Hell’s Bells: Trevor Hoffman’s uncanny consistency

trevor_hoffmanEd. note: I wrote this post after a bout of 3 a.m. insomnia that followed a trip to Milwaukee’s famed Safe House on Saturday morning. I liked the idea of the story so much that I asked Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee about it on Saturday afternoon. I also saw Trevor Hoffman tooling around on his skateboard in the parking lot at Miller Park before the game… that ol’ whipper-snapper!

MILWAUKEE – To hear those bells… those hell’s bells, is something to recognize. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it or heard it, as soon as the first toll from that ominous-sounding bell echoes through the ballpark, it’s difficult not to feel something.

Trevor Hoffman has been making that half-jog, half-speedwalk in from the bullpen for the ninth inning since 1993. Fifteen of those seasons occurred in San Diego, but this year Hoffman has been closing out games in Milwaukee. If he gets his way he’ll be back again for the 2010 season.

And why shouldn’t he return? Aside from 2003 where injuries cost him all but nine games, Hoffman has saved at least 20 games in every season since 1994. He has saved at least 30 games since 1995 and added to his all-time record by retiring three in a row against the Phillies on Friday night at Miller Park to give him 590 career saves.

Think about that for a second and then consider this… Hoffman has as many saves against the Los Angeles Dodgers (68) during his career as Rawley Eastwick saved in eight big league seasons.

What’s the big deal about Rawley Eastwick, you ask? Well, the lefty who pitched for the Reds, Cardinals, Yankees and Phillies during his career, led the Majors in saves in 1975 and 1976 for The Big Red Machine. Certainly there were plenty of chances for Eastwick to close out games since those Reds clubs rate amongst the greatest of all time, but the 1976 Rolaids Relief Fireman of the Year just didn’t pile ‘em up the way Hoffman has.

Hell, 17 seasons into his career, the all-time saves leader has nearly twice as many saves as Hall-of-Fame closer, Bruce Sutter.

So the question is, how does he do it? How does Hoffman put together epic saves seasons every year no matter what? How does he do it with just a changeup and a four-seamer that rarely (if ever) tops 90 mph? When those bells ring, Angus Young strikes that first chord on his Gibson guitar and Brian Johnson lets loose that howl in that classic cut from AC/DC’s Back in Black, the opposition knows exactly what to expect. Yet somehow the modest right-hander with the high leg kick and loose motion from the stretch just gets outs.

Hoffman has never recorded more than seven blown saves in any of his 17 seasons, and he’s reached that high-water mark five times. But add it all up and Hoffman has 70 blown saves in 660 chances. In not nearly half as many seasons as Hoffman, Phillies closer Brad Lidge has more than half the total of blown saves as the all-time save king.

Even this season – his first in Milwaukee – Hoffman has saved 36 games in 39 chances. At age 41 he has a 1.80 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 50 innings that got him his seventh All-Star Game nod. Nearly peerless in a role that burns out pitchers quicker than any job in baseball, Hoffman has figured out a way to persevere. Considering all that has gone on with Lidge and the Phillies this season, it’s remarkable to see Hoffman turning in yet another outstanding season not just at his age and with his stuff, but also for so many years without fail.

“You know the way I think about these things,” Hoffman said last week. “Every time I save a game, that means it’s another win for my team. The numbers just pile up accordingly.”

Even more remarkable is how Hoffman does it every year like clockwork and the Phillies have never had a closer put together more than three seasons of working in the ninth inning. Since 1976 when Eastwick won the very first Rolaids Relief Fireman of the Year Award, the Phillies have had three different pitchers win the honor (Al Holland in ’83, Steve Bedrosian on ’87, and Lidge in ’08), but not one to hold down the closers’ role for more than three seasons.

And as one can see by looking at the list of Phillies’ closers, there is not a ton of consistency. That’s especially the case considering the Phillies have had 11 primary closers since Hoffman broke into the league.

Take a look:

1976 – Ron Reed (14 saves)
1977 – Gene Garber (19 saves)
1978 – Ron Reed (17 saves)
1979 – Tug McGraw (16 saves)
1980 – Tug McGraw (20 saves)
1981 – Tug McGraw (10 saves)
1982 – Ron Reed (14 saves)
1983 – Al Holland (25 saves)
1984 – Al Holland (29 saves)
1985 – Kent Tekulve (14 saves)
1986 – Steve Bedrosian (29 saves)
1987 – Steve Bedrosian (40 saves)
1988 – Steve Bedrosian (28 saves)
1989 – Roger McDowell (19 saves)
1990 – Roger McDowell (22 saves)
1991 – Mitch Williams (30 saves)
1992 – Mitch Williams – (29 saves)
1993 – Mitch Williams (43 saves)
1994 – Doug Jones – (27 saves)
1995 – Heathcliff Slocumb (32 saves)
1996 – Ricky Bottalico (34 saves)
1997 – Ricky Bottalico (34 saves)
1998 – Mark Leiter (23 saves)
1999 – Wayne Gomes (19 saves)
2000 – Jeff Brantley (23 saves)
2001 – Jose Mesa (42 saves)
2002 – Jose Mesa (45 saves)
2003 – Jose Mesa (23 saves)
2004 – Billy Wagner (21 saves)
2005 – Billy Wagner (38 saves)
2006 – Tom Gordon (34 saves)
2007 – Brett Myers (21 saves)
2008 – Brad Lidge (41 saves)
2009 – Brad Lidge (31 saves)

Meanwhile in New York, Mariano Rivera is wrapping up his 15th straight season of eerily similar consistency to Hoffman. And no, it doesn’t seem as if the fans in Milwaukee or New York understand how lucky they are to have so much consistency in the ninth.

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