February 25, 2003

Hells Bells

For as much as I talk about a "closer" just being a made up position dependent on a stupid stat, being a closer sure is a cool thing to be. I mean, it is just so damn manly and tough, you know?

What's the #1 cliche you hear associated with a closer? "He's coming in to slam the door!"

It's just cool.

A closer's job is to come in and put an end to the other team's chances of winning the game.

He's going to stop whatever rally they have going, get rid of any thoughts of victory they may have and "slam the door" on the game.

It gets even better when you add in some really cool music.

For years now, Trevor Hoffman has been closing games for the Padres and has been making his entrance into the game like a wrestler, complete with "Hells Bells" by AC/DC blaring over the loud speakers.

I am the kind of guy that gets really pumped up by music at a sporting event. I've been at Timberwolves first round playoff games when they've played "Welcome to the Jungle" in the 4th quarter and I get all goofy. I don't know how to explain it, but it happens to me a lot.

If I get pumped up sitting in the stands, I can only imagine how it feels for someone like Trevor Hoffman to come into the game in the 9th inning to "slam the door" and to make his trip from the bullpen to the mound accompanied by "Hells Bells," with thousands of screaming, pumped up fans, ready for a door to be slammed and another win to be had.

By the way, if you've never seen/heard Hoffman make his entrance in San Diego, you're missing out. I can't recreate it obviously, but if you click on the link below you can listen to a good clip of "Hells Bells" and get a little feel for it.

30 seconds of "Hells Bells by AC/DC

My favorite part isn't the actual song, but the eerie silence at the beginning of it that is followed by the sound of a big bell (Hell's Bell!) ringing loudly several times. It is sort of like Hoffman saying, "Here I come" in his best grim-reaper voice.

Anyway, I started thinking about all this stuff when I saw the following article on ESPN.com yesterday afternoon:

Hoffman needs surgery, likely shelved till July

Hoffman's injury isn't a new thing and he and the Padres have basically been trying to figure out the best way to go about dealing with it for a while. They decided that Hoffman needs surgery "to repair a bone in his throwing shoulder," which will probably keep him out of action for at least the first half of the season.

There are very few guys in baseball that I would call a "true closer."

Obviously, as I have discussed here before, there are tons of guys every year that rack up 30 or 40 saves and there are at least 28 or 30 guys a year that have the "closer" label. But really, how many of them are truly closers?

Antonio Alfonseca has 113 saves over the last 4 seasons, including 45 in 2000, but is he really what you think of when you hear the word "closer?" Of course not, he's just a relief pitcher that has been asked to pitch the 9th inning of a lot of games where his team has a small lead.

No, when I think of a closer, there are a few active players that come to mind.

Mariano Rivera.

Troy Percival.

Robb Nen.

And, of course, Trevor Hoffman.

There are definitely other very good pitchers who have been closers for a while, guys like Billy Koch, Billy Wagner, Armando Benitez, Ugie Urbina or Kaz Sasaki.

But, in my mind, there are very few guys that are truly closers.

Sort of like when people talk about an "ace" starting pitcher.

Sure, there are probably 50 guys that you could call an ace, but when I think about the term I associate it with guys like Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux, not guys like Al Leiter, Chuck Finley or even Mike Mussina.

All of this is my very long way of saying that I am sad that Trevor Hoffman is injured and will very likely miss the majority of the 2003 season. He's been one of the best closers in baseball history and, in my mind at least, he is one of the few true closers in baseball right now.

What he's done in San Diego is really amazing.

He was originally an 11th round draft pick of the Reds and became a member of the Florida Marlins in the expansion draft, but came to San Diego in 1993 in the trade that brought Gary Sheffield to the Marlins.

Check out his career:

Year     IP      ERA      SV      K/9     BB/9      HR/9      ERA+

1993 90 3.90 5 7.9 3.9 1.00 107
1994 56 2.57 20 10.9 3.2 0.64 161
1995 53 3.88 31 8.8 2.4 1.70 104
1996 88 2.25 42 11.4 3.2 0.61 178
1997 81 2.66 37 12.3 2.7 0.99 146
1998 73 1.48 53 10.6 2.6 0.25 258
1999 67 2.14 40 9.8 2.0 0.67 205
2000 72 2.99 43 10.6 1.4 0.88 143
2001 60 3.43 43 9.4 3.1 1.50 117
2002 59 2.73 38 10.5 2.7 0.30 140

When you take into account the fact that 1994 and 1995 were strike-shortened seasons, you can see a definite pattern with Hoffman's workload. As with many modern closers, the more success Hoffman has had, the fewer innings he has pitched. You can probably guess that I think that pattern is probably one of the dumbest things in baseball and the exact opposite of what should happen.

He started in San Diego as an 80-90 inning a year guy and has gradually become a 60-70 inning guy.

Looking at his career numbers, it is amazing how long he has been able to maintain an excellent strike out rate.

After checking in with a 10.9 K/9 rate in 1994, it dipped all the way down to 8.8/9 in 1995.

Then it shot back way up and he had 3 straight years over 10/9, including his career high of 12.3 strike outs per 9 innings in 1997.

For the last 4 seasons Hoffman has hovered right around 10.0, which is excellent.

What makes his big K rates even more impressive is the fact that he doesn't rack up the big strike out totals with a 98 MPH fastball, like a lot of other closers. While Hoffman's fastball is certainly a very good one, his best pitch is his incredible changeup, which is definitely one of the best changeups in all of baseball. Hoffman has an extremely deceptive throwing motion, which just adds to the awesome changeup and makes it almost impossible to get a good read on the ball out of his hand.

Looking at those ERA+ totals, there is a direct relationship between his "poor" seasons and his home run rate. While Hoffman has never had a bad season, he has had a couple that weren't great. Specifically 1993, 1995 and 2001, when his ERA+s were "only" 107, 104 and 117. Not-so-coincidentally, those are also the only 3 seasons in which he gave up 1+ homers per 9 innings pitched.

Hoffman has always had very good control and his K rates have been excellent throughout his career. It is really his home run rate that determines the overall quality of his season. When he keeps the ball in the ballpark he is great, when he doesnt he is simply good.

Hoffman has gotten a break by playing his home games in San Diego, because Jack Murphy/Qualcomm has always been a tough place to hit homers in, which makes his occasional problems giving up the gopher ball a little less prevalent.

I think that the reason why he occasionally has struggles giving up too many homers is that he relies on fooling batters and not simply overpowering them. So, occasionally, when a batter isn't completely fooled - which is very rare - or Hoffman isn't quite perfect with his change, the ball gets hit very hard and travels a long way. Hoffman has been great for a very long time, so it obviously doesn't happen a lot, bu, when it does I think that is the reason.

What kind of pitcher will he be when he comes back from this surgery?

Who knows?

My intitial thought would be that, even if he has some loss in velocity, it won't affect him as much as other pitchers because he isn't blowing people away anyway. That said, perhaps a loss of a 1 or 2 MPH off his fastball would make his awesome changeup a little less awesome, which would obviously have a huge affect on his overall ability to get outs.

Like I said, who knows?

I hope Hoffman makes a full and speedy recovery and I hope the Padres don't feel as though they need to rush him back. If he can pitch a few games at the end of this season, I think they should probably take that as a positive and concentrate on him being fully healthy and ready to go in the spring of 2004.

As far as Hoffman's place among the great relief pitchers in baseball history, there is no doubt he is right up there, but I am not sure exactly how close to the top he should be at this point.

If you want to judge him strictly against "closers" and judge them on saves, then you put a lot of non-active relievers at a disadvantage because 40 and 50 save seasons weren't commonplace back when Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers were slamming doors. "Closers" back then were used in a much different manner.

Of the top 50 single season save totals, only 6 of them took place prior to 1990.

To put that in some context, 7 of the top 50 single season save totals were put up last season alone! In other words, more top save seasons were established last year then in the first 120 years of professional baseball put together.

That said, Hoffman currently ranks 5th all-time in career saves, with 352. He is 126 saves behind the all-time leader, Lee Smith, which is about 3 full "Trevor Hoffman" type seasons. Hoffman alone has 7 of the top 100 single season save totals in baseball history, which are his last 7 years in a row.

In addition to the big save totals, Hoffman has a career adjusted ERA+ of 146, which puts him at the very top of the all-time list in that category. He only has a career total of 701 innings pitched, which isn't enough to qualify for the ERA+ leaderboard over at BaseballReference.com, but as far as preventing runs goes, his ERA+ of 146 would be tied for 3rd in the history of baseball, with Walter Johnson, Greg Maddux, Dan Quisenberry, Hoyt Wilhelm and Smokey Joe Wood. Saying that is some good company is like saying I'm a big fan of Heidi Klum.

In case you're wondering, #1 and #2 on the all-time ERA+ list are Pedro Martinez (171) and Lefty Grove (148)

I thought it might be a good idea to compare his ERA+ totals to the other top save guys, most of whom also don't have enough IPs to qualify for the ERA+ leaderboard.

Player                 IP      SV     ERA+

Trevor Hoffman 701 352 146
Player                 IP      SV     ERA+

Lee Smith 1289 478 132
John Franco 1150 422 143
Dennis Eckersley 3286 390 116
Jeff Reardon 1132 367 121
Randy Myers 885 347 122
Rollie Fingers 1701 341 119
John Wetteland 765 330 148
Roberto Hernandez 775 320 143
Rick Aguilera 1291 318 117
Robb Nen 715 314 138
Tom Henke 790 311 156
Goose Gossage 1809 310 126
Jeff Montgomery 869 304 134
Doug Jones 1128 303 130
Bruce Sutter 1042 300 136

That covers all the guys with 300+ saves. Here are some other notable, active players:

Player                 IP      SV     ERA+

Troy Percival 488 250 160
Mariano Rivera 579 243 180
Billy Wagner 418 181 158
Armando Benitez 511 176 143
Ugueth Urbina 487 174 129

Looking at those numbers, what is amazing to me about Hoffman is how many saves he has been able to rack up while pitching so few innings. Hoffman has 352 saves and 701 innings, while the 4 guys in front of him are checking in 1,289, 1,150, 3,286 and 1,132 innings pitched.

Obviously Eckersley is a totally different animal from the other top save guys, because he spent the first 12 years of his career as a starter and started a total of 361 games in his career. But actually, Eckersley is somewhat similar to Hoffman if you only look at his career as a reliever. He became a full-time relief pitcher in 1987 and if you only count his years after that, he totaled 790 innings and 387 saves. That is an average of 2.04 innings per save.

Lee Smith, John Franco and Jeff Reardon were all relievers from the get go, starting only 6 career games between them - all by Lee Smith.

While Smith is still about 120 career saves ahead of Hoffman, he pitched about 600 more innings to get those saves. For his career, Smith averaged 2.7 innings pitched per save. John Franco also averaged 2.7 innings per save over his career and Jeff Reardon averaged 3.1 IP per save.

Hoffman has averaged slightly less than 2.0 innings per save so far.

There are a few major reasons for his innings/save average being so low.

The first is that he became a closer almost immediately. Basically, his first year in the Majors was the only one that he wasn't serving as his team's closer at least part of the time. Smith, Franco and Reardon all had multiple seasons when they were not closing and thus pitching innings without racking up saves.

Another reason is that, unlike Smith, Reardon and even Franco early in his career, closers during Hoffman's "era" simply don't pitch that many innings.

When Lee Smith first became a closer, he pitched 100+ innings 3 years in a row and 98, 90, 84 and 84 the next 4 years.

Early in his closing career, with Cincy, John Franco pitched 80+ innings 5 years in a row, including 99 and 101 in 1985 and 1986. He later had a more "normal" closer usage (at least for today's standards) with the Mets.

In Jeff Reardon's first season as a closer, he saved 26 games and pitched 109 innings. After that season he pitched 92, 87, 88, 89 and 80 innings in the next 5 seasons.

Meanwhile, once Hoffman became a closer, he never topped 90 innings and quickly got into the 40+ save/70 IP range that is the "norm" for today's closers.

I hate to see an elite pitcher get put into a role that doesn't even come close to utilizing him in the most valuable way, but if you're going to be put into such a role, you can't do it much better than Trevor Hoffman has done it so far. Here's hoping he can come back and start up right where he left off and make a run at Lee Smith and the all-time career saves record.

More than all of that, I'd like him to come back just so I can see him enter a 3-2 ballgame in the top of the 9th inning again and slam that door.

Uh oh, here I go again...

I'm a rolling thunder, a pouring rain

I'm comin' on like a hurricane

My lightning's flashing across the sky

You're only young but you're gonna die

I won't take no prisoners, won't spare no lives

Nobody's putting up a fight

I got my bell, I'm gonna take you to hell

I'm gonna get you, Satan get you

--- AC/DC, "Hells Bells"

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