Anatomy of a player: Trevor Hoffman

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Trevor Hoffman’s over the top delivery. (Icon/SMI)

Introduction

Trevor Hoffman has been closing game for the Padres for 15 years but with the Padres rebuilding Hoffman had to look elsewhere when he decided he wanted to come back for a 16th season as a 42-year-old. Hoffman signed with the Brewers last week for a $6 million, one-year deal with another possible $1.5 in incentives. This is the second year that the Brewers went out to the free agent market looking for a closer and I think it is safe to say they didn’t get the return they were looking for from the $10 million deal they gave Eric Gagne last year. While this move has met with a better reception it still represents a big gamble for the crew. Here is a look at what Hoffman has left in the tank.

Hoffman’s stuff

Everyone knows about Hoffman’s change-up but that isn’t all there is to Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman also throws a fastball, slider, and an occasional curveball. Here is a look at his movement chart.

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Hoffman’s fastball is exceptionally straight. This is because of his over the top delivery, which produces almost completely pure backspin with almost no side spin when Hoffman throws his fastball. For a fastball that averages 86.5 mph you might think Hoffman is in a world of hurt with this pitch but it actually is a little more effective than you would expect. As a closer, Hoffman is coming in at the end of the game when the hitters have seen at least one other pitcher already. The previous pitchers almost certainly have had some (and maybe a lot) of horizontal movement with their fastballs. So when Hoffman comes in with no horizontal movement this can throw a hitter off. Also, because the pitch has almost no side spin it has a very large amount of back spin giving the pitch extremely large vertical “rise” again helping keep the bat off the sweet spot. The negative to this is that when a hitter does make contact he likely is going to hit the bottom part of the ball and hit the ball in the air. This hasn’t been an issue playing in spacious PETCO Park but moving to Miller Park next year expect to see some more balls leaving the yard. And it is a mid-80s fastball so when a hitter does square up he is going to do some damage.

The pitch that gets very little attention is Hoffman’s slider. You almost never hear of a 81.5 mph slider called a hard slider but that is exactly what the pitch is. Hoffman gets over four inches of horizontal movement with the pitch diving away from right-handed batters whom he exclusively uses the pitch against. That is very solid movement, especially considering the relatively small difference between his slider and fastball speed. While Hoffman’s slider is an above average pitch you almost never hear about it because he rarely uses the pitch to put a batter away. Hoffman is much more likely to use his slider early in the count (0-0, 1-0, 0-1, 1-1) than he is when he has two strikes on the hitter. The slider is very effective for Hoffman to get to strike two to then use the change-up to put the hitter away and was a big reason he managed almost 10 K/G last year despite throwing softly.

Hoffman very occasionally threw a curveball that moved like a good slider but was thrown around 71 mph. Because this pitch moves down as much as it moves in to a left handed batter Hoffman might consider using his curve more often next year to left handed batters where his slider is much less effective.

All that is nice but Hoffman’s bread and butter pitch is his change-up. Hoffman’s change-up is pretty much exactly what a pitcher is looking for with a change-up. First, he throws the pitch around 12 mph less than his fastball which is exceptional. Second, the deception of the pitch is remarkable. Here is a side view of Hoffman’s fastball and change-up from the side.

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You can see how similar these pitches look and how little information the hitter has that the change-up is coming. Hoffman saves the change-up for when it really matters, rarely throwing it with no strikes, sometimes throwing it with one strike, and throwing more often than all his other pitches combined with two strikes. This ensures the hitter hasn’t seen the change-up so when the highest leverage pitch comes he still has his largest weapon in his back pocket. Additionally, Hoffman throws his change-up to right-handed batters much more frequently than most right-handed pitchers. I have talked about this a lot recently but the reason Hoffman can get away with this is his change-up hardly moves in to a right handed batter so it doesn’t end up moving in to the wheelhouse very often.

This pitch combination makes Hoffman absolute death to a right-handed batter. Even though Hoffman’s fastball isn’t great it does offer something hitters don’t see a lot and the excellent slider and change-up more than make up for it. Last year opponents had a .466 OPS against Hoffman, and it is barely higher over the past three years. Hoffman’s recent problems has been against lefties. Last year lefties had a .869 OPS against him and it is pretty clear the reasons for that. Pitchers like to have a “hard” pitch that they bust the hitter in with and then a “soft” pitch they throw that breaks down and away to put the hitter away. Hoffman has neither of these against lefties, with only a fastball that is rather straight and a change-up that doesn’t break away from a left handed batter like many change-ups from right handed pitchers.

Outlook for 2009

Even if Hoffman looses another mph off his fastball that probably isn’t going to bother him much. His slider still has plenty of slide and his change-up still has plenty of deception and speed differential to be effective. Hoffman is moving from the park that probably suited him the best in the majors to a park that is somewhat home run friendly and that likely will affect him more than another pitcher because of the large number of fly balls he gives up. Still, that alone isn’t going to kill Hoffman who posted a FIP under four and an ERA+ just above one last year. What might be the death blow to Hoffman’s career as a closer is if his issues against left handed hitters worsens. At this point it is extremely unlikely that he will develop a new pitch so he has to be extra shape with the two pitches he does throw to lefties. If the ninth inning rolls around and there are several tough lefties due up it would probably be a better bet to have Brian Shouse (if resigned) or Mitch Stetter try for the save.

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