It's been almost three years since Trevor Hoffman last flung one of his trademark changeups over the plate. The longtime closer hung up his spikes following the 2010 season with 18 years of big league service and a then-record 601 career saves under his belt.
And nobody ever saw him again...
Well, OK, maybe not.
Hoffman may be retired from baseball, but Mark Clements of MLB.com caught up with him last year and found a guy who's keeping plenty busy as a member of the San Diego Padres front office and as a TV analyst.
For my part, I know that Hoffman is still talking. I got a chance to chat with him over the phone on Tuesday by virtue of Hoffman's involvement in the Pepsi MAX Field of Dreams Game, which will go down later this month on May 18 at Frontier Field in Rochester, New York.
Naturally, Hoffman said he's "excited" to go have "a little bit of fun" in the game, which will feature him and his fellow National League legends, American League legends and a pair of consumer contestants—Johnny Perotti of Rochester and Stephen Katchmark of Washington, D.C.
However, Hoffman also said he's humbled at the thought that he's about to be sharing a field with so many baseball titans. The NL team also features guys like Mike Schmidt, Johnny Bench and Ozzie Smith, and the AL team features guys like Rickey Henderson, Reggie Jackson and Frank Thomas.
"I surely don’t look at myself in that category," said Hoffman, referring to the legends he'll be rubbing shoulders with. "I’m very humbled about being a part of it."
Since Hoffman is due to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2016, just three years from now, I couldn't help but ask him if being considered a "legend" alongside Hall of Famers bodes well for his chances.
"Any little bit of luck or any little bit of favor I can get towards something like that would be awesome," said Hoffman. But then he drifted into real-talk territory.
"I know how revered guys are in this game and what they’ve done. Playing a specialty role, being a closer, you’re not quite sure what that ticket needs to be to get punched. I know Mariano Rivera is still going. I think we know he’s a surefire Hall of Famer. But some of the other guys like myself, we’ll see what happens. I hope it does happen."
So Hoffman's not about to start writing his speech just yet.
...But between you and me: Yeah, this is going to happen.
Closers tend to be treated like chopped liver by the Hall of Fame voters, but they've been pretty good about letting the great ones in. Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter are all in Cooperstown. It's beyond safe to assume that the guy who ranks second on the all-time saves list is going to get in as well.
So will, as Hoffman was quick to note, Mariano Rivera when his time comes. That won't be for a while longer, though, as the New York Yankees great is still going strong at the age of 43. Rivera has 11 saves in his first 13 appearances with a 2.19 ERA this year. You'd never know the guy suffered a major knee injury just a year ago.
Hoffman still digs Rivera's pitching as much as he ever has.
"He’s still getting it done as good as anybody in the game today," said Hoffman of his longtime contemporary. "He does it with one pitch. He does it with location. He does it with a lot of class. He does it with a lot of respect for his opponent and the game."
But Hoffman enjoys some of the new guys too, particularly the one guy whom we all enjoy: Craig Kimbrel.
"His stuff is pretty electric," said Hoffman of the Atlanta Braves closer. "There's not a lot of fanfare around him either. I like the way he goes about his business. His stuff is off the charts. He locates his fastball at the bottom of the zone as good as anybody, and he’s got a change-of-direction breaking ball."
Hoffman also sounded off on his appreciation for Kimbrel in a recent interview with MLB.com's Barry M. Bloom, saying he could be good for a long time if he sticks in the closer role.
But that's the tricky part these days. Hoffman brought up a very good point in talking to Bloom about how it's harder for dominant closers to stick as closers. It's too tempting for teams to see if dominant closers might be capable of being dominant starters.
The St. Louis Cardinals did it with Adam Wainwright a few years back and were rewarded. The Texas Rangers, however, did it last year with Neftali Feliz and were punished. The Cincinnati Reds toyed with making Aroldis Chapman a starter this spring before pulling the plug on the experiment. The same thing happened with Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox before the 2007 season.
Are teams risking too much when they try to turn closers into starters, or are they doing the best thing for the organization?
Hoffman can see both sides of the argument.
"I certainly understand from an organizational standpoint the feeling," he said, "the need for a guy that can throw 200 innings for you and be dominant, and the correlation with the guy at the back end of the bullpen that’s also been dominant.
"You always want to find that frontline starter. And when you have guys like Feliz and Chapman that have that lights-out stuff, there’s always that desire to try and see if they can do it in the rotation."
However, the admittedly "biased" Hoffman is also skeptical of how making a stud closer into a starter makes for a case of "weakening another area that was so under control."
He doesn't think that turning a closer into a starter impacts only the closer role. He noted that it impacts the whole bullpen.
"I understand how important shortening a game is," said Hoffman. "We’ve gotten into specialty roles where we’re not only talking closers. We’re talking specialty setup guys, and we’re talking about that link from the starter to the back end of your bullpen.
"When you start changing pitchers, the other team’s not really going to get a feel what they’re going up against. A guy comes back and goes, ‘Yeah he’s got a pretty good changeup and he’s locating his fastball down and away.’ But you’re not going to see him, you’re going to get somebody else in the game. It doesn’t allow that familiarity from the hitter’s standpoint to take over."
When it comes to the actual decision-making process of turning a closer into a starter, Hoffman indicated teams really have no choice but to take calculated risks based on what they know about the versatility of the pitcher in question.
For example, the Rangers knew that Feliz had started before in the minors. Ditto Chapman and the Reds. Hoffman's beloved Padres are still wrestling over what should be done with hard-throwing right-hander Andrew Cashner, who made 48 of his 54 minor league appearances as a starter.
As for himself, Hoffman never started a game at the major league level. All 1,035 of his appearances came in relief. But had he come along in today's MLB, it's possible he may have been asked to start.
After all, Hoffman was used as a starter in the minor leagues after he was converted from a position player to a pitcher by the Reds, who drafted him in the 11th round of the 1989 draft, in the early 1990s.
"They realized, ‘This kid needs to develop some pitches. He needs to get innings,'" said Hoffman.
And how did he take to starting?
"For the short period of time that I did get to do it, I enjoyed the routine of it," said Hoffman. "I enjoyed every fifth day. I enjoyed the bullpen session. I enjoyed a lot of factors of being a starter."
So imagine, if you will, Trevor Hoffman as a starting pitcher. Had things worked out a certain way, that's how he could have made his living in the big leagues.
But it just doesn't sound right, does it? Imagining Hoffman as a starter rather than as a closer is like imagining Paul McCartney as a member of KISS or Hulk Hogan reciting Shakespeare.
The man himself admitted that, while he would have been receptive to the idea of being a starter in the major leagues if the Padres had pitched it to him early in his career, closing seemed to be what he was cut out for.
"Being able to be the closer really seemed to fit my personality," said Hoffman, adding that he would have foreseen a "pretty good amount of success out of the pen" had he been asked to become a starter early in his career.
And he would have been right, of course. Hoffman may have been able to make it as a starter, but it's hard to imagine him carving out a spot as one of the game's all-time greats like he did as a closer.
"It worked out. I’m glad I didn’t have to answer that question," he said.
So are we, Trevor. So are we.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. Quotes obtained firsthand.
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