by Myron Logan

From a baseball perspective, I think $6 million is a slight overpay, at the least.
–Me, on Trevor Hoffman’s departure

Even by FanGraphs’ reliever valuations, which may be a bit conservative, Hoffman was worth almost $7 million last year. He had a tremendous comeback season with Milwaukee, posting a 1.83 ERA in 54 innings. In 2008, his final year with the Padres, he notched a 3.77 ERA in 45 innings. That season marked his lowest ERA since 1995 and the second lowest innings pitched total of his career.

With the Padres in rebuilding-mode and Hoffman limping into his age-41 season, it was time to part ways. Looking back, though, it may have been a bad move, considering Hoffman’s iconic status in San Diego, and obviously his production last year. What changed from 2008 to ‘09? Well, the first thing to remember is that relievers are especially hard to predict, because they are on the field so little, relative to position players and starters. A string of bad luck or poor performance (or, conversely, good luck or good performance) can mask a reliever’s true talent. Let’s take a look at some numbers:

Year K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABiP LOB% GB% FB%
2008 9.1 1.8 1.6 .268 78% 39% 47%
2009 8.0 2.3 .3 .240 83% 39% 46%

Everything is very close, except home runs per nine innings. You could argue, though, that HR/9 is one of the most important predicators of a pitcher’s success. And a decrease in home run rate, from a well below average 1.6 to a miniscule .3, is going to have a tremendous impact on ones ERA.

What we’re talking about here, however, is only a few batted balls. In 2008, Hoffman gave up 58 fly balls, and eight of them traveled over the fence (13.7% HR/FB). In 2009, those numbers sat at 65 and two, respectively (3.1%). The league average for home runs per fly ball is right around 10%, however, Hoffman’s average from 2002-2009 is just 6% (2008 was his only year in that stretch over 10%). That may not seem that significant, but over that same period, had Hoffman’s HR/FB rate been at the league average, he would have allowed about 20 more home runs, or 2.5 per season – a not so insignificant number for a closer.

What this exemplifies, mainly, is the difficulty in projecting relievers. Had maybe four or five of Hoffman’s 2008 home runs landed on the playing field or in someone’s glove, his ERA could have easily been a point (or more) lower. It also shows that Trevor Hoffman, even at 41 years old, is still a great closer. He recently resigned with the Brewers for $8 million. While that may be a slight overpay, please, don’t quote me one it.

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