The last time I came to Coors Field to cover a game for Purple Row was August 20, 2016. It was Jeff Hoffman’s first career start, and it did not go very well. The eventual World Series champions teed off on the rookie, with their half of the crowd cheering every hit. Still, after the game Hoffman said that the atmosphere he pitched in was what he had been dreaming of his whole life.
Three-hundred and sixteen days later he took the mound in front of another sellout crowd—this time comprised of 95 percent Rockies fans— and worked seven strong innings to lead his team to their sixth win in his eight starts. So much has changed since last August for Hoffman and the Rockies, but for me it was almost like I had stepped back into the same scene where I had last seen him, save for the fact that his locker is now on the opposite side of the clubhouse.
So naturally I had to ask him what he would have told himself last year with all the knowledge he has now.
“Honestly if I could go back I’d tell myself to do what I’m doing now, but it doesn’t happen like that. You can’t just make adjustments like that. Things happen slowly, one adjustment at a time over that time since last year.”
What you didn’t see on the mound last night was all the work Hoffman put in, both during the offseason and the start of the season, when, according to Bud Black, he just wasn’t ready yet. Hoffman had to earn his way into the starting rotation this year, and his first appearance with the Rockies didn’t come until five weeks into the season—a mop-up relief job in a blowout loss.
Two days later he got his first start, and he pitched well, but he was sent back down to the minors. Eleven days later he was called upon to make a spot start in Philadelphia, and he threw a gem. He was sent back down. Twelve days after that he got another chance in San Diego, and when he dominated again he finally got a spot in the rotation. As the hype around Hoffman builds it’s important to remember that, unlike Jon Gray last year, he was not supposed to be the best rookie on his team. But he just might be.
In last year’s article I surmised that Hoffman should look at Gray as a blueprint for how to improve in his second season, and that’s exactly what he did. Gray is one of three people that Hoffman most credited with helping him make the small adjustments that he needed to improve his game. The other two were Chad Bettis and Steve Foster.
If Gray is the benchmark against which we’re measuring Hoffman, then the latter of the pair has more than exceeded expectations this season. In fact, Hoffman’s numbers through eight starts this year are significantly better than Gray’s were last year.
This season Jeff Hoffman is 5-1 with a 4.01 ERA. He has struck out 48 and walked 14 in 49.1 innings. His WHIP is 1.14.
In Jon Gray’s first eight starts of 2016 he went 3-2 with a 5.56 ERA. He struck out 49 and walked 16 in 45.1 innings, and his WHIP was 1.30.
Hoffman has been better than Gray in every category except strikeout percentage through the first eight starts of their second (technically rookie) seasons. This is more than anyone could have expected after last season, especially considering that Hoffman didn’t make the big league roster out of spring training. It’ll be interesting to see what his final numbers look like compared to Gray, who really hit his stride around his tenth start.
So what does Jeff Hoffman think he’s done better this year than last year in particular?
“I feel like I’ve done a better job keeping my emotions in check. Not letting things speed out of control. Last year it was totally different. This year I’m more in the zone and more in command of everything. My body, my emotions, my pitches.”
What Hoffman told me he would have told himself last night is almost identical to what Jon Gray said he would have told his younger self when I asked him the same question last year. To paraphrase, Gray told me that he would "just tell myself to ignore all the crazy stuff and just focus on the actual pitching.” And, of Hoffman, Gray said that "If he focuses on the game he'll be fine."
One of the takeaways from all of this is that Hoffman was bluffing when he told the media after his debut last August that he felt comfortable on the mound facing the best team in baseball in his first start in the majors. But that’s a good thing. His confidence and his sense that he belonged were what impressed me most about his debut, and those qualities have carried over to this season. It’s just that his focus and his stuff have also taken great steps forward. Hoffman made mistakes last night against good hitters, and they made him pay, but after giving up back-to-back home runs that tied the game he retired the final six batters he faced. That’s composure.
Hoffman is still a rookie, and he’s not a finished product. We can’t just ignore the nine-run meltdown inning that set the losing streak in motion two weeks ago. But outside of that, he’s been incredibly consistent, giving up no more than three runs in any of his other starts. What should excite Rockies fans is that there’s room for improvement.
The Jeff Hoffman I saw last year and the one I saw last night are essentially the same person and pitcher, but now he has the experience and the numbers to back up what he’s always felt: he belongs at this level, and he’s not going back anytime soon.