HomeTrending MLB NewsJeff Hoffman: Aiming for First Place, Among Equals

Jeff Hoffman: Aiming for First Place, Among Equals

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Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

I think Mitch Williams deserves at least some of the blame.

See, I’ve been contributing to ranked lists of ordered baseball players for most of my adult life, and in general, people like to see their favorite team ranked highly. Baseball fans are pretty solipsistic, like dog owners, and struggle to imagine a world in which their special attachment to a particular thing is not shared by every sapient being on the planet. How dare you say Clayton Kershaw is better than Aaron Harang, and other salutations.

When our positional power rankings declared the Phillies to have the best bullpen in baseball two weeks ago, I don’t want to say Phillies fans reacted badly. (Not least because I’m the last person on Earth who wants Phillies fans to be perceived as a monolith, to be judged by their noisiest members.) Rather than hostility, it was more like the bemused skepticism with which one greets a man who knocks on your door trying to sell you solar panels. Sure, it sounds nice… but what’s the catch?

A great fictional baseball manager once said: “You can’t go through life thinking everyone you meet will one day let you down.”

Of course you can. And this is where the Wild Thing comes back into the picture. The franchise’s only playoff run for a decade in either direction ends when the team’s 43-save closer serves up one of the five most famous home runs in baseball history to that point. That memory governs how a generation of fans perceive relief pitchers. What’s felt more deeply: Brad Lidge’s perfect season to win the World Series in 2008, or his utter collapse to lose it a year later? The inch-perfect reliever daisy chain to beat Spencer Strider in Atlanta in last year’s NLDS, or Craig Kimbrel and Orion Kerkering walking the Diamondbacks back from the brink of elimination one round later?

Sure enough, the Phillies lost their first two games of the season to the hated Atlanta Braves by an aggregate score of 21-7, despite having held the lead in both contests. The putative best bullpen in baseball allowed 14 earned runs in 7 2/3 innings in those games.

Now, nobody wants to hear this, but things aren’t really that bad. They’re not great — the Phillies bullpen has already taken two losses in a week that won’t come off the board, and most of the high-leverage guys have gotten hit at least once — but the bulk of the aggregate damage has come from some ugly mop-up work against Connor Brogdon.

The Phillies Bullpen in 2024

Player(s)IPERK%BB%ERAWPAWAR
Total813825.7%7.6%4.220.441.8
Connor Brogdon2621.4%42.9%27.00-0.57-0.4
Without Brogdon793225.9%6.1%3.651.012.2

Through 4/7

Brogdon was DFA’d after taking the loss in an extra-inning defeat against Cincinnati last Monday and later traded to the Dodgers. He also holds the ignominious distinction of being the only link between the 2024 Phillies bullpen and the 2020 Phillies bullpen.

If you needed extra evidence for why Phillies fans don’t trust relief pitchers, 2020 will help you get the picture. There’s substantial overlap between that iteration of the Phillies and this one in the rotation and the lineup, and for good reason — the 2020 Phillies would’ve made the playoffs if their bullpen had been merely bad, rather than one of the worst of all time. We’re talking collective ERA-over-7.00 bad. Minus-6.4 WPA in a 60-game season bad.

Brogdon made the Phillies’ Opening Day roster mostly because Kerkering suffered an illness in spring training that pushed back his preparation; Kerkering is still on minor league rehab assignment as of this writing.

But Kerkering is one of several Phillies relievers who’s trusted in a high-leverage situation. That’s kind of similar to last season, when manager Rob Thomson had a cabal of situational stoppers, but there was still an out-and-out closer in Craig Kimbrel.

Kimbrel had 28 save opportunities last season (defined as saves plus blown saves). No other Phillies pitcher had more than 12, though the fact that 10 Phillies pitchers registered at least one save indicates that Thomson has little use for that rule.

Otherwise, the Phillies would be itching to replace their closer, with Jeff Hoffman as one of the top candidates. Hoffman is arguable the club’s top right-handed reliever; last season, he posted a 2.41 ERA in 54 appearances, with a K% of 33.2. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, he’s long and broad-shouldered like a swimmer, and he balances an upper-90s four-seamer with a devastating hard slider that he threw almost half the time in 2023. Pitchers don’t get more closer-y than this.

And yet Hoffman, like his manager, seems to care little for who pitches the ninth inning. He says his confrères feel the same way.

“I think we just are ready to pitch whenever the phone rings, no matter what inning it is,” he said. “We don’t have any selfish guys that are all, ‘I only want to throw in this inning, I only want to throw whenever.’ Any time the phone rings, everyone’s perked up… I think that’s why it works, there’s no guys who are above that.”

Anyone can pitch at any time if the matchup demands it. Hoffman’s made four appearances so far this season, ranging from two outs to five, and while he leads all Phillies relievers in gmLI, he’s yet to enter a game later than the seventh inning. In Thomson’s Mona Lisa of bullpen management, that Game 1 NLDS victory in which seven pitchers combined to shut out the Braves last year, Hoffman was the first man out of the pen; he faced Marcell Ozuna with two on and two out in the fourth inning.

That kind of highly variable situation-based bullpen usage requires a lot of flexibility and buy-in from guys who inhabit a job that attracts a lot of aggro types. José Alvarado would have earned capital-C Closer status if it were important to him. Seranthony Domínguez — groomed as the Phillies’ closer of the future before he missed most of three seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery — has an argument as well. So does Hoffman.

I asked Hoffman if there was some bauble, some marker that Phillies relievers chased with the save being so de-emphasized.

“I’m just out there trying to positively impact the game any way I can, whether that’s getting an important strikeout or [escaping] by the skin of my teeth with fly balls to the warning track. I don’t really care how it happens,” he said. “I’m just out there trying to throw up a zero or save some runs in any situation, and if everybody thinks that way, then we’re more likely to win those tight ballgames.”

The Phillies have put their pitchers in situation-based roles, rather than inning-based ones, for several years now, but they’ve previously tried to graft a veteran free agent closer onto the back of the bullpen in order to stabilize the role: Kimbrel last year, Corey Knebel the year before, David Robertson before that. No longer. Now it’s the baseball equivalent of positionless basketball, a team of ballhandlers and shooters with a switch-everything defense.

One thing that makes things easier is the Phillies’ ability to develop quality relief pitchers from relatively unfancied origins. They like guys who throw hard, and those who have non-four-seamer fastballs in their arsenals, and organizationally they feel they can figure out the rest.

That’s not only allowed the Phillies to fill out their bullpen with depth, it’s given them a group of relievers who have a reason to trust the team. Kerkering and Domínguez were both fairly big-name prospects by the time they hit the majors, but Kerkering was a fifth-round pick and Domínguez was an amateur free agent with only a trivial signing bonus; both were coached up to what they are now. Yunior Marte came over from the Giants in an exchange of warm relief bodies a year ago. The two relievers the Phillies spent the most to acquire are Matt Strahm and Gregory Soto, who are probably fifth and sixth on the depth chart in an ideal Phillies bullpen.

Alvarado and Hoffman were both names before arriving in Philadelphia, but both fell into the Phillies’ lap. Alvarado, long possessed of exceptional velocity for a lefty, along with a wicked cutter, was acquired from Tampa Bay in a three-team trade that cost the Phillies Garrett Cleavinger. Hoffman signed with the Phillies after the Twins cut him at the end of camp last year.

“I wasn’t even on a major league roster [at this point last year],” the 31-year-old Hoffman said. “I was still in Triple-A trying to sharpen some things and get myself back to this point, to be in a situation like this.”

The legend is well-established by now. The Phillies brought Hoffman in to be Bryce Harper’s sparring partner for a series of workouts at Citizens Bank Park; Hoffman impressed everyone. Within weeks, he was in the majors. By mid-summer, he was pitching in high-leverage situations.

It was a natural progression for a pitcher who’d floated around adjacent to Phillies circles for years. He credits Eric Jagers with helping refine his repertoire; the two worked together first at Driveline and later in Cincinnati, where Jagers was the assistant pitching coach for the two years Hoffman spent with the Reds. Jagers’ predecessor as Reds assistant pitching coach was Caleb Cotham, now the pitching coach in Philadelphia. (Jagers is now the Mets’ vice president of pitching, which among other things allows him to break ties in the Mets’ pitching senate.)

As you’d expect from a pitcher who’s worked out at Driveline (and who was wearing a t-shirt with the PitchingNinja logo on it when I talked to him), Hoffman has a pretty progressive outlook on his craft. But he’s not trying to overcomplicate things.

“All I’m really concerned about is movement profiles,” he said. “I don’t really look at much more than that. I don’t really go back and look at video a whole lot. I’m looking more at our post-pitching reports that have our movement profiles and location ratings and Stuff+ ratings, and that kind of stuff. I’m just trying to throw my nastiest stuff right down the middle.”

We talk a lot about valuing process versus results, and Hoffman’s perspective is fascinating through that lens. It’s almost extremely bimodal: So focused on process he’d rather look at numbers than video, but so focused on results he doesn’t care how his outs come, only that they advance the team toward victory.

But Hoffman comes by this perspective from a decade of professional experience, and a longer path to success than he would’ve liked.

Hoffman was the no. 9 overall pick in the 2014 draft out of East Carolina; while he was originally selected by the Blue Jays, his draft position has made it a bit of a historical inevitability that Hoffman would end up in Philadelphia. The Phillies currently have five 2014 first-rounders on their big league roster or IL: Hoffman, Kyle Schwarber, Aaron Nola, Trea Turner, and Luis Ortiz.

The key prospect in the trade that brought Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto in 2015, Hoffman spent the first five years of his big league career pitching, mostly ineffectively, for the Rockies. He says life as a major league pitcher has changed immeasurably since then.

“Shoot, in Colorado, we didn’t really have an analytics department. I’m not even sure if they have one right now, judging by how everything’s going there,” he said. “You see how our bullpen is built. It’s all just the nastiest guys you can possibly put together. And that’s how we operate: Everyone’s trying to pound the zone as best as possible with whatever they’ve got. That’s what works now. Ten years ago, it was a lot more, ‘If you can’t locate a fastball down and away, then you can’t possibly pitch in the big leagues.’ And that’s just not true. I think the teams that are stuck in that type of mentality are the teams that are really bad.”

Hoffman and I spoke before Saturday’s elbow injury triple-whammy that knocked out Shane Bieber and Jonathan Loáisiga for the season, and could do the same to Strider; the news of their injuries came two days after the Marlins announced that Eury Pérez would undergo Tommy John surgery as well. But the kind of leap Hoffman’s made, maximizing his stuff for short-term effect, is part and parcel of the approach that’s sending so many pitchers to see the dreaded doctors Neal ElAttrache and Keith Meister.

Getting buy-in for an egalitarian bullpen structure can be difficult when most of the pitchers involved are at risk of being DFA’d if they get hurt. Having a winning team helps. But financial security helps more. The Phillies aren’t shopping in the deep end of the free agent reliever market, but they’re still spending fairly heavily on their bullpen; the wealth, like save opportunities, is just being spread around.

Domínguez and Alvarado signed contract extensions last year; Domínguez’s deal ate up his last two years of arbitration and installed a team option for 2025, which would’ve been his first year of free agency. Alvarado gave up a shot at free agency last winter as part of a deal that pays him a little over $9 million annually in 2024 and 2025, with a $9 million team option for 2026. Strahm, who signed a two-year free agent contract last offseason, has already re-upped for an additional year plus an option for 2026.

That’s the next step for Hoffman, who settled for $2.2 million this past offseason rather than go to arbitration one last time. If his 2024 season goes anything like the last five months of 2023, Hoffman should triple his money at the very least next season, either with the Phillies or elsewhere.

Whenever that offer comes in, Hoffman’s made one thing clear: He’ll answer the phone when it rings.

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