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, yet J.J. Hoover has done the impossible: he has united the two sides against him. 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 almost half a win in only 9 innings pitched.

How hard is it for a reliever to move the WAR needle? Consider this: Last year Jonathan Papelbon pitched 61.3 innings and only amassed 1.0 WAR.  In 2011, The Cuban Missile pitched 50 innings, recorded 12.78 K/9 and earned…

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, let’s look at Hoover’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 this unlucky; but really, thats 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, let’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. Hoover’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 he 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.

20 Responses

  1. zaglamir

    If this was a healthy bullpen…

    This just seems like the exact situation a send down to AAA is meant to fix. “Look man, we want you here… but you need to tighten up your stuff. Spend 10 days down in Louisville pitching an inning every other day. As soon as that times up, we’ll re-evaluate where you stand.”

    I hope he does put it together, he’s got good stuff and has been a good pickup. He also seems likeable (from afar) and is fun to watch.

  2. arizonareds

    With Chapman back in this weekend, that will give us LeCure, Broxton, and Chapman to pitch the high leverage situations in the 8th and beyond. Hoover doesn’t necessarily need to go down, because I still think he is a better option than Ondrusek. Let him get in to some games in the 5th or 6th if the starter is having problems and see how it goes. I should be thinking with my brain instead of my heart, but I like Hoover alot and I want to see this guy pull it together, I think sending him down is going to kill his confidence.

    • zaglamir

      The confidence issue is a good point. However, I think this comes back to the “accountability” that the Reds FO/Manager were talking about in the offseason. Everyone must play Major League level ball or there will be consequences. So far, injuries have limited Price and Jocketty in their ability to demote players who are struggling (*insert argument about how Jocketty made this mess with a stagnant offseason*). Otherwise, I think Hoover would have already taken a vacation to Louisville. Send downs are a way of snapping your team into line while also getting a guy to a place here he can tune up his skills and then come back and make contributions to the team.

      Honestly, I think that is what the Reds need. The idea of accountability for amongst the players is tantalizing to me.

  3. cfd3000

    I’m disappointed in Hoover so far this year just like everyone else. But I have a question or problem with BABIP I’d like to raise to learn from the collective thinking. I hear quite often that in general BABIP averages around .300, and that anything a lot higher or lower is largely down to luck (otherwise known as statistical variation in small sample sizes). I don’t buy it, at least not always. As one example Joey Votto has a career number at .357 if I’m reading the Fangraphs info correctly. We don’t say “man, he’s been really lucky for a really long time” we say “he’s a really good hitter with a much higher line drive percentage than most”. And as a hypothetical example, I’m pretty sure if I pitched in MLB the BABIP against me would be .700 or .800 – I’d be a typical batting practice pitcher until my arm fell off. It wouldn’t be bad luck, it would be because I stink. So why are we so quick to say that pitchers have been unlucky instead of just bad? Please understand that I am NOT asking this question specifically in reference to Hoover this year. If he’s throwing 92+ and mixing in off speed stuff then he probably has been a bit unlucky. But I’m convinced that high BABIP against a pitcher is often “real” and not just bad luck. Poor control (and therefore too many pitches in a hitter’s red zone), loss or lack of movement, telegraphing pitches, sliders that don’t slide, curveballs that don’t curve – all lead to a fat BABIP. I see some predictive value in BABIP for pitchers, but I also see real value in evaluating pitching ability and performance, and I feel like that latter value gets neglected or dismissed too often. Thoughts? I’d love to hear from my RLN colleagues who are more familiar with this than I am.

    • zaglamir

      The real predictive power of BABIP is when comparing it to a career line. As an example, let’s look at Hoover. Using FanGraphs, using his numbers from 2012-13 in an average weighted by games entered, we get his BABIP is .229. That’s lower than the league average of .300, but for JJ, that’s what we’ll call “normal” (even though it’s quite excellent on the whole and shows that he’s good at keeping hitters from hitting line drives) The fact that his BABIP is .345 right now (almost 100 points higher!) shows a great aberration from what is normal for JJ. (This is also backed up by his HR/FB%).

      You’re right that the predictive power of BABIP is a bit weird when you’re comparing it to everyone else, because it can vary pretty wildly for certain players (Mr. Votto, Mr. Hoover, etc), however if you look at the BABIP’s for a whole season for all players, you generally get a nice Gaussian Distribution centered about .300. Just like any Gaussian distribution, when you’re comparing to it, you always have to account for the width (sometimes called the sigma or deviation). Treating a distribution like a single mean is nice for quick approximation, but to make solid statements it’s a bit misleading.

      • Chris Garber

        What Zaglamir said.

        There are a very few pitchers who can maintain a BABIP below the league average (mostly knuckleballers), but even the great Maddux was close to the league average.

    • Steve Mancuso

      Part of the case for essentially random BABIP for pitchers comes from the numbers themselves. Great pitchers don’t have sustained lower BABIP, at least not as much as you might think. There are theories that pitchers with higher velocity, all else equal, may et more off center hits. They face all kinds of hitters, so their number tends to average out. At a minimum, you can compare a pitcher’s current BABIP to their own career BABIP for insight. League average BABIP was .294 last year.

      • cfd3000

        These are excellent insights. But I still have the fundamental question. When does a significant deviation from career BABIP indicate a real change in performance and when is it just statistical variation. Is there ANY predictive value in the stat to answer that? I’m thinking not, until you start to look at other data, like average pitch speed or line drive percentage. Thoughts?

  4. WVRedlegs

    This happened to him last year in April. He was pitching out of position in the bullpen then and did so again this year because of injuries. I think that once the bullpen has all its arms back soon that everyone goes back to their roles. JJ will be given those roles in games where the Reds are either 4-5 runs ahead or behind, get his confidence back and get back to being a contributor. I hate it for Hoover and Ondrusek that they just can’t seem to get over the hump. They almost get there, then there is a big setback. You know the old saying about a chain, it is only as good as its weakest link. And right now, sorry to say it, Hoover is that weak link in the bullpen. The strange thing about Hoover, after being a starter in the Braves’ minor league system, I would have thought he would have more than 2 pitches. He has an awful straight fastball and a curve. You’d think he’d have more than that. Some movement on his fastball, or a change, or a cutter. When he gets his straight fastball (usually around 93 mph) up around the belt and out over the plate, it gets pounded.

    • WVRedlegs

      I meant to add, its all about location, location, location. Hoover location of his fastball has not been good most of this year. He is missing alot on his low at the knees on the outside corner fastball a ton this year.

  5. bhrubin1

    It is actually kind of misleading to say that an uptick in his K/9 means he is striking out more batters. It means he is striking out more batters per inning, but innings are defined as 3 outs. What an increase in K/9 indicates is that a higher proportion of the TOTAL OUTS he gets come via the strikeout, which is what you’d expect to accompany an inflated BABIP (which itself suggests he is not converting outs in other ways). K/9 does not necessarily suggest he is striking out more of the TOTAL BATTERS he sees.

    • Shchi Cossack

      Excellent point regarding K/9 & K/batter (or batters/K) ratios. This is a good example of using multiple stats to evaluate a performance. If WHIP is factored into the evaluation along with K/9, K/BB, P/IP, ERA or FIP, and GB%, a much better picture emerges.

  6. Chris Garber

    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.

    Also possible: Can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

  7. jessecuster44

    Hoover this year reminds me of Jose Arredondo, who seemed to always walk the leadoff batter.

    You can’t keep a pitcher on the 25 man roster who has such poor control that its a coin flip as to whether he’ll walk a batter. Yet this is exactly what the Reds are doing.

    • Vicferrari

      So is Hoover worse than Christiani, Partch, and Ondrusek?; granted you would not want any of them in the situations as JJ, but weren’t his stats about like this the first month last year and by mid-season he some how turned it around enough people speculated he could close in late summer. There are plenty of pitchers to send down before JJ

    • Drew

      Okay you demote Hoover, whom in the Reds farm system do you bring up that will perform better?

  8. Eric the Red

    Good stuff. Thanks.

    I’d be real interested in an in-depth look at Sam LeCure. He’s been one of the most reliable arms out of the pen this year, but it seems like he’s had to change his approach due to his drop in velocity. Has his pitch-mix really changed? Do advanced stats tell us anything about whether he can keep up the good work while pitching with the equivalent of one hand tied behind his back?

    I feel like if we could just get Sam’s toughness and pitching smarts joined to Ondrusek’s stuff, we’d never give up a lead again.

  9. al

    First one question: why would a pitcher’s strikeout rate have anything to do with BABIP?

    I think it’s better to look at xFIP for JJ Hoover, because early in his career with the Reds he gave up very few HRs for an extreme flyball pitcher in a small park. His xFIP has been 4.40 and 3.97. Not terrible, but not good.

    Hoover isn’t as bad as his numbers right now, almost no one in the big leagues is. But, I think Hoover has been highly over-rated.

    • Steve Mancuso

      Theory is that pitchers who can make hitters swing and miss can also get them to be off-centered more and hit fewer line drives. This is often correlated with fastball velocity, which is a factor in strikeout rates and barreling up the ball.

  10. the next janish

    Great article! My only change would to put in this little snarky-ness

    These numbers were enough for the Reds to send the free-swinging but powerful Juan Fransisco to Atlanta in exchange(one strikeout artist) for the (other) strikeout artist.