Jeff Hoffman of the Philadelphia Phillies reacts during the tenth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citizens Bank Park on September 26, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
By Jon Caroulis
Special to World Baseball Network
PHILADELPHIA – When Bryce Harper talks, management listens.
Rehabbing from Tommy John surgery in spring training, Harper requested a “live” arm to throw him batting practice. Enter Jeff Hoffman, who had signed a minor league contract with the Phillies. After his session against Hoffman, Harper told the Phillies brass the pitcher could help the team.
“Bryce is one of the best hitters on the planet, so when he says somebody’s really good, you listen,” said Phillies General Manager Sam Fuld.
“I had faced (Harper) in the past,” said Hoffman. “He recognized the difference right away.”
The difference was an increase in velocity, which Hoffman attributed to an off-season conditioning program which added several mph to his fastball.
Hoffman’s season – so far – reached its zenith September 26, when he was the winning pitcher that clinched the top wild card spot for the Phils against the Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-2. In the top of the 10th, Hoffman pitched a scoreless inning, striking out Henry Davis on a nasty slider with the ghost runner on third.
He has held hitters to a .156 batting average with an ERA of 2.47. As of September 26, he had 68 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 51 innings. He also earned his first career save on June 17 against the Oakland Athletics in an extra inning game.
After being released by the Minnesota Twins, Hoffman signed with the Phillies on the last day of March.
“When we saw him live in spring training, our pro scouts wrote him up well,” said Fuld. Reports noted Hoffman’s fastball “was up in the high 90s. When we saw he was available, we just felt like it was a good opportunity to add depth to our organization, with an upside to be a key contributing to the big league level.” Fuld also noted Hoffman had pitched in “environments that were not pitcher-friendly.”
After an injury-plagued 2022 with Cincinnati, Hoffman consulted with his support group, including coaches, agents and family, and embarked on a weight training regimen in the off-season. “That, and being less mechanical, more fluid” in his windup, he says, was a key to improved velocity and control. He has been keeping up with his workouts and says his heater is averaging 97 mph.
Harper’s recommendation came after Hoffman was assigned to the Phillies AAA team, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs of the International League. He appeared in nine games there, where others noticed his increased velocity, and he was recalled to Philadelphia on May 4.
On July 16, the Phillies and Padres were tied going into the 11th inning. Hoffman entered the game and retired all six batters he faced. The Phils won in the bottom of the 12th, giving Hoffman his third victory of the year. He said that game stood out to him as a turning point of sorts, making him feel he had not only made it back to the big leagues, but was succeeding.
In his junior year at Eastern Carolina, Hoffman went 3–3 with a 2.94 ERA before suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow that required Tommy John surgery. He made a quick recovery, and said his velocity returned to its pre-operation levels.
In 2012 and 2013, he played in the Cape Cod the summer league, and received the Outstanding Pro Prospect award in 2013.
Despite the surgery, Hoffman was a 2014 first round draft choice of the Toronto Blue Jays, taken with the ninth overall pick.
In his first year in the Blue Jays organization, he went 5-5 while pitching at High-A and Double-A. Then came a surprise. Along with Miguel Castro, José Reyes and Jesus Tinoco, he was sent to the Colorado Rockies for LaTroy Hawkins and Troy Tulowitzki. Trading a No. 1 draft pick isn’t unusual, but trading him after only one season in the organization is.
“I’d say it wasn’t jarring, but wasn’t expected, getting traded to Colorado,” he said, adding he knew only one player in the Rockies organization. He spent the next season starting for the Rockies’ Triple-A team, and made his major league debut on August 20, 2016 against the Chicago Cubs. He surrendered six earned runs in four innings in a losing effort. He was 0-4 with an ERA of 4.88 for the big-league club that year.
The following season, he split between Triple-A and Colorado, also splitting between starting and relieving. He was 6-5 for the Rockies. The next three seasons went pretty much the same, alternating between Triple-A and the majors, both starting and relieving.
It was then his fastball saw a drop in speed.
The Rockies traded him to Cincinnati after the 2020 season. He had two decent seasons for the Reds, working primarily out of the bullpen in middle relief. He was granted free agency in November, 2022, and signed with Minnesota the following February, but was a victim of a “numbers’ game and was released on March 28. The first team to call him was the Phillies.
He credits his family as the major part of his support system. He and his wife Marissa grew up a few blocks apart in Latham, N.Y., and attended middle and high school together. The pair have four children: two sons, four and three, and twin girls, who are one. “The boys are old enough and definitely into it (his success).”
For the past month or so, Hoffman has been the steadiest reliever out of the Phillies bullpen. While Jose Alvarado, after two stints on the IL, appears to be returning to form, closer Craig Kimbrel and setup men Seranthony Dominguez and Gregory Soto have been inconsistent, probably because of the number of innings they’ve thrown. Recently, callers into Philadelphia’s sports radio station have suggested the team use Hoffman in the closer’s spot in the playoffs.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson. “He’s added a splitter to pitch to left-handers.” Thomson said he would “absolutely” use the reliever in high-leverage situations come the playoffs.
In those types of high-pressure situations, Hoffman said, “you try not to do anything different, you still have three hitters to get out.”