J.J. Hoover was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 10th round of the 2008 amateur draft out of Calhoun Community College. Early on in his minor league career, Hoover looked like a rockstar, racking up 9.92 K/9 in 134.1 innings of Class A ball. His sparkling 2.86 FIP earned him a trip up to AA where he would once again put up 130+ innings with a 3.26 FIP. By the time he hit the Reds radar, Hoover was dominating AAA as a reliever, with 14.95 K/9 (in only 18.2 IP) while putting up a 1.85 FIP.
These numbers were enough for the Reds to send the free-swinging but powerful Juan Fransisco to Atlanta in exchange for the strikeout artist.
When J.J. was with Louisville, he put up 13.38 K/9 and a 1.59 FIP in 37 innings as a reliever. At the age of 25, he finally got the call to the big league team and posted a 2.05 ERA (3.19 FIP) in 2012 and followed this up with a 2.86 ERA (3.47 FIP) in 2013. J.J. Hoover just turned 27 years old and is entering the prime of his career.
And in 2014, J.J. fell off a cliff.
Usually old school and new school baseball fans disagree about player evaluation, yetÃ‚Â J.J. Hoover has done the impossible: heÃ‚Â has united the two sides against him.Ã‚Â Old school stats (9.31 ERA, 9.2 IP) and new school stats (7.76 FIP, 5.96 xFIP, -0.4 WAR) all agree that Hoover has been downright awful this year. If you combine these two lines, its possible to see that J.J. Hoover has cost the Reds almostÃ‚Â half a win in only 9 innings pitched.
How hard is it for a reliever to move the WAR needle?Ã‚Â Consider this: Last year Jonathan Papelbon pitched 61.3 innings and only amassed 1.0 WAR. Ã‚Â In 2011, The Cuban Missile pitched 50 innings, recorded 12.78 K/9Ã‚Â and earnedÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
0.4 Wins Above Replacement.
When a pitcher experiences such a dramatic decline in such a short period of time, there are two usual suspects: an unusual Batting Average on Balls in Play, and/or fastball velocity.
First, letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s look at HooverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Batting Average for Balls in Play. For the past two decades, league-average BABIP has been rock-steady around .300. Hoover, because he is a strikeout pitcher, has a slightly lower career BABIP, .290. This year, his BABIP is .345 (!!). We have a habit of calling thisÃ‚Â unlucky; but really, thatsÃ‚Â just ugly. Assuming Hoover is given the chance, his BABIP should regress back to around .300.
Hoover has been unlucky, but he has been not been doing himself any favors, either. He has been walking over a batter an inning (9.31 BB/9), which means when those unlucky BABIPs land as hits, runners are crossing the plate. Hoover has never handed out free passes to first like this before: in his previous two years Hoover posted a 3.82 BB/9 (2012) and 3.55 in 2013.
Strangely, Hoover has been striking out batters at a higher rate this year (11.17 K/9) than ever before (a tick above 9 K/9 for his career).
Next, letÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s look at pitching velocity. This can be an indication that pitchers arms are wearing down (probably not the case for a 27 year old) or that the pitcher is battling injuries. HooverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fastball this year (92.5 vFB) is within his normal range (92.7 vFB career average). In fact, his slider is coming in harder than ever before, at 83.8 (vSL).
These points together point to a picture of both bad luck (BABIP) and loss of control (high BB/9). Since relievers pitch so few innings, they can experience large changes in their pitching lines based on a few bad outings. Chances are, Hoover will figure it out by the end of the season, but right now heÃ‚Â is falling prey to the old saying, “walks will haunt“. The good news is that if Hoover is ever able to find the strike zone again, we should see him return to a reliable reliever out of the pen.