You Don’t Have to Go Home, but You Can’t Stay Here

Trevor Hoffman has signed a 1-year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers for $6 million with incentives that could kick it up to $7.5 million. Like football’s Brett Favre, Hoffman now has the pleasure of being almost universally associated with one team despite neither starting nor finishing his career with that team.

We’ve got lots to cover here. I’ll hit the cold, analytical stuff first and then get to the warm, fuzzy stuff. Get comfortable; you don’t just dismiss a guy like Hoffman with a few sentences.

What Happens to Trevor?

Hoffman has a lot working against him. He’s 41 years old, he no longer neutralizes left-handed hitters, and he’s moving to a division with some mighty cozy parks. I don’t want to rip on someone I adore and respect, but it’s hard for me to imagine this ending well for him.

The age thing pretty much speaks for itself. Yeah, Hoffman’s workouts are legendary and nobody is better prepared, but at some point that won’t be enough.

Beyond his age, though, there’s the diminishing effectiveness against lefties. Hoffman’s bread-and-butter pitch is his change-up. It’s a large part of the reason he’s handled southpaws so well over the years — well, before his 2002 shoulder surgery anyway.

The gap between Hoffman’s performance versus righties and versus lefties was non-existent during the first decade of his career. Since the surgery — with the exception of 2006, which was anomalous in many ways — he has given more and more ground to left-handers.

The following chart shows Hoffman’s OPS against for righties and lefties, as well as a meta-ratio that divides the former by the latter. This basically shows us, in relative terms, how effective he has been against hitters from either side of the plate over the years. I’ve excluded 2003 because Hoffman worked only nine innings after coming back from surgery and that’s not a reasonable sample.

Chart showing Trevor Hoffman's effectiveness versus right-handed batters and left-handed batters; click for larger version

A ratio of 1 means that Hoffman handled righties and lefties equally well. Higher numbers indicate greater success against lefties, lower numbers indicate the opposite. You can see that from 1993 to 2002, he was consistently above 1. Since the surgery, however, lefties have been pretty comfortable hitting against him.

Anecdotally, the numbers match the visual evidence. I’m thinking specifically of Tony Gwynn Jr.’s triple on September 29, 2007, that helped knock the Padres out of playoff contention and Jose Cruz Jr.’s two-out walk on April 2, 2008, that set up Lance Berkman’s game-winning three-run homer.

Once upon a time, hitters of their caliber would have had no chance against Hoffman’s change-up. The difference in that pitch now versus 10 years ago may not seem like all that much to you or me, but it’s enough to change the outcome of games and sometimes entire seasons.

The other issue with Hoffman is that, as those of us who have watched him in recent years know, he has zero margin for error. If he misses by even a little, balls get hit hard. That isn’t so much of a problem at Petco Park and in the NL West, but his new environment is generally less forgiving.

Here are the PA/HR numbers for each of the NL West parks from 2008, with the least favorable pitching environments presented first (league average was 37.3 last year):

  1. Coors Field: 34.0
  2. Chase Field: 39.3
  3. Dodger Stadium: 42.5
  4. Petco Park: 46.6
  5. PhoneCo Park: 66.8

Here are those same numbers for the NL Central parks:

  1. Wrigley Field: 29.4
  2. Great American Ballpark: 29.5
  3. Miller Park: 30.4
  4. Minute Maid Park: 31.9
  5. Busch Stadium: 39.0
  6. PNC Park: 41.8

Hoffman’s new home park and three of the five other parks in his new division yielded more homers per at-bat than Coors Field. He will play half his games at home and nine each in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Houston. That works out to 108 games (i.e., two-thirds of the Brewers’ schedule) in places that were more homer friendly than Coors.

If you weight the numbers according to how many games his current and past team will play at each venue in 2009, Hoffman is going from a situation where 72% of his games were in parks that allowed a homer every 38.5 plate appearances to one where 78% of his games are in parks that allowed a homer every 29.5 plate appearances. Hoffman faced 180 batters last year, so the difference works out to about 1.4 homers, which doesn’t seem like much until you realize that one badly timed home run can ruin a closer’s season.

What Happens to the Padres?

Well, this is simple. Heath Bell takes over as the Padres first closer other than Hoffman since the late Rod Beck in 2003. Bell has minor-league closing experience and was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2007.

Last year, however, things got interesting in a “Scott Linebrink might be losing it” kind of way. Although Bell finished with a better ERA than Hoffman in 2008, the newly crowned closer did most of his damage before the All-Star break:

Heath Bell, 2008 by Half
Statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
First half 198 .209 .269 .291
Second half 126 .264 .355 .415

That’s roughly the difference between Doug Flynn and Von Hayes. Personally I’m more comfortable with a guy who turns hitters into Flynn than one who turns hitters into Hayes (or Scott Hatteberg if you’re too young to remember Hayes).

I have concerns about Bell. The second-half fade, the drop in strikeouts, and the drop in velocity all cause me to wonder how effective he will be as Hoffman’s successor.

Then I remember that the Padres lost 99 games last year and I wonder how wise it would have been to blow 15% of the payroll on a 41-year-old legend with no margin for error. Put it this way: If Bell stinks, at least he’s cheap and he won’t break our hearts while we’re watching him stumble toward the end of his career.

What Happens to Me?

This is a little trickier. Obviously I’ll miss the face of the franchise. On the other hand, I’ve had years to prepare for life after Hoffman. The only real surprise is that he’ll be pitching somewhere else rather than relaxing at home with his family — at least to start the season.

I have many fond memories of Hoffman: The ’96 and ’98 seasons, of course; being there for saves 479 and 500; watching his kids warm up in the bullpen at Peoria toward the end of a spring training game. (Friar John shares some more gems.)

I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing Hoffman in person. He made a couple of appearances at company events where I used to work. He’s a very positive guy who is more gracious with his time than anyone has a right to expect from a future Hall of Famer.

I’m sad that Trevor Time is done. Again, I’ve been expecting this for a long time, so it’s not exactly devastating news.

I’m sadder for Hoffman because I don’t see this working out well for him at all. I hope to heck that I’m wrong, but his skill set isn’t well suited to the NL Central’s small ballparks.

The Brewers make their first trip to San Diego toward the end of July. Assuming everything works out as planned, you may want to get out to one of those games the weekend of July 31 – August 2 and pay your respects.

Also, the Brewers train in Arizona, so if you see Hoffman during Spring Training, be sure to wish him luck. I have a feeling he’s going to need it.

Thanks for everything you’ve done for the Padres and San Diego. Now go out and make me look like an idiot for doubting your ability to succeed against the odds.

Trevor Hoffman delivers a pitch

Scoreboard following Trevor Hoffman's record-breaking 479th career save

Scoreboard following Trevor Hoffman's 500th career save

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10 Responses »

  1. In ’98, in game three of the Houston series, the Pads were nursing a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the 8th when Tony Gwynn struck out swinging for the third out. The crowd was deflated–for about three seconds–and then 60,000 people realized, in unison, what was about to happen.

    It’s been an honor to watch him play.

  2. #1@Josh: That game, and the following afternoon tilt, are my favorite baseball memories of all time. Never been around that many deliriously happy people, before or since.

  3. I’ll write up about Hoffy tomorrow or the next day… I’ll miss him, but
    still… if he throws sixty half-innings, that is approximately 2% of a season. We can’t devote 15-20% of a payroll to that, marketing be damned. And you know I love Hoffy.

    Hard to think Padres right now though… I’m still trying to get warm after Heinz Field yesterday…

  4. Amen. Trevor will be missed and it’s a shame to see him ending his career elsewhere. Unfortunately I think you really have to ‘watch’ Trevor on a daily basis to truly understand that his margin for error is zero. When you throw 86 mph fastballs with no movement it’s basically AA batting practice if the location isn’t perfect. Combine that with a change up that he needs to be able to throw for a strike consistently and the end is not going to be pretty. It’s not like if he’s ineffective he’s useful for garbage time either. Brewer fans are not going to be forgiving when he’s coughing up wins. I do respect his desire to play and be competitive though and when you toss in 6-7million it’s probably pretty tough to hang it up.

  5. #3@Rich Campbell: Hoffman might be the one veteran (pre-FA) on the team who’s capable of generating enough revenue on his own to pay for his salary. I’d bet that he brings in more than 6 million that just won’t be there now that’s gone, unless the team has a miracle season and ticket sales go up. In that case you wouldn’t be devoting payroll to him; it’d be more like “the payroll could be 45 million with Hoffman or 40 million without him, and our profit won’t change.”

    That said, Hoffman might have wanted to keep pitching until he was 45, when it would be near-impossible for him to be even average. Now might have been the best time to make a break, before the team needed a better pitcher in that role and before his marketing pull diminished.

  6. #5@Tom Waits: I don’t know, do you really think people go to games just to see Trevor pitch at this point in his career?

  7. #6@Steve C: Sure they do. It doesn’t take many fans to generate 5-6 million in tickets and additional viewers. At $40 a head that’s only 150,000 more fans through 81 games. You have a couple of Trevor Hoffman Appreciation Nights, one at the start of the season and one in September, and the place sells out.

    He’s also the team’s most marketable player, even if the team hasn’t been all that strong in marketing recently. In 2009 the team’s going to need all the attractions it can muster. That doesn’t mean that letting Hoffman walk was absolutely a mistake, but the % allocation of payroll doesn’t account for the money that Hoffman, unlike other Padres, could bring in.

  8. I still remember that game late in the season of 2003 when Trevor came in to pitch for the first time in the season at Qualcomm after his recovery from surgery.
    The season had been done for a while and the team wasn’t playing for anything but pride. The place went off like crazy when Trevor was announced. We almost left earlier in the game but I’m glad we stayed. It was such a great show of support for a hometeam pitcher. I also was relieved to see him pitch again.

    I suppose I’ll go see him when he’s at Petco this season. It’ll be so weird to see him toe the visitor’s bullpen mound to warm up. It’s unbelievable.