Thursday, January 08, 2009

Trevor Hoffman Agrees to Deal With Brewers

While it's good news the Brewers have apparently signed all-time MLB saves leader Trevor Hoffman, don't go planning your World Series tailgate parties just yet. No longer the hard thrower he once was, Hoffman now relies on a nasty changeup to get the job done. He should help, but there is a lot more work needed before the Brewers become real contenders.

According to ESPN, Hoffman has signed a one-year deal rumored to be for $6 million, with an option for the second year. Hoffman, who saved 30 games last year for San Diego and has accumulated a record 554 saves is no longer considered an elite closer, probably not even top ten. However, his addition should provide some comfort to fans and players. Last year, even with the arrival of Salomon Torres in the closer role, the ninth inning often resulted in bleeding fingertips as leads disappeared faster than $6 beers. The failed $10 million Eric Gagne experiment (a shame because Gagne was a class act) nearly contributed to the Brewers missing the playoffs, so the money ponied up for Hoffman looks like a deal.

But let's look at the numbers to gauge whether this is a good pickup, or a panicky grab.

It is troubling that Hoffman only pitched 45 inings last year. As relievers have become more specialized in their roles, the number of innings that the designated closer pitched has decreased. But not that much. Forty-five innings means that maybe Hoffman is reliable every other day. He'll need to pitch more innings. Plus he's 41-years old and relies almost entirely on guile to succeed. One has to wonder if the league doesn't eventually catch on -- lefties did beat Hoffman up a bit in 2008. They hit .291 and slugged at a .532 clip.

Hoffman also suffered a serious injury as recently as 2007 so it's not a stretch to question his stamina and ability to pitch more than every other game. Given the sorry state of the Brewers' bullpen – come on, they've only signed Jorge Julio – Hoffman may be needed a lot.

People often look at a pitcher's earned run average (ERA) to determine how the pitcher fared. Hoffman's ERA in 2008 was a career-high 3.77. Not good – however, I did some checking and found if you took away one unfortunate outing April 2, his ERA dropped to a more respectable 3.02. I point this out to show that ERA is not really a reliable number for determining effectiveness because there is a lot still impressive about Hoffman's numbers.

What is impressive about Hoffman? Well, he allowed only one baserunner per inning (1.04) and he only walked 9 batters all year while striking out 46 in 45 innings. Contrast this with Torres who allowed 1.35 baserunners per inning, walked 33 and struck out only 51 in 80 innings of work. This is not a slander of Torres, he helped save the Brewers' season, but it does just how much more efficient Hoffman was.

Interestingly enough, Hoffman yielded seven of his eight homeruns at San Diego's Petco Park, one of the stingiest places to hit a ball out of the park. It's probably a statistical anomaly.

It appears the Brewers are willing to go with a starting rotation of Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan (ouch) and the Unknown Comic. Actually, they'll probably go with Seth McClung or Carlos Villanueva in the fourth or fifth spot. Using either one of them however, will weaken an already suspect bullpen. Hoffman only pitches the ninth. The Brewers will have to find reliable setup relievers to protect the lead until then.

Hoffman is a nice, inexpensive pickup and if he performs at last year's numbers with a few innings added and a better performance against lefties, the Brewers will have done well. Don't discount the added effect of having the all-time saves leader as your closer. Last year there was palpable fear on the field and in the stands when the ninth rolled around with any sort of lead. Here's hoping that hearing AC/DC's Hells Bells when Hoffman jogs in to finish games is good for indigestion, relieves nail-biting and helps send the Brewers to another playoff match. Don't count on it if acquiring Hoffman is all the Brewers accomplish.

Cross-posted at The Other Side Of My Mouth