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Hoffman Rearms His Career

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The part Trevor Hoffman likes is when people ask the question, sometimes for the second or third time.

“You’ve never pitched before?”

Nope.

“Last time I pitched, I was 8,” Hoffman says, in a tone somewhere between pride and incredulity.

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This is the owner of a 0.00 earned-run average as a professional baseball player, a couldn’t-be-rawer pitcher with the Cedar Rapids Reds, Cincinnati’s Class-A team in Iowa.

The Reds took a look at the arm that Hoffman’s father, Ed, says always has been a cannon, and put their struggling young infielder on the mound this season.

Now, just 8 1/3 innings into his career as a pitcher, they see a prospect, a good one.

“My view of him is he’s going to be a very dominant closer for a major league team,” said his manager with Cedar Rapids, Frank Funk.

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Funk would know. He pitched in the majors himself, and was the Kansas City Royals’ pitching coach for three years before taking the job with the Reds organization.

“He has an exceptionally good arm,” Funk said. “Right now, he has a way above average major league fastball. We haven’t put a gun on him, but just by watching, I can usually guess within a mile or two. I’d say he’s throwing 92, 93 pretty consistent.”

Hoffman has pitched in seven games, and has five saves. He has given up four hits in his short pitching career, and has struck out 15 batters in 8 1/3 innings, walking only three.

Velocity is not all it takes, as Hoffman is well aware. But by giving him a chance on the mound, the Reds gave him a second chance at baseball.

Hoffman, who played at Savanna High School, Cypress College and the University of Arizona before being drafted by the Reds in 1989, knows enough about the big leagues to know he wasn’t on his way there.

“I was not really hitting the ball, not really making things happen at the plate,” he said. “In the field, I was not turning the double play, not making the routine play consistently.”

He wasn’t making it, and it was painfully aware to Hoffman, whose brother Glenn Hoffman played eight seasons with the Boston Red Sox and also played briefly with the Dodgers and Angels. Glenn has been coaching with the Dodgers’ Class-A Bakersfield team, and is being promoted to his first managerial job, with the organization’s rookie league team in Great Falls, Mont. Another brother, Greg Hoffman, is basketball coach at Western High School.

Trevor Hoffman was hitting .212 with the Charleston Wheelers, Cincinnati’s Class-A team in West Virginia, when the Reds approached him with an idea. Why not try something else?

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“I guess they felt the same way I did about the way I was playing,” he said.

With about three months left in his second professional season last year, Hoffman started throwing on the side, working when he could to try to learn how to pitch.

“I said, ‘Don’t just throw me in there, work with me,’ ” he said.

The Reds saw enough promise to bring him back this season as a pitcher. Hoffman has an arm, he has athletic ability, and he has an attitude--a good one.

“I enjoyed it and worked at it,” he said. “I wasn’t kicking dirt because I got booted at shortstop.”

Hoffman would like to have gone to instructional league, but the Reds had filled their spots and told him they’d see him in the spring.

That sent Hoffman looking for his own instructional league.

“No way I was going to spring training not knowing how to throw the ball with a little spin,” he said. “I’d get lit up.”

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Last fall, he went back to Tucson for a semester to work toward his degree--and toward developing another pitch or so to go with his too-basic two: a straight fastball and a changeup.

He picked people’s brains, and sought advice. He adopted the attitudes exemplified by a couple of former Arizona teammates, pitchers Scott Erickson of the Minnesota Twins and Lance Dickson of the Chicago Cubs organization.

“Just watching a couple of people who’ve had success like Lance Dickson and Scott Erickson, I saw their demeanor change when they pitched. On the hill, they’re different players.”

Hoffman spent his time asking questions. How do you hold the slider? What do you throw in this situation? Do you like to cut the fastball?

Sometimes, he got the smart-aleck’s answer.

“You just throw it.”

More often, he got help.

Somebody taught him about the windup.

“I had the basic idea,” he said. “But there’s more to it than that. Now I know more intricate things, like if your leg kick’s too fast you’ll have too much momentum going to the plate.”

Somebody else got him started on his curve.

“I had an idea, and Lance throws a pretty good curve.”

He got pointers at Cypress College, when he went to work out there. Bert Blyleven, the Angel pitcher now recovering from shoulder surgery, was there to watch his son, Todd, who pitches for Cypress. Bert Blyleven, another guy with a pretty good curve, showed Hoffman something about his grip.

“He showed me how to use the middle part of your thumb, which doesn’t tend to give way, so you can get a little more torque,” Hoffman said.

Ray Loya, a pitching coach in the Mexican League, added his voice to the instructors’.

“He probably helped me most,” Hoffman said. “He always had confidence in his voice.”

By the time he went to spring training, Hoffman had added a curve and a slider, and a pitcher’s mentality.

“One thing everybody told me is you’ve got to throw inside,” he said. “It’s tough, seeing a guy up there, and you’ve got three inches to work with between where you want to put the ball and hitting him.”

Making it to the major leagues after being converted to a pitcher relatively late is rare, but far from unheard of. Dave Stewart, for example, was drafted by the Dodgers as a catcher in 1975.

Hoffman thinks it is way too early to think about moving up the ranks, but Funk can see it happening.

“For him to end up in double-A by the end of the season would not come as a shock to me,” he said. “The way he’s been doing here, and the reports I’ve been turning in on him, I’m not in a position to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me a great deal.”

Funk has used Hoffman exclusively in relief, partly because of the transition, but also because he envisions him as a closer.

“He’s not prepared to be a starter and throw 100-plus pitches in a night,” Funk said. “Even in relief, he throws more in a night than he probably would in a week as an infielder.”

Funk sees him as a late-inning man.

“He has the perfect makeup,” he said. “He’s a very strong-willed kid. He’s strong physically, and he wants to do it. Whenever you make a suggestion, he’s like a sponge, he soaks it up.”

Hoffman’s fielding skills could come in handy in a late-inning bind with men on base, too. A pitcher who fields like a shortstop? Who wants to try the squeeze with Hoffman on the mound?

Seems like lots of people are getting excited. One of the more cautious is Hoffman, still withholding judgment on his 8 1/3-inning career.

One of the most confident is Funk.

“The only thing between him and the major leagues is being more consistent,” Funk said. “He needs to be able to throw that good fastball to spots, throw it to spots instead of just into the strike zone. He just needs to get a little finer, that’s about the only thing. Then he’ll be another millionaire.”


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