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.

Lidge’s legacy

lidgeATLANTA – When the 2009 season is archived or formatted to some digital data base way in the future, Brad Lidge and the issue of all those blown saves and extraneous runs will be the largest underlying theme. It has to be given how much time we’ve spent talking and writing about it.

Interestingly, all these months later the closer issue has not been resolved. Lidge started blowing saves in earnest in May and kept at it fairly consistently.

Who knows, down the road when we’re looking at the stats on Baseball-Reference or whatever clearinghouse baseball stats are vaulted in, maybe all we will see from Lidge is his save totals. After all, as the closer it is Lidge’s job to save games.

Lidge has 31 saves so far this season after finishing off the Braves in the ninth on Sunday afternoon. In his career, Lidge has saved at least 30 games (with a high of 42) four times in six full seasons. That’s a nice feather in his cap.

Now here’s some historical perspective on Lidge’s 30-plus saves in four seasons: Goose Gossage only got 30 saves in a season twice. The same goes for Rollie Fingers. Bruce Sutter, the other closer in the Hall of Fame, notched four 30-plus saves seasons just like Lidge.

Of course, 30 saves doesn’t mean what it did in the old days. In fact, of the five closers in the Hall of Fame – Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm – only one has put together more 30-plus saves seasons than Lidge.

That will all change when guys like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera get voted in. By then 45 saves will be what 30 was in the 1970s. Still, it will be interesting to see how history judges Lidge’s ’09 season. Chances are the legacy will have more to do with how the year ends as opposed as what happened between May and September.

He’s nailed down his last three chances in a row, allowing a run in each one of them, but the end justifies the means when it comes to saving games. In that case, the 31 saves comes with no caveats in Lidge’s case.

Looking at the blown save redux

GooseNo one has to look at the stats or old game logs to know baseball is a much different game now than it was just 25 years ago. Just look at the innings pitched stats of the pitchers to learn all you need to know.

Yes, the game has changed. Just look at the way folks are reacting to Brad Lidge’s 10 blown saves this year as exhibit A. Of those 10, including the one the Phillies’ closer snapped from the jaws of victory on Saturday night in Houston, five were walk-off jobs and four came after he retired the first hitter of the inning.

But here’s something for you… of the handful of pitchers with the record for most blown saves in a season (14), two of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame. Yes, Bruce Sutter had 14 blown saves in 1978 only to come back to win the Cy Young Award in 1979 with 10 more blown saves.

Yes, that’s right. Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter from Donegal High School in Lancaster County, Pa. had 24 blown saves in two seasons and took home a Cy Young Award.

Of course Sutter didn’t always pitch just one inning to get his saves, which is where the huge difference lies. Of those 24 blown saves, Sutter coughed up nine of them in outings of two innings of more. In fact Sutter took a blown save in one game where he pitched five innings.

When was the last time Brad Lidge went more than three outs to get a save? Try July 6, 2006.

No, closers aren’t asked to do too much these days, which is probably why the blown save stands out so much. The game is so defined by roles and managerial moves so compartmentalized and beholden to statistical data that there is much more pressure on everyone. If the manager deviates from the norm he is questioned and if the closer can’t walk that tight rope night after night without tripping up, people call for his head.

One inning to define failure or success.

Only a handful of relief pitchers won the Cy Young Award and even fewer were awarded the MVP. One of the guys who got both in the same season was Rollie Fingers who helped pitch the Milwaukee Brewers into the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season. However, in just 47 appearances and 34 save chances, Fingers nailed down just 28.

Of course he pitched 78 innings and had a 1.04 ERA, which means the nine runs he allowed that season led to those eight blown saves.

There are more examples, too. Remember when Steve Bedrosian was saving games every time he came into a game for the Phillies in 1987? Yeah, well he blew eight of his 48 chances, too, and still got the Cy Young Award.

bruce_sutterIn 1974 Mike Marshall of the Dodgers won the Cy Young Award even though he had 21 saves in 33 chances. Yes, that’s right… that’s 12 blown saves. Of course he appeared in 106 games and racked up over 200 innings all in relief.

Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young for the Yankees in 1977 and there was a lot of talk about how relievers weren’t worthy of such an honor. After all, Lyle had just 26 saves and 13 wins with eight blown saves. Of course he finished 60 games and averaged nearly two innings per outing, so he kept busy.

My favorite of all workhorse closers is Goose Gossage who was charged with 10 blown saves in 36 chances in 1977 in his only season in Pittsburgh. That season Goose picked up 16 saves when he pitched more than two innings, including four of three innings or longer and one four inning save.

Goose also had blown saves of four and five innings each in 1977. That’s nothing compared to Goose’s first year with the Yankees where he took two blown saves in a seven-inning outings and had five blown saves when he pitched three innings or longer.

Only 10 of Goose’s saves were three-inning jobs in 1978.

Lidge, on the other hand, has appeared in 57 games this season but only accumulated 50 1/3 innings. The last time he pitched more than an inning was late in the 2007 season when he got ahem a blown save.

Still, I have talked to closers about going more than one inning in save situations and even brought up Gossage’s efforts in 1977 and 1978 and they usually look at me like I have two heads. Only Brett Myers seemed interested in coming in before the ninth inning for a save chance, but that was when he was healthy.

No, I’m not saying stretching out the closer by asking him to do more work is the answer. In fact, it’s clear the modern day pitcher can’t handle the work load that the relievers of a generation ago piled on. But I am saying there is much more pressure on guys like Lidge these days. The fact that closers have absolutely no wiggle room at all makes Lidge’s 2008 season that much more impressive.

Moreover, closers like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman walked that precarious ledge for decades and somehow have come out on the other end lauded as the best ever at the role.

Yeah, the current-day closer has more pressure and is expected to be practically robotic, but there’s something cool about the best reliever coming into a game in the seventh inning and throwing heat to every hitter in the lineup.

It was a simpler game back then – for better or worse.