It’s safe to say Jeff Hoffman’s career hasn’t gone as hoped to this point.
Hoffman was the ninth overall pick in the 2014 draft. He would’ve gone even higher had he not needed Tommy John surgery at the end of his junior season at East Carolina. The 6-foot-5 right-hander had an upper-90s fastball and a nasty curveball, leading him to become a consensus top-50 MLB prospect. In 2015, he was the centerpiece of the Rockies’ return in the Troy Tulowitzki trade with the Blue Jays. Colorado hoped he’d anchor a staff that could finally overcome the elevation at Coors Field.
But like many Rockies pitchers before him, Hoffman failed to live up to expectations.
By most metrics, he’s been one of the worst pitchers in the league since his debut. Here’s where Hoffman ranks in several key stats among the 320 pitchers who’ve thrown 200 or more innings in the last five seasons:
- ERA: 319th (6.40)
- FIP: 316th (5.58)
- xFIP: 310th (5.22)
- K%: 248th (18.8%)
- BB%: 275th (10.2%)
- fWAR: 298th (0.5)
- Avg. exit velocity: 277th (89.3 mph)
- Hard-hit rate: 301st (39.1%)
You get the picture. Hoffman hasn’t missed bats. His control and command have been erratic. He’s given up a mountainous pile of home runs. The numbers speak for themselves. He’s tried tweaking his mechanics, shortening his delivery to emulate White Sox ace Lucas Giolito. He’s tinkered with his pitch mix, ditching his slider altogether. But Hoffman hasn’t found the right formula for success.
And while being a fly-ball pitcher in Coors Field hasn’t helped matters, his road numbers don’t inspire much confidence, either.
- Home: 7.58 ERA, 5.74 FIP, 5.26 xFIP, 16.8 K%, 10.2 BB%
- Away: 4.86 ERA, 5.37 FIP, 5.15 xFIP, 21.4 K%, 10.1 BB%
Hoffman is getting a fresh start with the Reds, who traded Robert Stephenson to acquire him in November. Hoffman is expected to compete for a spot in the Cincinnati starting rotation, but the bullpen is almost certainly his destination if he makes the team. After what you’ve just read, you might be thinking there’s no way he makes the team — which is not an unreasonable thought. Maybe he won’t.
But the Reds didn’t target him for no reason. Despite his tremendous struggles, there’s plenty to like. He can hit 97 mph with his fastball, which has above-average spin. His curveball has flashed as a plus pitch. He’s significantly tweaked his changeup and finally started to get better results in 2020.
If any team can help Hoffman get his career on track, it’s the Reds. What could Derek Johnson and company do to help Hoffman? Let’s start with the most important pitch.
Hoffman turns to the four-seamer on well over half of his pitches. It’s been the primary culprit in his struggles, ranking as one of the worst fastballs in the league. FanGraphs has created a metric called Pitch Values (or Pitch Type Linear Weights), which assign a value to each pitch based on the run expectancy before and after it’s thrown. A fastball that results in a swinging strike will get a positive value, a fastball hit for a double will get a negative value, and so on. To account for different sample sizes and allow for comparison between pitchers, Pitch Values are also standardized on a per-100-pitch basis, with zero being league average (written as wFB/C). Long story short: Since 2016, Hoffman has the ninth-worst fastball among all pitchers with at least 200 innings at -1.46 wFB/C. Stephenson has the worst fastball value over that time (-2.52).
Other metrics also bear out how poor Hoffman’s fastball has been. Hoffman has a dismal 14.4% whiff rate on the fastball. Batters have hit .320 and slugged .594 against it, contributing to a .417 wOBA. The expected metrics — based on exit velocity and launch angle — aren’t much better (.309 xBA, .568 xSLG, .410 xwOBA). We could go through where all of these metrics rank against other pitchers, but suffice it to say he’s near the bottom in all of them. Outside of Coors Field, his fastball has performed better but still worse than league average (17.0% whiff rate, .284 BA/.275 xBA, .538 SLG/.546 xSLG, .380 wOBA/.385 xwOBA).
Those stats don’t inspire much confidence. What hope does his fastball have? As mentioned above, it has some promising traits: velocity and spin. Hoffman’s velocity, which had dropped by 2 mph in 2018 amid shoulder troubles, returned to 94.4 mph in 2020 (71st percentile). Its average spin rate dipped a bit from 2019, when it was in the 88th percentile, but was still solidly above average (82nd percentile). He also has promising spin efficiency — Statcast’s active spin leaderboard has him at 92.6%, but its new spin direction leaderboard — tracked with the new, more accurate Hawk-Eye system — has him at a near-perfect 99%.
That’s great, but he still got knocked around. Why would things be different with the Reds?
Without accounting for any mechanical adjustments he makes with a new coaching staff, two answers immediately come to mind. One is a factor he can control; the other may happen due to a change in circumstance.
Let’s start with the former.
As we’ve discussed time and time again here at RC+, a high-spin fastball is most effective when it’s thrown up in the zone. Generally, it generates more whiffs and more weak contact (e.g., pop-ups) because the batter swings underneath the ball. A fastball with high spin efficiency will typically have more “rise” (e.g., less drop) because it gets truer backspin, counteracting gravity. Check out this tweet for a neat visual on how spin efficiency works.
Here’s where Hoffman has thrown the fastball in his career:
Not only has he largely avoided throwing up in the zone, but the darkest red is right in the heart of the plate — not a recipe for success. He does tend to throw up in the zone more often away from Coors Field, but he still doesn’t do it enough for a pitcher with good spin.
That isn’t all that surprising for a Colorado pitcher. No team had a lower average four-seam fastball height than the Rockies in 2020…or 2019…or 2018. Maybe it’s because their fastballs simply drop more due to the elevation (more on that later). Maybe it’s because their coaching staff still preaches throwing fastballs low in the zone regardless of the pitcher’s strengths — they are panned for being behind the curve on analytics, after all (and four of the six employees in the already-small research and development team left after the 2020 season — yikes).
Regardless of the reason, though, low fastballs aren’t working for Hoffman at all.
Simply making a concerted effort to elevate the fastball could yield better results for Hoffman in Cincinnati. When he has elevated his heater, it’s been far more effective at getting swings and misses.
As the video bears out, the heater has some pretty nice life to it, which plays up far better when he throws it high in the zone. This was his fastest heater of 2020:
You have to imagine the Cincinnati coaching staff will have him do just that. Contrary to the Rockies, few teams in baseball throw more high fastballs than the Reds. Since Derek Johnson arrived in 2019, only three teams have a higher average fastball height. In 2020, only the Brewers were ahead of the Reds.
There could be another factor in play that explains why Hoffman hasn’t thrown many high fastballs and why the pitch hasn’t been effective in general. And it’s the perfect segue into the second answer on how the pitch could improve.
The Coors Field Effect
Coors Field is notorious for being hitter-friendly. First, it’s a huge ballpark, meaning there’s more room for outfielders to cover and more room for batted balls to turn into base hits. Second, baseballs can cut through the Mile High City’s thin air like butter. The lower air density reduces the effects of drag and Magnus forces, causing fly balls to fly further and leading to more home runs.
You might intuit that this affects pitch movement, too — and you would be correct.
Baseball physicist Alan Nathan calculated that the air density in Denver is 18% less than sea level. This means the Magnus force — which is a large reason why a baseball curves or breaks — is only 82% of what it is at sea level. He calculated that a curveball that drops 18 inches in Fenway Park would only drop 14 or 15 inches in Coors Field. A four-seam fastball would drop four inches more, not a good thing when rise is the name of the game. The four-inch difference may not seem like much, but it can be significant for a pitcher. It takes away crucial deception.
In 2019, FanGraphs Adam Maahs analyzed how Coors stacked up to the average park in pitch movement during the 2018 season. He concluded that four-seamers, two-seamers/sinkers, and changeups lose significant arm-side run (horizontal movement) and four-seamers, curveballs, and cutters lose the most rise or drop (vertical movement).
This also explains the “Coors Field Hangover.”
The gist: Rockies hitters have some of the most extreme home/road splits in baseball, performing far better in Denver than other cities. It’s not strictly because they’re moving away from a high-altitude, hitter-friendly ballpark. On the road, the pitches they’re seeing simply move more than they do at home. That’s a huge adjustment that 29 other teams don’t have to make regularly.
As all-star outfielder Charlie Blackmon put it to The Athletic’s Nick Groke:
“The hardest part for me about playing in Denver is, when you leave Denver, the ball acts differently out of the pitcher’s hand,” Blackmon said. “The only variable is the atmosphere. But unfortunately, that one little variable is the difference between me getting a hit and me striking out on the same pitch.”
Back to Hoffman
Unsurprisingly, Hoffman hasn’t been immune to these effects. Using pitch data provided by Baseball Savant, we can see the horizontal and vertical movement he’s gotten on each pitch in his career. The table below shows how much less his pitches move at Coors Field on average compared to road parks.
That checks out. And as Blackmon puts it, those few inches can be the difference between a hit and a strikeout.
So, if Hoffman’s fastball wasn’t getting as much “rise” (V-Movement) when he pitched at home, it could mean that:
- When he tried to throw the ball up in the zone, it’s dropped further than he wanted due to the low air density.
- He shied away from throwing it up in the zone at Coors Field because it didn’t get as much rise.
Just by virtue of getting away from the altitude, Hoffman should get more rise on his fastball, which could take him from an inch below average to an inch or two above average. Jake McGee is a recent example of a pitcher who left Colorado and got more rise on his fastball. After moving from the Rockies to the Dodgers in 2020, he picked up over two inches of rise on his fastball on average. Tyler Anderson, whose has 95% spin efficiency didn’t play up as well in Colorado, gained an inch of rise on his four-seamer by moving from Colorado to San Francisco in 2020.
Of note, Hoffman increased his spin efficiency — the spin that contributes to pitch movement — from 89.8% to 92.6% year over year by adopting a more over-the-top release. This resulted in nearly two inches of additional rise on average. Closer to sea level, that should play much better for the right-hander, especially if his efficiency increases even more in 2021.
While his fastball has seen horrendous results so far, there’s reason for optimism. It has some good components, and the Reds coaching staff may be able to help him assemble them into a quality pitch.
What about his other pitches?
The 1,600-word mark seems like the right time to talk about Hoffman’s other pitches, eh?
Hoffman also throws a changeup and curveball. He previously threw a slider but has completely scrapped it the last two seasons. In 2020, he used the changeup at a 27% clip and the curve at 18%. Although the changeup made some improvements in 2020, the curve has been the better of the two pitches in his career by far.
Hoffman’s curveball averages 77 mph, and he’ll throw it fairly equally to lefties and righties. Right-handed batters have had a tougher time making hard contact against it (85.0 mph, 22% hard-hit rate), while lefties whiff against the pitch more often (39%) as he buries it at their back foot.
Here’s a look at the pitch — even at Coors Field, it still gets nice break:
Hoffman threw his curveball only one of every five pitches in 2020 following a year in which he used it at a career-high 29% rate. That number could trend back upward with the Reds. Pitching coach Derek Johnson is a huge proponent of pitchers using their best pitches heavily, particularly in relief roles.
There is one concern to note about his curveball: its spin rate has steadily fallen since his rookie year. If you toss out 2018, when he threw only 10 curves in limited MLB action, the pitch has lost about 100 rpm each season. The pitch started out at over 2,800 rpm (92nd percentile) in 2016, but it was all the way down to 2,528 rpm (55th percentile) last year. He’s lost both vertical and horizontal movement along with spin.
This may be one reason he threw it less in 2020. The good news is he still gets above-average movement despite the downward trend in spin. Plus, he could pick up additional movement by getting away from the altitude. But the declining spin rate is something to keep an eye on, as it’s particularly important for a curveball.
If you read curveball vs. changeup table above, you’re probably not excited to read about the latter. For the most part, the pitch has been awful — there’s no sugarcoating it. Remember the Pitch Values referenced above with his fastball? They’re even more unkind to his changeup (-2.23 wCH/C).
Given that fact, it’d be easy to write it off and say he should stop throwing it. However, Hoffman has made an improvement in the last two years that may prevent the Reds from wanting him to toss it out the window.
That’s no small change. Hoffman’s changeup went from nearly four inches below average in drop to four inches above average. How did he make such a dramatic turnaround, especially when pitching in Coors Field?
Well, we don’t have to look far.
With a changeup, less spin is often a plus because it equates to more drop. Hoffman took an astounding 700 rpm off of his changeup from 2018 to 2019, and that continued into last year.
On video, the difference is night and day.
Here’s a video of his changeup from 2018:
Even away from Coors Field, the pitch is flat and doesn’t have any discernable movement to the naked eye. It essentially looks like a slower fastball.
Here’s the changeup last year:
It looks like a fastball before it falls off the table, exhibiting late life that simply wasn’t there in past years.
With this added drop, Hoffman started to feature the changeup more in 2020. It still didn’t elicit great results (.375 BA, .500 SLG, .370 wOBA), but the underlying metrics improved significantly (.250 xBA, .328 xSLG, .239 xwOBA). He also had a career-best 30.9% whiff rate with the pitch. Away from the altitude, he should get more horizontal and vertical movement on the changeup, which will help it play up even more.
For all of his talent, Hoffman hasn’t been able to put things together so far. Part of that is certainly due to the misfortune of getting traded to the Rockies. Part of it is certain execution, too. Mixing in more curveballs and high fastballs alone won’t automatically lead to success for Hoffman. Better control and command need to come along with it. Maybe his career-best 8.7% walk rate (roughly league average) in 2020 was a step in the right direction in that aspect.
The biggest X-factor for Hoffman could be the Cincinnati coaching staff. The Reds have quickly gained a reputation for pitcher development the last two years. With that has come a number of success stories, including Sonny Gray, Lucas Sims, Tejay Antone, Amir Garrett, Tyler Mahle, and even Stephenson (in 2019, at least).
Could Hoffman be part of the next chapter? It’s possible. There’s certainly more than meets the eye beyond his ugly stat line. Notably, he’s has worked with Driveline the last two offseasons and spent time with pitching coordinator Kyle Boddy and new assistant pitching coach Eric Jagers. As Reds fans know by now, if anybody can help Hoffman get the most from his talents, it’s those two along with Derek Johnson.
Featured Image: Jeff Warrington