It’s going to end this way, so let’s just begin this way: It’s too early to draw conclusions about Jeff Hoffman’s rough first four starts.
Moving on, let’s talk about Hoffman’s first four starts and 17.2 innings of major-league pitching, because they’ve been too bad to ignore. He has a 5.60 ERA. That number isn’t great, but it isn’t damning either. In fact, Jon Gray started his career with very similar numbers, and that was just a year ago. In Gray’s first four starts, he pitched 16.2 innings and posted a 5.94 ERA. The fourth of those starts was a stinker against the Mets, when he threw just 1.2 innings and allowed seven runs off of eight hits.
It’s not the same though. When we rationalize surface figures because of a small sample, we usually point to underlying numbers that suggest something brighter. They’re the pegs on which we hang our hope. We were able to do that with Gray. Sure, he gave up 12 runs in 16.2 innings, but he also struck out 14 batters and only walked five in those innings. Being able to strike batters out without giving up walks is fundamental to pitching success, and in these respects, Gray was fine. And Gray has turned out to be fine. His walk and strikeout rates held for the remainder of the season, which was a significant hint that he would turn in a quality rookie season. He’s done just that in 2016. He’s struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings, and he’s walked 3.2. This was predictable, even after his first few starts last season.
We aren’t able to point to the same numbers and say the same thing about Hoffman. He’s allowed 20 runs (11 earned) in his first 17.2 innings, but he’s only struck out eight batters, and he’s walked 10. Whereas Gray was striking out almost a batter per inning in his first foray into the majors, Hoffman is striking out about one every other inning.
To find a closer comparison, we have to go back to the pitching prospect that debuted in 2014: Eddie Butler. In Butler’s first three starts and 16 innings, he posted a 6.75 ERA, and also in those first 16 innings, Butler walked seven batters and struck out just three. It was bad—worse than Hoffman’s start. Even worse, it signaled what was about to come. In about 80 innings in 2015, Butler was one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball. In 2016, Butler has traveled back and forth between Triple-A to the majors, as well as from the bullpen and the starting rotation. His walk and strikeout numbers have improved in 2016, but those improvements aren’t yet reflected in his 6.59 ERA. Butler could still salvage a career, though writing him off is completely justifiable at this point.
That’s not to say that Hoffman is more Butler than Gray. One significant difference is that there were signs that Butler either wasn’t ready or wasn’t equipped to face major-league competition. Namely, he wasn’t striking anybody out in Double-A before his major-league promotion, so his inability to do so in the majors perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising (he struck out 5.3 batters per nine in 117 minor-league innings). That’s not the case with Hoffman. In 118.2 innings in Triple-A, Hoffman struck out 9.4 batters per nine—a batter an inning, and the exact same mark Gray has had in the majors this season.
While there are some surface similarities between the way Jeff Hoffman and Jon Gray began their careers for the Rockies, there are also differences that make Hoffman’s start look a little too much like Eddie Butler’s. It was easier to be optimistic about Gray because he was at least striking batters out. Gray’s rookie season has turned out just fine. That doesn’t mean that Hoffman is fated for a Butler-like rookie year in 2017, however. While Hoffman hasn’t been effective at striking batters out yet, he was doing so at a prolific rate not long ago in Triple-A.
I’m not worrying yet. At this point, I’d still bet that Hoffman’s rookie season is more Gray than Butler. This could even become evident in Hoffman’s next start. After all, it really is still too soon to tell.