If I gave you the necessary tools and told you to design the optimum Right Handed Pitcher. Perfect height, build, weight distribution, etc. You would return with Jeff Hoffman. He's 6'4", which is tall enough to get good downward plane, but not so tall that mechanics get wonky and inconsistent. He weighs 194 lbs., which might be a little slimmer than preffered, but he's 21 years old and has a broad shouldered frame that suggests he could easily add 10-20 pounds of muscle.
So why is it that this time last year draftniks weren't all that familiar with Hoffman? Hoffman wasn't drafted out of High School and, as might be obvious by the lack of East Carolina University baseball photos available in the archives, he isn't exactly going to a premier baseball school either. Coming out of High School his pitching was still pretty raw, as with many 2-sport stars. He then had a fairly mediocre Freshman year at ECU with only 6.7 K/9 against 2.6 BB/9. He did flash stuff though and if draftable, he would have been picked, though certainly not in the First at that point. This past year he was a Sophomore and, if anything, his numbers got even more pedestrian with 6.9 K/9 against 3.2 BB/9. Numbers that certainly don't scream #1 overall pick. So what changed since last May?
The Cape Cod League happened. For those unaware, the Cape Cod League is one of, if not the, premier College wood bat league. It's where top players have gone for years to show what they're capable of against the best competition. It's the College player equivalent of the Arizona Fall League. Well, Hoffman went and absolutely dominated the league, averaging 12.2 K/9 against many of the best bats in College ball. It's such that I've looked at scouting reports from his NCAA season and his Cape Cod season (as well as the Scout Day at ECU in late October) and it almost reads as two different Pitchers. We'll get into the rather significant mechanics change Hoffman made shortly, but there's a lot to like and as much as you hear that Rodon is a lock for #1 overall, Hoffman is very much is contention for the spot.
So, let's talk about Hoffman's stuff. Primary among his pitches is a Fastball that sits 93-96 mph and can go up to 98. The pitch is reported to have good arm side tail (late movement, in on Right handed hitters, away on Lefties) with good sink. Hoffman is a strong ground ball Pitcher in large part due to this pitch. The pitch is plus now, but if he can add muscle and a few mph to the pitch, it could max out higher. He's drawn some comps to Justin Verlander due to his ability to dial up high heat late in his starts when needed. His second offering is a big Curveball with knee-buckling potential. His control of it had been spotty previously, but reports seem to note he's dialed it in and has better control of it now and uses it selectively. The Curve is reported as an easy Plus pitch now with much better potential. His third offering in his Circle Change-up, which has good movement, but may be a little too close to the speed of his Fastball, as he throws it in the upper 80's. It's an average pitch, but again, reports note it is improving.
Now, how did he suddenly become a potential future Ace? Part of it is his developing Slider (admittedly more of a Slurve). Hoffman notes that he uses it as a wipeout Pitch to tough Left handers (Link, baseball America, you'll need membership to read it). The second reason he's a whole new Pitcher is a change is his mechanics, which sounds small, but isn't. Hoffman used to drop his head during his pitching motion, taking his eye off the target and causing the ball to drift off target. He now keeps his head up and watches the ball in. Reports from Cape Cod indicate a pitcher now capable of painting corners with his fastball. Lastly, is Hoffman's own admitted mental maturity, as he admits to previously watching the radar gun and just wanting to light up the numbers and not focuing as much on Pitching, he was a pure thrower. He has since changed his focus to learn what works best, what he needs to work on and dialing down the heat to get better control and command.
I love prospect videos. So let's start off with a look at Hoffman from last NCAA season. You can see the head drop in this one just before the 1:30 mark (as well as elsewhere). This video is from Bullpen Banter.
Now, here he is in the Cape Cod league this past summer. Head drop is gone.
Finally, here's a news story from ABC6Albany (Hoffman's originally from the Albany, NY area). I include this since you can better see what the kid looks like and see his current build, etc.
As I said above, don't get too excited, as Hoffman is likely a future Astro or Marlin (at worst a future White Sox or Cubs player), but you'll hear his name in the future leading up to the draft, and likely for a long time thereafter. Would I take Hoffman over Rodon? Whew, though call, as I've seen Rodon make guys drafted Top 10 last year look like it was their first time ever playing baseball. That said it would be very, very close and I'm not sure a team can go wrong with either guy.