Closing the book on Hoffman's slow, steady, legendary career
Trevor Hoffman retired Tuesday, finishing his career as the all-time saves leader
Hoffman saved 601 games despite leading his own league in the category twice
He wasn't like today's typical closers, but Hoffman earned first-ballot HOF induction
Trevor Hoffman's ascent to becoming a baseball legend can be likened to the story of The Tortoise and the Hare.
He nearly flunked out of the minor leagues as an infielder who couldn't hit or field, became a pitcher whose career was nearly derailed when a shoulder injury sapped the speed from his fastball, morphed into one of the game's all-time great relievers thanks to a pitch that doesn't exceed some interstate speed limits and later set baseball's career saves record despite leading his own league in the category only twice.
But Hoffman, master of the changeup, had 12 seasons with at least 37 saves -- a winning career owing to a slow and steady approach, just as the tortoise in Aesop's fable.
On Tuesday Hoffman announced his retirement after 18 seasons, the vast majority of them as closer for the San Diego Padres, and set himself up for Hall of Fame induction five years from now, in his first ballot of eligibility. Beloved by his teammates as a friend and first-rate professional, he leaves the game with 601 saves, 42 more than anyone in history.
While only five closers have plaques hanging in Cooperstown -- the writers have been especially stingy in voting for the position's practitioners -- Hoffman ought to become the sixth for his remarkable consistency that included 13 seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA and 14 with an ERA+ of at least 130, indicating that he was at least 30 percent better than the league average those years. In 1998, in the heart of the Steroid Era when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both eclipsed the longstanding home run mark, Hoffman had a career-best 1.48 ERA for an ERA+ of 265.
The prototypical closer nowadays is a fireballer, with a high-90s fastball and a sharp breaking ball in his arsenal. For most of his career Hoffman threw his fastball in the high 80s and featured a curve that was only serviceable. But Hoffman barely needed those pitches, other than to set up his change, which is arguably among the sport's all-time best.
His Padres teammates nicknamed Hoffman's changeup the Bugs Bunny Pitch for its cartoon-like movement and reactions from opposing hitters flailing off-balance in desperate efforts to slow their swings and hit it. Hitters' adrenaline in the ninth inning was always high, as they sought to overcome a deficit, and Hoffman took advantage of their over-eagerness with the deception of his changeup.
Still, that unorthodox repertoire -- and that he carved his niche pitching the last inning of games that already had West Coast start times -- may have kept Hoffman's profile lower than it should have been. His career included seven All-Star appearances, though it probably should have been more. One astounding example of his under-appreciation as a pitcher is that he received MVP votes in more seasons (five) than he received Cy Young votes (four). He was valuable, no doubt, but not always regarded as a first-rate pitcher.
He could have had many more saves had he played for more successful teams. From 1994 to 2008, when Hoffman reigned as the Padres closer, San Diego won at least 90 games only twice and had nine losing seasons, including five with no more than 70 wins.
But the ninth inning nevertheless belonged to Hoffman, beginning with the ringing bell and riffing guitar of his signature entrance song, AC/DC's "Hells Bells." He'd run in from the bullpen and, quite literally, save the day. He compiled 549 saves during that 15-year stretch, a period during which the Padres won 1,150 games -- meaning Hoffman saved 47.7 percent of the franchise's wins. He did that without saving a single game in 2003, when he missed most of the year while recovering from shoulder surgery after never having made a disabled list stint in his previous 10 seasons.
That's not to say he didn't suffer one career-altering injury, however. He hurt his shoulder on one of the first days of the 1994 players' strike -- while diving for a football on the beach, he later told ESPN's Buster Olney -- and his fastball, which previously reached 94-95 mph, was suddenly topping out at 90-91. He had, after all, been converted from shortstop to pitcher in 1991 after batting .212 the previous season for the Reds' Class A team but impressing with his strong throwing arm. The Marlins later selected him in their expansion draft, only to subsequently trade him as part of a package for Gary Sheffield.
Without the velocity, Hoffman needed a substitute -- and the pitch had to be exceptional for him to remain as closer, the role he began to fill in 1994. That's when a fellow Padres reliever at the time by the name of Donnie Elliott showed him a new grip for the changeup, in which he'd hold the baseball deep in his palm and then pinch its seam between his thumb and index finger at the point of release.
The result was one of the game's most devastating pitches for over a decade, and as identifiable a pitch as Bruce Sutter's splitter and Mariano Rivera's cutter.
Hoffman's changeup was often 14-15 mph slower than his fastball but thrown with the same motion and arm speed. It then had a precipitous drop to the ground -- movement created by the pitch's backspin that was so severe his change fell as much as many pitchers' curveballs. As Hoffman's 90-91 mph fastball later slowed to 87-88, his changeup kept the same spread, slowing in sync from about 76 to about 73.
Hoffman had his struggles in 2008, leading the cost-cutting Padres to lowball a contract offer to the free agent and then withdraw even that, leading him to finish his career with the Brewers. He rebounded with an exceptional 2009 season (1.83 ERA, 37 saves) before faltering in 2010, ultimately leading to his demotion out of the closer's role after blowing five of his first 10 save opportunities with a 12.26 ERA.
Milwaukee pitching coach Rick Peterson pulled him aside for extra work, praising the 42-year-old legend for his attention to detail and process. Hoffman, who had 596 saves at the time, returned to form over the season's second half and got five more saves to become the first to surpass 600 for his career.
But through the early struggles, Hoffman noted, "I always said the hitters would let me know [when to retire], and they're talking awfully loud." Ultimately, it was the job market for Hoffman to close again in 2011 that had fallen silent, and so he chose to retire -- hopefully to an admiring chorus for a slow and steady career that ought to have won him a ticket to Cooperstown.