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Nothing Old About Hoffman in Milwaukee

Mar 19, 2010 – 8:00 AM
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Tom Krasovic

Tom Krasovic %BloggerTitle%

Trevor HoffmanPHOENIX, Ariz. -- If you had told Trevor Hoffman a few years ago that moving to Milwaukee would freshen up his Hall of Fame career, the lifelong Southern Californian might've kicked sand in your face or directed you to the nearby Pacific Ocean.

Hoffman is a So Cal dude, and, no offense to the Land of Cheese and Hops, that he always will be.

But on a recently sunny day one stellar season (1.83 ERA, 37 saves) after a messy divorce from the San Diego Padres sent him to Milwaukee, baseball's all-time save leader poses for pictures with Brewers fans and cracks jokes with others among the Brew Crew faithful. The 42-year-old, wearing No. 51, hobnobs for more than hour, then returns to Milwaukee's clubhouse with his three boys, who are wearing Brewers uniforms.



"Home's always going to be San Diego," says Hoffman, whose Cactus League debut will come Friday. "I've appreciated the acceptance I've gotten in Milwaukee. When I got here, I kind of felt somewhat lost. Having been in a place now for my second season, everyone's kind of moved on, and you can take ownership of being a Brewer.

"The boys were pretty quick in their transition. They just like being around the game. They're pretty easy to please."

Formerly the face of the franchise in San Diego, Hoffman says it was "freeing" to go to a place where he was pretty much another ballplayer. As such, when the team struggled, he no longer was the focal point of questions from reporters and fans. It's not that Hoffman was looking for refuge -- he both cultivated and reveled in his role as a Padres icon -- but his newfound anonymity was a cool perk.

There was less mental strain. He chose not to listen to baseball talk radio, something he did often in his Padres career so that he could stay better attuned to the club and its plans.

"All last year, I listened to eclectic music going to the ballpark," he says, smiling.

Far more interested in Brewers sluggers such as Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, Milwaukeeans didn't recognize him at grocery stores and sandwich shops.

"It's a nice change," Hoffman says. "[Fame] has never been a distraction or a burden. I've only been here a year. If I were to be here 16 years like it was in San Diego, then that obviously would change, but it was nice to roll in and fly under the radar in a sense."

Hoffman, en route to his seventh All-Star berth, assembled the second-lowest ERA of his career and 37 saves in 41 attempts, after which the Brewers brought him back for $8 million and a club option in 2011.

While Hoffman isn't planning to hunt deer with the orange-clad legions in Wisconsin, he enjoys the occasional bratwurst and plans to avail himself of the Friday fish-fry fare that's popular with the city's sizable German Catholic population.

He's still a San Diego Chargers fan, but he's developing an affinity for Wisconsin's most popular sports team.

"The Packers, you kind of have to like what they stand for -- a publicly owned ballclub," says Hoffman, who unsuccessfully tried to talk with Padres majority owner John Moores during his failed negotiations of November 2008. "I like Brett Favre, even though it got a little bit dicey over the last few years. Having that opportunity to see Lambeau Field is something you need to do."

He smiles and adds, "I don't know if you need to do it in January."

Hoffman actually ventured to Milwaukee last winter and didn't turn into a Popsicle. He mingled with Brewers fans at a club function and went to an NBA game, which isn't an option in San Diego. "Brandon Jennings is a nice young player that they have -- nice little left-handed outside shot," he says.

He's following Milwaukee's favorite college basketball team, too. "Marquette is a pretty big draw for the city," he says. "Their coach is pretty fiery. I think people appreciate the hustle and the determination that their team puts forth. "

For his part, Hoffman brought not only stability to Milwaukee's closer's job but the raucous song that accompanies his entry into home games -- "Hell's Bells", which is as synonymous with San Diego as fish tacos. Brewers fans dug it nearly as much as San Diegans do.

"I didn't think they would react any differently in Milwaukee," he says. "They took to it pretty quickly. I don't know how much they knew about it beforehand, but it's kind of been a nice event there too."



What was surprising, to perhaps everybody but Hoffman, was how well the 41-year-old performed. Despite moving from the best pitcher's park in baseball -- Petco Park -- he gave up only two home runs overall, six fewer than he did in 2008. His 1.83 ERA was his lowest since his epic season in 1998, when he logged a 1.48 ERA for a Padres club that won 98 games and reached the World Series.

Typically, Hoffman credits others, praising the Brewers' defense, which, in fact, wasn't anything special. More convincingly, he lauded a veteran catcher who had enough gumption and smarts to challenge a closer who'd converted on 90 percent of his save chances across 16 years.

"I give a lot of credit to Jason Kendall," Hoffman says. "He forced me to throw some pitches in certain counts that I wasn't doing in the past. I wouldn't be able to recall any one in particular. I trusted what he would put down, and executed."

It's likely that Kendall demanded more hard breaking balls -- either cutters or sliders. Hoffman threw more of them last year. Seemingly, they contributed to the .149 batting average he gave up to right-handers, and the absence of homers by lefties, one year after they hit five off him.

You'll get no argument from Hoffman that old dame Luck applied some ice to his ERA, too.

"I was very fortunate to stay away from big innings," he says. "I stayed away from crooked numbers, and ultimately that kept a lot of the numbers down. And overall, it was a cool summer throughout the Midwest, and especially in Milwaukee. So that might have had a little to do with the power numbers."

For the brainiacs who attempt to account for a pitcher's luck, it's pretty clear that Hoffman's skill, more so than a horseshoe in his locker, allows him to reduce the amount of hits against him.

Hoffman, who entered the majors in 1993, leads all active pitchers in fewest hits allowed per nine innings -- 6.89 -- and is fifth all-time in that category behind Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Sid Fernandez and J.R. Richard. Immediately trailing Hoffman are fellow changeup artist Andy Messersmith and the man that Hoffman rates the best closer of them all, Mariano Rivera.

Hoffman consistently has beaten the norms in batting average on balls in play, a statistic that's mostly a function of a pitcher's defense and luck. A typical BABIP is about .290. Hoffman's career BABIP is .265, according to baseball-reference.com. In 14 of his 17 seasons, his BABIP was below .290. The only time it was above .300 -- in 2002 -- Hoffman was on the verge of two shoulder operations. For the Brewers, his BABIP was a spectacular .231, the second-lowest of his career.

"He could probably pitch until he's 50. There's no reason to say no."
- Jody Gerut on Trevor Hoffman
FanHouse asked baseball scholar Bill James about Hoffman's knack for beating the BABIP trends. Although James hadn't studied Hoffman's numbers, he cited the pitcher's "Bugs Bunny" changeup that for years has elicited cartoonlike flailings from hitters, even as Hoffman's fastball lost steam in the 2000s.

"One of the things about the changeup is that it slows down the hitter's bat," says James, a senior advisor with the Red Sox. "Tim Wakefield, I think, has had consistently good batting averages on balls in play, and if you watch hitters against him, it makes sense, because he makes hitter tentative. They're punching at the ball, rather than trying to rip it. Consequently there are a lot of balls not hit hard. Although, of course, if the knuckleball hangs and people see it clearly, they'll tee off on it.

"A changeup is a little similar in that it makes the hitter tentative."

For what it's worth, Hoffman's Padres teammates used to say it was easy to play defense behind him, because they knew that if he aimed for a particular spot, he usually hit it. Padres manager Bud Black, curious to see how Hoffman's 86-mph fastball induced so many late swings, stepped into the batter's box against Hoffman three springs ago to see what it looked like. Hoffman's high leg kick and over-the-top delivery, Black reported, caused the ball to "jump" and get on the hitter faster than its speed would suggest.

Brewers teammate Jody Gerut, a Stanford man who also played with Hoffman as a Padres, says the only surprising thing about what Hoffman is doing is that people are still surprised.

"He's defying all kinds of rules about performance fading, about handling pressure, about a lot of things," Gerut says. "He's as disciplined as they come in terms of routine and doing everything day-to-day to be prepared, and so, for him, I'm sure that's the key.

"He's getting it done without 95 (mph). That leads me to believe he can continue to do it for as long as he can do it. You can see hasn't declined in performance. The key is his performance, not his tools.

"He could probably pitch until he's 50. There's no reason to say no."
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