Here’s the conventional wisdom about J.J. Hoover: HooverÃ‚Â had two pretty good years (2012, 2013) in the Reds bullpen, then was terrible last year. Marty Brennaman recently referred to Hoover’s 2014 season as one of the worst any reliever has ever had.Ã‚Â Hoover has bounced back strongly this year.
That’s the standard tale and there’s a superficial resonance. Hoover has indeed been the best part of the Reds bullpen this season. He’s gone 24 consecutive appearances without giving up an earned run. He has yet to give up a home run. And, drum roll please, his record is 5-0!
But here’s the problem with that narrative. It’s completely wrong.
First, Hoover didn’t pitch that poorly last year. Yes, he gave up 13 home runs, more than double what he had the year before. But otherwise, his 2014 season wasn’t much different from the previous two. His fastball velocity was steady. His strikeout rate was actually higher. His K-BB% was constant. Hoover hadn’t given up more line drives. His contact rate was down and swinging strike rate up.
Breaking Hoover’s 2014 down even further, it turns out his curveball was the culprit in giving up the long ball. He threw his curveball 320 times in 2012 and 2013 and didn’t surrender a single extra base hit. His curveball ISO was .000 those two seasons. Yet his curveball ISO in 2014? .326. In 2014, Hoover’s curveball turned the average hitter in to Giancarlo Stanton.
But if you look at a breakdown of every curveball Hoover threw last year (and we can do that now), you’ll find that it was no different in 2014 than it was in 2013. Velocity? Same. Horizontal break? Same. Vertical drop? Same. Number of “grooved” curveballs? Lower. Hoover’s “grooved pitch” rate was 4.65 percent in 2013 and 3.91 percent in 2014.
Turns out that several factors – his HR/FB rate, his doubles-to-homers rate, his BABIP – point to bad luck as the explanation of Hoover’s terrible 2014.
But what about Hoover’s win-loss record of 1-10? Well, wins and losses are team accomplishments. You might remember that the Reds didn’t hit much last year. It was hard to pitch in the Reds bullpen and rack up many wins when the team never scored late-inning runs. The collective win-loss record of Aroldis Chapman, Jumbo Diaz, Manny Parra and Sam LeCure was 1-11.
After looking at all that data, I wrote in my February season preview about Hoover:
Despite all the losses, despite all the home runs, despite all the runs allowed, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that J.J. Hoover simply had an unlucky year. Most of the variation in outcome between his successful 2013 and unsuccessful 2014 can be pinned on giving up a few more home runs on his curveball and that event was largely a matter of bad fortune with fly balls going for home runs. Expect Hoover to come back and have a season closer to 2013.
So that’s the first problem with the big narrative about J.J. Hoover, but there’s another one.
Not only didn’t Hoover pitch worse in 2014 than he did in previous years, he’s not pitching better this year than last year.
In 2015, Hoover’s strikeout rate has plummeted (27 percent down to 19 percent). His walk-rate is basically the same, although slightly higher (11.3 percent to 11.6 percent). His ability to induce swings-and-misses has declined. So his contact rate is up from last year. He’s giving up more line drives this year (19 percent up to 22 percent). His fastball velocity is the same.
Hoover has cut way down on fly balls allowed so far, which is a big plus. It’s hard to hit a home run on a ground ball. But he’s benefitted from a BABIP rate of .179 compared to .277 last year. Again, pitchers have little control over their BABIP. (Chapman’s BABIP in his historic 2014 season was .290.)
When you look at the stuff pitchers control the most, J.J. Hoover has been the same pitcher for four seasons. His xFIP:
- 4.40 (2012)
- 3.97 (2013)
- 3.99 (2014)
- 4.03 (2015)
J.J. Hoover has been a steady, if unspectacular, performer the past four seasons. That’s a conclusion you couldn’t tell from his wins and losses and ERA.
What’s the point in such careful scrutiny of J.J. Hoover’s performance? Well, he may become the next Reds closer.
We know teams are scouting Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. There was also a report that the Washington Nationals called the Reds to ask about Aroldis Chapman. It’s just one more rumor to throw on the pile. And you should reinforce the floor underneath the rumor pile, because we’re going to see more of them.
It’s certainly possible that Mr. Castellini enjoys watching Aroldis Chapman run out of the bullpen gate too much to allow him to be traded. Those strikeouts are addictive.
But let’s assume otherwise. Last week, Kevin Michell wrote an outstanding article detailingÃ‚Â possible trade returns for Chapman. But we’ve yet to analyze who might replace Chapman in the ninth-inning role.
This is a sore and flammable subject. The Reds organization has squandered a once-in-a-generation pitcher by consigning him to the bullpen and further shackling him with the closers role. Last weekend in Chicago is a vivid reminder that Chapman hardly ever pitches when the team needs him the most. But let’s for once not get distracted by rehashing the Chapman fiasco. Instead, let’s look to the future.
It’s hard to imagine the Reds installing a closer from the ash heap of the current bullpen, with the exception of J.J. Hoover.
Kevin Gregg is mercifully gone, Jumbo Diaz back to AAA for now. Tony Cingrani is on the DL with a shoulder problem and has struggled with his control in the bullpen. Ryan Mattheus and Burke Badenhop don’t strike out enough hitters. Manny Parra, lefty specialist, no thanks. Nate Adcock and Pedro Villareal are unproven.
That’s it, that’s the list. Other than J.J. Hoover. In some ways, Hoover’s real consistency and mediocrity make him an ideal closer candidate.Ã‚Â He has a solid career strikeout and walk rate. He mainly throws two pitches, not more.Ã‚Â If you look past the superficial stuff, Hoover has proven over four years to be steady, not great, but not terrible. He’ll be able to convert a league-average (84-88 percent) number of saves.
No one will ever look at J.J. Hoover as closer and say, what a terrible, missed opportunity. And that’s where the cautionary tale of Aroldis Chapman is relevant. If J.J. Hoover appears able to get the job done, the Reds won’t need to convert another promising starter – like Michael Lorenzen or Raisel Iglesias – to closer.