Earlier this week the Cincinnati Reds acquired right-handed pitcher Jeff Hoffman in a trade with the Colorado Rockies. The Reds also picked up pitching prospect Case Williams – who you can read all about right here – in the deal that saw Cincinnati send Robert Stephenson and outfield prospect Jameson Hannah to Colorado.
Jeff Hoffman is a former top prospect. Heading into the 2017 season he was the #36 prospect in all of Major League Baseball according to Baseball America. That came after a solid 2016 season that was spent mostly in Triple-A where at 23-years-old he posted a 4.02 ERA in 118.2 innings with 44 walks and 124 strikeouts for Albuquerque. The league average ERA that season in the Pacific Coast League was 4.45, giving a 4.02 ERA a little more context as to the fact that it was an above-average mark on the ledger.
Colorado called Hoffman up in late August that year and he made six starts and two relief appearances down the stretch. The results were a bit of a mixed bag, as his 4.88 ERA translated to a 100 ERA+, meaning he was league average once adjusted for the ballparks he had pitched in. But he also posted a 1.72 WHIP, allowed seven home runs, and walked 17 batters with just 22 strikeouts in 31.1 innings. In the Major Leagues, that was the high point for Hoffman, who has posted ERA’s of 5.89, 9.35, 6.56, and 9.28 in the subsequent seasons. He’ll join the Reds organization having thrown 230.2 big league innings with a 6.40 ERA and a 79 ERA+ with 107 walks and 197 strikeouts.
There’s been a lot made since the trade took place that there are some things to like about what Hoffman brings to the table. Those things are where the Reds can work with and hopefully turn things around for the right-handed pitcher that Cincinnati has told to come to spring training prepared to compete for a spot in the rotation or in the bullpen.
So what are the areas where Jeff Hoffman sticks out that lead some to believe that the Cincinnati Reds can “fix” him? Well, he spins the ball quite well. And if you’ve been paying attention to how the Reds have gone about looking for and identifying pitchers since Derek Johnson became the pitching coach, these are the kinds of ones the Reds have been looking at. Reds minor league pitching coordinator Kyle Boddy even started a Spincinnati thing this past instructional league for minor leaguers. It’s clearly something the organization believes in.
And they should, too. The higher the spin rate, the more swings and misses pitchers tend to get. Spin rate alone isn’t enough. You need to have the pitch spinning in the right direction to maximize that – though that is usually something that can be corrected a bit. Spin rate, though, isn’t something that is something that one can “teach”. It’s generally believed that you either have it or you don’t – unless you are using some sort of substance to increase the spin (pine tar, or other sticky-type substance).
Out of options, the Reds will need to get things going in the right direction with Hoffman in the spring because he’s going to have to stick to the big league roster in one way or the other unless they plan on placing him on waivers. He throws hard, but isn’t a stand out when it comes to velocity. In 2020 there were 323 pitchers who threw at least 20 innings. Hoffman’s fastball averaged 94.5 MPH, placing him 93rd on the list. That’s certainly above-average, but would have ranked 6th on the Reds behind Luis Castillo, Michael Lorenzen, Raisel Iglesias, Tejay Antone, and Anthony DeSclafani.
The fastball does spin, though, as his spin rate has been right around 2400 RPM in his big league career (MLB average is just over 2200). It’s not an elite spin rate, but it’s well above-average. What’s been interesting to see is what’s happened with the spin rate on his curveball. From 2016-2018 his curveball spin rate was 2750 RPM. But in 2018 it dropped to 2624 RPM, and then in 2020 it dropped again, this time to 2541 RPM.
Jeff Hoffman has always been known for his curveball. When it’s on, it’s really on and a plus pitch. You can see that in his pitch value stats at Fangraphs, too. In 2019 his curveball was the 30th most valuable (per 100 curveballs thrown) in baseball among the 204 pitchers who threw at least 70 innings that year. But in 2020, granted in a smaller sample size and a larger group of pitchers that threw at least as many innings as he did, he rated 186th and the pitch was considerably below-average.
His fastball has never graded out as average (or better) via the Fangraphs pitch metrics. There could be some small ways to get the pitch closer to average based on what he’s shown in the past. It seems that if there is going to be some “big” changes coming for Hoffman, it could be with the curveball.
The curveball, as noted above, used to spin quite a bit more than it has in the last two seasons. If the Reds fan help Jeff Hoffman get back that additional spin, it should – in theory at least – improve the pitch. Another area that could help, particularly if the curveball can improve, is throwing the pitch more. In 2020 he threw the curveball just 17% of the time. That was down from 2019 when he threw it 29% of the time, but in line with the first few seasons of his career.
Of course there are other things to look at other than spin rate and the pitches that have it as reasons that could be reasons to think that Jeff Hoffman could come to Cincinnati and find ways to improve. Offspeed stuff simply doesn’t move the same in Colorado. Elevation messes, slightly, with how pitches move – but those very small differences make a big difference when it comes to being able to hit a baseball. Simply getting out of Colorado could help how the pitches play.
Speaking of Colorado…. Hoffman has a high home run rate for his career. And while Great American Ballpark isn’t exactly known for keeping fly balls in the ballpark, it’s not quite Coors, either. Something that’s not Colorado related, though, is his control. Hoffman has not been stingy when it comes to free passes. He’s walked 107 batters in his 230.2 big league innings. That’s not good and a rate that you would like to see come down.
There are a lot of areas in which Jeff Hoffman can improve. There are reasons to believe that some of them can happen, too. He doesn’t need to improve in all of the areas that have been discussed here in order to find success. But it’s likely that he’s going to need to improve in several of the areas if he’s going to become a solid contributor to the Cincinnati Reds moving forward. Derek Johnson and company have some work ahead of them here. There are some things to look at and see hope with, but there’s not a lot of time to get it figured out, either.