arizona Fall League this year, and Hilliard has taken another step up the ladder in his quest to reach the big leagues.
He has appeared in 13 games with the Rafters, hitting .370, second among the 14 players on the roster with at least 35 at-bats to fellow Rockies prospect Tyler Nevin (.404). He also is tied for third on the team with 14 RBI.
“I always enjoyed hitting more than pitching, but in junior college I was more focused on pitching,” he said. “I thought it was going to be my future. I got better coaching offensively at Wichita State and everything clicked. I’m really glad it worked that way.”
He took such a major step forward that Hilliard admits there was some debate over whether he should sign with the Rockies as a 15th-round draft choice or return to Wichita State for his senior season.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “The coaches wanted me to come back for another year. They thought I could prove myself and become a high pick as a hitter, but that comes with a lot of risk factors. You can get injured. You can have a down year. I thought the smartest move would be to sign and get my professional career started.”
So far, so good.
“I wouldn’t call myself a new offensive player, anymore, but when I started in pro ball I was relatively new at hitting and playing the outfield,” he said. “It’s a matter of learning, being consistent. When I try to do too much, when I’m trying to hit the ball 500 feet, I get in trouble. I don’t do that, for the most part, anymore.”
Not that Hilliard feels like he has aced the course.
“It’s a struggle every single day, for me,” he said. “In the Fall League, I think I’ve been doing a great job. I’ve made some adjustments. I feel like I’m making a lot more consistent contract. I feel I am truly headed in the right direction.”
It’s a direction aimed at Coors Field, a path similar to the one Blackmon took.