Tuesday May 25th, 2010

Last May Ken Macha's concerns about Trevor Hoffman extended only to the volume of his closer's entrance music.

The Brewers manager once joked that he hid in the dugout bathroom to escape Hoffman's blaring soundtrack of AC/DC's "Hells Bells," which the Miller Park staff had amped up to deafening levels when the pitcher suggested it wasn't loud enough.

A year later no one would blame Macha for hiding in that bathroom upon the sight of Hoffman entering a game, but for entirely different reasons.

Hoffman, baseball's alltime saves leader with 596, has saved just five games in 10 chances with a 12.21 ERA. He had been so poor that last Wednesday he was banished from the bullpen and relegated only to side sessions with pitching coach Rick Peterson -- the "repair shop," Macha called it -- until he regained his mechanics.

On Sunday Hoffman made a successful return to the mound by pitching in a setup role for the first time in more than 15 years. In his 1,000th career appearance, he got a hold by retiring the Twins in order in the eighth inning, including Joe Mauer, who had entered as a pinch hitter and was in the fifth grade the last time Hoffman recorded a hold, in 1994.

Peterson said on Monday that he and Macha "haven't set a timetable" for Hoffman's return to the closer role, wanting to make sure the 42-year-old is comfortable before they put pressure on him.

"It's about winning ballgames," Hoffman told MLB.com about his role. "We briefly discussed it, and [the eighth inning] is obviously not where I want to pitch, but I've put myself in this position and put the team in a [poor] position. [Macha] needs to worry about many different facets of what's going on, so if I go out and throw the ball better than I have for a little bit, then things will change back."

The Brewers need Hoffman to pitch better soon or else they'll face a very difficult decision of what to do with their aging star. At 17-27 Milwaukee needs to start winning games now if it wants any realistic shot at getting into playoff contention, so it can't be too patient with an ineffective closer. And it's not like a future Hall of Famer would accept a minor-league demotion, meaning Hoffman might be looking at retirement if he doesn't regain his form, or else he'd be a wasted roster spot. It's not unlike the situation the Mariners are facing with struggling slugger Ken Griffey Jr.

"I always said the hitters would let me know [when to retire], and they're talking awfully loud," Hoffman said last week.

There were no signs foreshadowing Hoffman's collapse. In 2009, his first year with the Brewers, Hoffman converted 37 of 41 save opportunities and had a 1.83 ERA, prompting Milwaukee to give him a $7.5-million contract in the offseason, with a mutual option for 2011.

Hoffman has insisted this spring that there's nothing physically wrong with him. Peterson said his closer's mechanics have been a little off, with his arm angle getting a little too high.

"When you want to get the ball down, in the mind's eye of a pitcher, you want to get your arm up higher to get a better angle," Peterson said, "but instead [the pitch] actually starts running across the zone."

Relievers rarely get the chance to practice during the course of a season. Hitters can take extra batting practice at no detriment to their game-readiness. Starters routinely throw in the bullpen between turns in the rotation, giving them a chance to tinker with mechanics. But relievers, with the unpredictability of each game, need to be ready daily and such side sessions can be taxing. And while a hitter can work through a slump in games -- often, only one of his four at bats will be in a high-leverage situation -- a closer, by definition, is pitching only in some of the most pressure-filled, game-changing scenarios.

Peterson said he also wonders if Hoffman's pursuit of 600 saves has played a role in his closer's downturn. Peterson, an avid practitioner of yoga and new age visualization techniques, is uniquely equipped to coach the mental side of the game. But he also embraces advanced technological data, relying on Pitch FX numbers to confirm his theory of Hoffman's elevated arm angle. Peterson is foremost a teacher, instructing major-leaguers during the season and amateurs in the offseason as a co-founder of 3P Sports, which works to develop the complete pitcher.

"What makes Hall of Famers as great as they are is that it's about process, process, process," Peterson said. "Now you've come to this Mount Everest outcome, and you start thinking outcome. What he's approaching no one in baseball has ever done before. You have both issues -- not only closing out a game but also approaching the peak of Mount Everest. Trevor has the opportunity to be an 'only' in all of baseball."

Since the strike year of 1994 Hoffman has had fewer than 30 saves only once, in an injury-ruined 2003, and had at least 40 saves nine times, the most in history. By comparison, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has accomplished that seven times and no one else more than four.

Hoffman has always had Old Reliable: his changeup. It's a pitch nearly as synonymous with him as the cutter is with Rivera. Yankees outfielder Randy Winn, who played four and a half seasons with the Giants and is 4-for-12 lifetime against Hoffman, said the longtime Padres closer has always had the four essential ingredients of a great changeup: 1) the same arm action as the fastball; 2) a big gap in speed; 3) great downward movement; and 4) a well-located, hard-to-hit fastball that keeps hitters from sitting on the changeup.

"So the fastball, even when you know it's coming, is well located," Winn said. "And then he throws the next pitch with the same arm action, but it's 10 miles per hour slower and it drops off the table."

This year Hoffman's changeup isn't fooling anyone, despite a similar speed differential, because it isn't moving as well. Winn said he watched one of Hoffman's blown saves and said bad location was the primary culprit.

Hoffman's changeup isn't diving so sharply out of the zone anymore either, so no one's chasing it, swinging at only 19.8 percent of pitches out of the zone, down from his 24.9 percent career average. Hitters are swinging and missing at only 6.0 percent of pitches this season, compared to his career average of 11.5 percent. And they're hitting him with authority, too. He's already allowed seven home runs.

And so the chorus of hitters has been nearly deafening. Hoffman now has a short time to silence them or so too will Miller Park fall silent in the ninth inning, and Macha will have no reason to hide.

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