Hoffman saving his best for when it counts
By the time Milwaukee closer Trevor Hoffman made his spring debut, the Brewers had already made four roster cuts, Rickey Weeks had 74 at-bats, and there were only 12 games remaining on the Brewers' Cactus League schedule.
The Brewers aren’t, and neither is Hoffman.
This is all a part of the plan.
At the age of 42, about to embark on his 18th big-league season, and having already earned more saves than any pitcher in the history of baseball, Hoffman is not a slave to traditions.
As former Texas manager Bobby Valentine once explained when he was accused of giving special treatment to Nolan Ryan, "I will give the same freedom to everyone who has won 300 games and (at the time) thrown five no-hitters. They have earned a special status."
And though this isn’t Hoffman’s plan, he has endorsed it.
Pitching coach Rick Peterson proposed the idea to Hoffman. It involved expanding Hoffman’s side work, particularly playing long toss so that he works more off flat ground, building up his shoulder, instead of a lot of spring training mound work, which is what begins to tear down the muscle.
"I am always trying to tweak things and this made sense to me," Hoffman said. "What you want to try and do is create a program that allows you to feel strong at the end. It’s about saving as many bullets as we can.’’
By the time spring training ends, Hoffman expects to have appeared in five games with the possibility he will make appearances on back-to-back days once.
No big deal; it’s not like he is headed into a pitching marathon. As a closer, he works in short bursts. He worked only 54 innings in earning 37 saves last year, which ranked fifth in the National League. In fact, in the last three years, during which he has recorded 109 saves, Hoffman has worked only 156 2/3 innings.
That’s 5 1/3 fewer innings over three years than what a pitcher is required in a single year to merely quality for an earned-run average title.
"The key is to come out of spring training healthy, and whatever recipe allows that to happen is the best one," said Hoffman. "This is all about getting ready and over time there are different approaches you take."
Over time, Hoffman has shown he has been as consistently ready as anybody who has ever pitched in short relief. He has appeared in more games (985) than any active pitcher, ranking 15th on the all-time list. Not only has he earned the most saves (591) in the history of the game, the only other pitcher even within 100 saves of him is Yankee closer Mariano Rivera at 526. Hoffman's ratio of walks and hits per inning, 1.041, is the fourth-lowest in major-league history. His 2.73 ERA is second among active pitchers, behind only Rivera.
Not bad for an 11th-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 1989, who came into baseball as a shortstop, was converted to pitching two years later, and was in the big leagues in another two years. It's amounted to a career in which he has failed to earn at least 20 saves only twice in 17 big-league seasons and has earned at least 30 in 14 seasons, including major-league-leading totals of 53 in 1998 and 46 in 2007.
And as he prepares to embark on his 18th big-league season he finds himself just nine shy of a man-made milestone, 600 saves.
"In this role you can’t look one save in front of you,’’ Hoffman said. "They are not that easy to get. Nine saves away doesn’t seem that large of a number, but it depends on so many things that you can’t get caught overlooking today and preparing for tomorrow. There are no certainties.’’
If Hoffman needed a reminder about that it came after the 2008 season, when he found himself looking for work after 15½ seasons in a Padres uniform.
He wound up in Milwaukee, where he had one of the most consistent seasons of his career, although he said he does not find any special feeling of redemption over the success.
"In this business you have to prove yourself every day," he said. "I wasn’t worried about showing anybody that they made a mistake. My concern was doing my job and helping the Brewers. It’s the same thing I am focused on this year. We have a good team here. We made some big offseason additions. It’s a good situation for us to be in.’’
What makes it even better is that after a history in San Diego of drawn-out negotiations, Hoffman had a deal in place for 2010 with the Brewers before the final out was recorded in 2009.
"It was a little different for me, and I enjoyed it," Hoffman said. "There was no uncertainty in the offseason."
Now the biggest question Hoffman faces is how much longer he will continue to pad his record number of saves. And for that, he said, there is no answer.
"I’ve never thought about (retiring)," he said. "I feel like the game will tell when it is time. Right now, I am still having fun competing and preparing."