Hoffman began his career as a shortstop in college, being drafted in the 11th round of the MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds in 1989. Able to throw in the mid-nineties, the Reds quickly converted Hoffman from infielder to pitcher as he struggled at the plate. In 1992, he was selected by the then Florida Marlins in the expansion draft.
After 28 relief appearances for the newly founded Marlins, Hoffman was traded to the San Diego Padres for superstar Gary Sheffield and Rich Rodriguez. Jose Martinez and Andres Berumen joined Hoffman in the deal, sending them to southern California.
At the time, Padres general manager Randy Smith said, “The only way to acquire quality players is to give up quality.”
He had done just that.
Padres fans didn’t immediately take to the future Hall of Famer despite early success, such was the frustration at the fire sale.
An injury playing on a beach near San Diego in 1994 changed Hoffman’s career. He pitched hurt through an underwhelming 1995 campaign, eventually having rotator cuff surgery in the 1995/96 offseason. The 1995 season saw Hoffman begin to develop a changeup.
His beach injury and subsequent surgery saw his fastball drop from 95 down to the high-eighties. His new palmball-grip changeup was now crucial.
The deception was the key. The arm speed was the same, but Hoffman’s new pitch died as it reached the plate, leaving hitters flailing.
As Mike Piazza said, “Some [pitchers] fool you. Some guys overpower you. Hoffman embarrasses you.”
Following the development of his changeup, Hoffman finished sixth in Cy Young voting in 1996 with a 0.92 WHIP. In 1998 and 2006, Hoffman was second in Cy Young balloting and finished sixth again in 1999. By the time his career was done, Hoffman’s changeup was one of the most famous pitches in baseball history.
The speed differential, clever use of his cutter to lefties and deception earned Hoffman seven All-Star appearances and two Rolaids Relief awards. His nine seasons with 40 or more saves is the joint-most in Major League Baseball history. Only Mariano Rivera has more career saves.
Despite a less than amicable departure from the Padres in 2008 – when Hoffman signed for Milwaukee Brewers as San Diego cut costs – his number 51 has been retired and he has a bronze statue at Petco Park. Hoffman’s 902 appearances with the Padres is the most games pitched with one team in National League history – he’s a true franchise icon, and bridges have fortunately been built since his retirement.
Hoffman belongs in Cooperstown. He is one of the greatest relievers ever. Hells Bells, his trademark stare and devastating changeup will forever be a part of baseball history. Hoffman’s saves were a show worth the price of admission alone.