HOFFMAN RINGS BREWERS BELL

By Murray Chass

June 14, 2009

“Hells Bells” has traveled well from San Diego to Milwaukee. “You still have to do your job and make it work,” Trevor Hoffman said.

Hoffman, whose 569 career saves make him the all-time leader, has made it work. He has done nothing to embarrass his signature musical entrance into games. He has done his job so well for his new employer, the Brewers, that all he has been is perfect.

Entering Sunday’s game, he had relieved 18 times, allowed no runs, not even an unearned run, in 18 innings and had earned 15 saves in 15 save opportunities. His innings have not all been perfect – he has given up 8 hits and walked one – but he has done his job each of the 9 times “Hells Bells” has been played at Miller Park and the six times it has not been in other parks.

This would be an impressive run this far into the season for any closer, but Hoffman is 41 years old and in his 17th major league season.

“I know I’ve had a couple of good Mays,” he said. “I don’t think I started a season quite like this. I’m trying to keep this in check. The way I see it you’re never as good as you seem and you’re never as bad as you seem.” And he added, “You have to go out and prove it every day in this role.”

A closer’s life usually involves more inconsistency than longevity. Twenty of the 30 teams have new closers this season. One of the holdovers is Brad Lidge, the Phillies’ late-inning artist, who last season was perfect – 41 for 41 during the season and 7 for 7 in the post-season.

This season Lidge, who is on the disabled list, has 13 saves, a 7.27 earned run average and a major league-high 6 blown saves.

Hoffman began the season with an all-time best 89.2 percent success rate in converting his save opportunities and has raised that rate to 89.5 percent. He has the most seasons with 30 or more saves (13) and the most with 40 or more (9). Mariano Rivera is second in both with 11 and 6.

“He’s been one of the most consistent closers of all time,” Kevin Towers, the Padres’ general manager, said. “The beauty of Trevor was year after year it was easy to put the bullpen together. We didn’t need anything past the eighth. We knew at some time there was going to be a changing of the guard. It turned out to be this year.”

It was this year because the impending divorce of the owners, John and Becky Moores, put the Padres in an economic bind, and Towers had to slash the payroll.

“We made an offer and kept it on the table for about a month,” Towers said. “We had some tough decisions to make at the time. We knew we couldn’t have both Brian Giles and Hoffman. We controlled the situation more with Giles. We had an option. With Trevor we didn’t.”

When the Padres pulled their $4 million off the table last November, it created a schism between the club and the pitcher, ending their long relationship on a sour note.

“We don’t need to go down that road,” Hoffman said in a telephone interview last Thursday evening. “When things end, they usually don’t end nicely. That basically was what that was.”

Ideally, Hoffman said, he would have liked to have finished his career with the Padres, for whom he pitched in a major league-record 902 games. “Not many guys are able to spend that much time in one place,” he said. “I was fortunate to be able to do it. It was unfortunate that I wasn’t able to finish there.”

For the second straight winter, the Brewers needed a closer. They had signed Eric Gagne for $10 million the year before, but he turned out to be a major disappointment. Gagne had finished the 2007 season poorly with the Red Sox, but Doug Melvin, the Brewers’ general manager, liked the Gagne who gained 16 saves in 17 chances with a 2.16 e.r.a. for the Rangers before he moved to Boston.

“We signed him thinking he could bounce back,” Melvin said. “We didn’t base it on what he did in Boston but what he did in Texas.”

But Gagne didn’t bounce back. “He struggled with his command,” Melvin said. “He was hurt. He’s hurt this year.” Melvin didn’t say so, but he wishes Gagne had worked like Hoffman.

“There’s no one who works harder than Hoffman to keep his body in shape physically but also mentally,” he said.

Melvin initially learned about Hoffman’s workout habits when he began thinking of signing him.

“People said he was losing it, that he wasn’t effective,” the general manager said. “We broke down his games, and there were only six games where he threw more than 20 pitches and only three games where he gave up more than two runs. I thought there was something left in him.”

Melvin said he was also looking at Francisco Rodriguez, who had a record 62 saves for the Angels last season, “but he went to the Mets. We considered Kerry Wood, but he was looking for a two-year deal. There was Fuentes, and we heard he wanted to stay on the West Coast.”

Melvin said the Brewers wound up competing with the Dodgers for Hoffman. He said two Milwaukee players, Mike Cameron and Jason Kendall, called the pitcher on their own to recruit him.

“They told him how much they enjoyed playing for the Brewers,” Melvin said. “A few years ago we didn’t have that caliber of player.”

Melvin related that he and his wife, Ellen, were on a Caribbean cruise, and he called Hoffman’s agent from St. Thomas. “I told him I was in the middle of a cruise but we had sincere interest in Trevor,” Melvin related. “The agent said that meant a lot to Trevor. When a guy has been with a team as long as he was, it hurts when they tell him he’s no longer wanted.”

Hoffman agreed to a $6 million salary for this year, and he can earn an additional $1.45 million in bonuses based on the number of games he finishes. Fifty-two would produce the maximum.

I asked Melvin why he thought Hoffman has been able to pitch so effectively for so long. “Preparation is what stands out for me,” he said. “He’s such a workaholic. In spring training, he was at the park at 7 in the morning. This season we were in St. Louis and he was at the park at 2 in the afternoon, stretching and doing flexibility exercises.”

There is also Hoffman’s mental preparation. “It’s his entire mental approach that prepares him for games,” Melvin said. “In the bullpen he has a routine. He prepares for it like a business person prepares for a major board meeting.”

Towers suggested that maybe Hoffman was motivated for this season by the Padres’ decision to let him leave, “us pulling our offer and him going somewhere else; maybe that was a little extra motivation. Prove to us we were wrong.”

Hoffman rejected that theory. “I’d say there’s zero connection,” he said. “When I hear something like that, I think if that were the case, I wouldn’t be giving credit to the work I’ve put in. I just prepare the same way.”

And how did he arrive at his preparation program?

“I’ve tried to figure out things that work for me,” he said. “You have to find a routine and stick with it. This is something that works for me. It doesn’t apply to everybody. It doesn’t relate to getting outs all the time. It just helps me prepare for games.”

Has his routine changed with his change in geography? “It’s been a work in progress from day one when I switched to pitching,” said Hoffman, who began baseball life as an infielder, switching to the mound in 1991. He attributes his work habits to a former teammate at the University of Arizona, Scott Erickson, who also became a major league pitcher.

“I was very impressed that he never went out there unprepared,” Hoffman said. “When I went to transition from regular to pitcher, I said I’m not playing every day, but I have to prepare like I’m playing every day.”

He’s been doing it with successful results ever since.

FROM HELLS BELLS TO HEATH BELL

The Padres hadn’t needed to find a closer since 1992, but when Trevor Hoffman left, Kevin Towers knew exactly what to do. He gave the job to Heath Bell, a 31-year-old right-hander who had pitched in 155 games out of the Padres’ bullpen the previous two seasons after they acquired him from the Mets in a trade.

“He was the one in-house guy we thought could get job done,” Towers said. “We didn’t have the wherewithal to go out and get anybody.”

Bell was the right price for the downsizing Padres, eligible for salary arbitration but agreeing to a $1,255,000 salary.

“Heath was like Trevor in the early years,” Towers said. “He closed and was successful in the minor leagues. He came here, and we started him in middle relief. He graduated to the seventh and eighth inning and closed out innings for us, just not the ninth.”

Bell and Hoffman are different personalities, Towers said. “Heath is very animated and vocal,” the general manager said. “That’s a different style from what we’re used to. It would have been unfortunate if Huffy had done that for the Brewers and we didn’t have Heath doing what he’s doing.”

Bell has converted 18 of 19 save opportunities with a 1.37 e.r.a. in 26 games.

A BAD BOOK BOMBS

The Associated Press reported last week that the Selena Roberts book on Alex Rodriguez has faded into the bookstore background, which is a good place for it.

The HarperCollins publication has sold barely 10 percent of its announced first printing of 150,000, the AP said. Citing statistics from Nielsen BookScan, the AP said the book sold 11,000 copies in the first week after publication in early May, “then quickly faded,” selling only 5,000 since.

Even when he was failing in post-season series, Rodriguez had a better batting average than the book’s selling average.

PITCHES COUNT PITCHERS OUT

On successive nights last week David Price of the Rays and Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees demonstrated how much is lacking in their development. Neither was the losing pitcher in the games; in fact, both of their teams won.

Price lasted four and a third innings, throwing 105 pitches. Chamberlain pitched four innings, throwing 100 pitches.

Obviously both young pitchers need to reduce their pitch count and pitch more efficiently, not to mention more effectively. They won’t get far needing 25 pitches to get through an inning.

They weren’t the only high-count pitchers last week. Manny Parra of Milwaukee threw 56 pitches to get five outs in pitching one and two-thirds innings. Antonio Bastardo of Philadelphia lasted one inning and needed 38 pitches to get through that one.

Not all was dreadful among young pitchers, though. Luke Hochevar of Kansas City beat Cincinnati with a complete-game three-hitter, throwing only 80 pitches, 57 strikes and 23 balls. It was one of the most remarkable pitching performances of the season.

ANGRY ANDY

Andrew Friedman is angry with me. He is the general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, and he is angry that I wrote in a column that he did not return a call from me seeking comment about the Rays’ treatment of Evan Longoria and David Price.

Friedman did not tell me himself that he is angry. He directed Rick Vaughn, the team’s vice president for communications, to call and tell me. Friedman still hasn’t called so I haven’t been able to ask him about the Rays’ treatment of Longoria and Price.

I had called Friedman to ask him about the way the Rays manipulated the major league service time for their two young players, in Longoria’s case gaining leverage in their negotiations for a multi-year contract and in Price’s case delaying by a year his eligibility for free agency.

Vaughn said I was unfair and unethical in the way I called Friedman and portrayed the absence of a return call. He noted that I called Friedman the day before the draft. How in the world could I expect to get the general manager the day before the draft, Vaughn asked, suggesting that the timing of the column was bad and that I should have waited to write it another time when it would have been more convenient for Friedman to call back.

Now Vaughn was not only acting as the Rays’ vice president for communications, but he was also acting as my editor. One of the things I like about writing for this Web site is I don’t have editors. I like having no editors. Most of them, I have found, have been useless, if not downright incompetent.

But there was no reason to hold off on that column. Friedman had a chance to call; he did not. Did he know why I was calling? He did not, and that was another Vaughn complaint. I seldom explain in a message why I am calling, I used to do that, but I found that if the person I was calling didn’t want to be asked about the subject, he didn’t call so I decided it was better not to alert the person in advance why I was calling.

Vaughn said I made it seem like Friedman didn’t want to talk about Longoria and Price, but I suggested that was what he inferred, not what I implied. Friedman, incidentally, could have called with his explanation of the service-time issue after he read the column, but he obviously chose not to.

Had Friedman called – before or after the column appeared – I am certain he would have explained that Longoria and Price needed additional time in the minors and that’s why the Rays didn’t add them to the major league team earlier than they did.

Longoria’s delayed arrival didn’t hurt the Rays last season, but you have to wonder where they would be this season if Price had been in their starting rotation from the start of the season instead of joining them seven weeks into the season.

Vaughn concluded our telephone conversation telling me not to call Friedman any more. I replied that if I write about the Rays again and feel the need to seek a comment from Friedman I will call and it will be Friedman’s prerogative to call or not to call back.

 

 

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