Meet the new Hoff, man

Rich Schultz, Getty Images

Pitcher Jeff Hoffman of the Colorado Rockies is congratulated by teammates after getting the final out in the seventh inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on May 22, 2017 in Philadelphia.

 

 

It’s quite possible that the Toronto Blue Jays dealt away another Noah Syndergaardian prospect.

Three years after they traded top-pitching prospect Syndergaard and a handful of other players for R.A. Dickey, the Jays gave away another golden arm. The Colorado Rockies were the beneficiaries of Toronto’s all-in movement this time, but it cost them their franchise cornerstone, Troy Tulowitzki.

Now 11 starts into his pro career, Jeff Hoffman sits 4-4 following last night’s miracle comeback by the San Francisco Giants to rob him of his fifth win. This year, he is a perfect 4-0.

Exiting the game after the fifth, the Rockies led 9-1. A bullpen meltdown and a blown save by the major league saves leader (Greg Holland, 23) robbed him of the fifth win.

Last night marked the first night this season where the 24-year-old appeared to not have his best stuff. It was his least amount of rest between starts this year and it showed. Five innings was his shortest outing this season and recorded a season high in walks with three. It was the first time this season he walked more than he struck out.

One of those, embarrassingly enough, came against opposing starter Matt Moore with the bases loaded and having been up 0-2. A botched route at a hard hit ground ball by Trevor Story at short and a swinging bunt by Austin Slater loaded the bases for Moore.

Things evened out defensively for Hoffman, following the walk to his counterpart, Denard Span looked to loft one overtop the six-hole, but a diving snag by Story got the Rockies rookie out of the inning, limiting the damage.

Hoffman was pitching deep into counts against the Giants, something he hasn’t done in the big leagues consistently. A manager’s dream, he gets ahead in the count 64.9 per cent of the time.

The juice just wasn’t there. The velocities on all four of his pitches were the lowest of any start. He also threw his fastball the least amount of any start this season (59.2 per cent, averaging 65.4 per cent this season) and relied more on his changeup and curveball, negating the slider; completely opposite from his seven inning outing and win against the Chicago Cubs five days ago.

Despite minimal arm fatigue, he was able to gut through a veteran lineup with lots of traffic on the bases, leaving his team in position for the win. Even when he didn’t have his best, there was still enough gas in the tank to get hitters out.

A week earlier, Hoffman showed what his brilliance is capable of when he is feeling right.

The start against the Cubs was one of his toughest matchup of the season (he previously knocked off the Los Angeles Dodgers in 5.1 innings). While the Cubs might not be off to the historic run differential pace and atop the National League Central like they were at this time last year, they are still the champs until they aren’t the champs anymore.

Facing the tough competition, Hoffman elevated his game.

Hoffman faced a jam in the first, but used his curve to skirt danger.

After walking Kris Bryant on four pitches and Anthony Rizzo blooped a two-strike heater down the left field line, each advancing one base due to Ian Desmond throwing error from the outfield, Hoffman dialed up the curve.

With one out, he threw Ben Zobrist a 2-2 bender down and in; as the switch-hitter swung overtop it.

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Up 0-2 on Jason Heyward, Hoffman snapped off an 80mph bender that he pulled harmlessly to the first basemen Mark Reynolds.

Hoffman only fell behind in the count twice in the first 21 batters, going three up, three down three times.

Later in the game, Hoffman switched things up, going back to the gas to put hitters away.

Five of his eight strikeouts came via the hard stuff — 96 and up. This year, 20 of his 36 K’s have come from the fastball.

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It’s the type of adjustments in pitch selection that have held hitters under .300 (.281) when they face him a third time through the order.

The Cubs finally got to Hoffman in the seventh, when on the third straight single, Wilson Contreras drove home Heyward.

It would be the only run surrendered by the young fire-baller. His bullpen held onto the lead this time, for his fourth win.

It’s early, but Hoffman appears to be everything you want in a young pitcher.

The Blue Jays drafted him ninth overall in the 2014 draft out of East Carolina University. He would have gone higher in the draft, but a freshly stitched Tommy John surgery dropped him all the way down to ninth.

His fastball is scorching, sitting easily at 95 and has been known to hit 98 on occasion. His out-pitch is his curve, a rarity for young studs these days. It’s hard and dives across the strike zone.

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His changeup and slider are still being developed, but hitters are still only hitting a combined .111 against the two off-speed pitches.

Whether it is his comfort pitch or because it’s easier on his elbow, Hoffman throws his curve 18.2 per cent of the time, compared to the hard slider, which he only whips out the slider 10.6 per cent of the time.

Maybe it’s with good reason, too. Opponents have not figured out the depth and break of his curve this year and are only hitting .071 against it. Hoffman picked up both his strikeouts against the Giants with the curve, which comes in 17.5mph slower than his fastball.

“His curveball, man,” Padres slugger Hunter Renfroe told the Devner Post following Hoffman’s third career start. Hoffman and Renfroe have met several times before in the minor leagues. “I’ve got a lot of plate appearances against him, and he’s really effective when he throws a fastball up and he has that curveball that he throws almost in the dirt, but right off the strike zone. That’s what makes him effective: He throws 97 (mph) and he’s 6-foot-5, so he’s got a lot of leverage.”

When they finally make contact, hitters hit .259 on batted balls in play off him, well below the league average of .291.

Standing on the mound, he looks like the baseball gods hand-poured his body a mold constructed for front-of-the-line starters.

Long, lean and strong, he stands 6-foot-5 and tips the scales at 225.

He’s a strike-thrower, too. His 10.1 K/9 through 32 innings is well above the league average 8.3. He carries a 6.00 K/BB ratio, soaring above the league average of 1.78. Nearly 20 per cent of his pitches per start are strikes looking, with 11 per cent being swung and missed at.

His manager Bud Black seems to be taking it easy with the young thoroughbred, rightfully so. Thursday night’s start was the first time he cracked 100 pitches in a big league game. Up 9-1 but throwing a lot of stressful pitches, there was no need to push him any further to pick up the quality start.

“The more honest you are, the faster you can develop as a player,” Black, a former pitcher, told the Post. “Other guys, at times, have a defense mechanism. That mechanism can keep a player from getting down on themselves. They say, ‘I’m OK. I’m fine.’ But in reality they’re not.

“With Jeff, he’s come a long way in a short amount of time in a lot of areas. He doesn’t have a lot of minor-league innings. He doesn’t have a lot of major-league innings. He does have a major-league arm. And he has the makings of being a good pitcher. But it’s a process.”

 

1r0uupThe Rox did a great job bringing him up when they did, allowing him to get his feet wet as a starter in the bigs, beating up on a couple last-placed teams in the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies, striking out 16 without walking a batter. Those two wins built his confidence and the team’s confidence in him to start against the Giants in midst of another Odd-Year Jinx and the Cubs.

The trick so far has been trying to find him a spot in the rotation.

Injuries have certainly provided him with his own Wally Pipp scenario; Jon Gray’s broken foot and Tyler Anderson’s knee inflammation have carved out innings for the Latham, N.Y. product.

At the beginning of the year, he was on the shuttle between Colorado and their triple-A affiliate, the Albuquerque Isotopes.

In eight starts with the formerly known Calgary Cannons, Hoffman went 3-2 with a 3.68 ERA, striking out 38 while only walking 16.

It will be interesting to see how Black handles the rotation once bodies become healthier.

Everyone knew that the Rockies were going to tear the cover off the ball this season. With the addition of a now healthy Desmond and a rejuvenated Mark Reynolds, the Rockies are the second best offensive team in the NL is mostly every category, trailing only the Washington Nationals.

What has caught teams by surprise is the success of their young rotation.

The Rockies haven’t started a game this year with someone on the wrong side of 30.

Tyler Chatwood is the elder statesman of the group, coming in at 27.

Gray was sidelined for months after breaking his foot. This allowed a few youngsters to step up and carry the load in the ace’s absence. Mainly, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela, before Hoffman’s emergence.

Senzatela’s dominating fastball has led him to an 8-2 record and a 3.84 ERA. Not bad for 22.

Freeland is putting together a solid campaign during his first year pitching for the hometown club, going 7-4 with a 1.39 WHIP.

Gray is throwing in the minors and appears to be within a week or two from returning to his spot atop the rotation. When he does, decisions will have to be made for Hoffman.

The fans have spoken. Following his win over the Padres, out of 1,014 votes on the Denver Post website, 90.63 per cent of fans believe he has earned a spot in the rotation. It would be hard to imagine those supporters bailing after two more great outings.

He has certainly done all he can do during his first crack at life as a starter. But Hoffman is prepared for whatever role the Rockies assign him to.

“It’s really easy to come into an environment like this with good veteran leadership and a great defense behind you,” said Hoffman. “It makes things a lot easier going back and forth.”

Hoffman appears like he is hear to stay. He already leads the starting unit with a 0.94 WHIP, 2.25 ERA, 2.76 FIP, and is gaining on the rest of the rotation with a 1.5 WAR and 36 strikeouts.

Currently, the Rockies carry a 4.10 team ERA, good enough for fifth best in the NL. That’s the lowest ERA in franchise history. The Rockies have always struggled to recruit pitchers to come and throw at Coors Field. Now exploding at the seams with young flamethrowers and sitting first place in the NL West, the Rockies might not have any choice but to keep Hoffman as part of their rotation as they look to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.

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