Let’s take a trip back in time to late April of 2023. Bryce Harper was continuing his near-superhuman rehab from offseason Tommy John surgery. He was attempting to get back in the batter’s box around five months after undergoing surgery on November 23rd, 2022. At this point in the process in April, he was set to begin taking live batting practice at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies were bringing in pitchers from the minor leagues to face him rather than coaches or a pitching machine.
One of those pitchers ended up being arguably their most consistent reliever for the whole season.
Jeff Hoffman was a former first round (9th overall) pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2014 MLB draft. He was traded to the Colorado Rockies at the 2015 trade deadline as part of the deal that landed Toronto All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Hoffman debuted with the Rockies in 2016 and played parts of five seasons in Colorado. His tenure was a disaster, as he posted a 6.40 ERA across 68 appearances. After two unsuccessful seasons in Cincinatti, Hoffman found his career on life support. He signed a minor league deal with the Twins in February of 2023 but triggered an opt-out and eventually wound up with a minor league deal with the Phillies on March 31st.
After facing Hoffman in that live BP, Harper noticed that he was a different pitcher. His velocity had ticked up to averaging 97 MPH as opposed to 94 and his slider had more bite to it than in years past. The Phillies noticed too, as they added Hoffman to the MLB roster on May 4th after he once again triggered an opt-out in his minor league deal.
2023 regular season stats: 54 G, 5-2, 2.41 ERA, 52.1 IP, 0.917 WHIP, 33.2 K%, 9.1 BB%, .158/.244/.257 opponent’s batting line
2023 postseason stats: 8 G, 1-1, 2,57 ERA, 7 IP, 0.857 WHIP
Hoffman quickly emerged as one of Rob Thomson’s most trustworthy relievers. He appeared in 8 games in May and was charged with just 2 runs, one of them unearned. Hoffman struck out 14 of the 41 batters he faced while walking only five. After a speedbump in June (5.19 ERA in 9 G), Hoffman was lights out the rest of the way, posting a 2.12 ERA and 0.79 WHIP in 37 games from July through the end of the season. His ability to handle high leverage work was a godsend for the Phillies, who were without Jose Alvarado for most of May and later July due to injury and were contending with the struggles of Seranthony Dominguez.
Hoffman’s new and improved fastball allowed him to setup his devastating slider to great effect. Opposing batters hit just .074 on the slider with a SLG of .123 and a whiff percentage of 44.6%. He was able to throw the pitch low and away to righties and down and in to lefties to generate swings and misses.
Jeff Hoffman, Wicked 88mph Slider. pic.twitter.com/T06LyrFkX8— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 19, 2023
Jeff Hoffman, Vicious 89mph Back Foot Slider. pic.twitter.com/uRBWUmkRCF— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 25, 2023
Hoffman’s .158 opponent’s batting average was tied for the third best among all qualified relievers in baseball. His 0.92 WHIP was tied for fourth. In addition to pitching the later innings, Hoffman was consistently called upon to put out fires started by other Phillies pitchers. With runners on, he limited opposing hitters to a .148 AVG and .505 OPS. With runners in scoring position, hitters had a .131 AVG and .447 OPS against him.
Hoffman continued that fireman role in the postseason in extremely high leverage spots and continued to have success. For example, in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Braves, Hoffman entered a 1-0 game in the fourth inning with two on and two out. After walking Marcel Ozuna, Hoffman struck out Michael Harris II to end the scoring threat. He ultimately struck out 9 of the 27 hitters he faced in the postseason and allowed just one walk.
Jeff Hoffman with a HUGE strikeout to get the Phillies out of a bases-loaded jam pic.twitter.com/gCAcDapw3W— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 7, 2023
It’s hard to find much wrong with Hoffman’s season considering how low the expectations were before the year and how much he exceeded them. His two-run home run allowed to Austin Riley in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS stands out as probably his worst moment of the season, but the Phillies wound end up winning the series without losing another game anyway. It seemed like his postseason workload may have caught up to him by the time Game 7 of the NLCS came around, as he allowed the go-ahead single to Gabriel Moreno in the 4th after getting ahead 0-2. Hoffman finished the NLCS with a total of 6 innings across 5 appearances, as the total breakdown of Craig Kimbrel and unraveling of Orion Kerkering forced Rob Thomson to try to push other relievers further.
The Phillies tendered Hoffman a contract on November 17th as he is entering his third and final year of arbitration. It’s a safe bet that he will receive a nice raise from his $1.3M salary in 2023. He will be back with the Phillies in 2024 no matter what the arbitration number comes out to be, but it would be wise for the Phillies to explore a contract extension beyond the 2024 season as Hoffman will be a free agent next winter at age 31.
The biggest question for Hoffman will be can he repeat his success in 2024. Relievers by nature are volatile, but in Hoffman’s case, he will need to prove that 2023 was not an outlier. The Phillies have seen this happen with one of their previous success stories in Andrew Bellatti. Bellatti served a role much like Hoffman’s in the 2022 bullpen, albeit with less dominance. However, he completely fell apart in 2023 and pitched to a 5.11 ERA in 27 MLB appearances and spent the majority of the season in Triple A.
The advanced numbers do back up the eye test with Hoffman though, as he was in the top 3% of the league in expected batting average (.188) and K% while being in the top 1% in expected slugging (.274), weighted on-base average (.226), and expected ERA (2.52). Some regression is to be expected, but Hoffman should still be a key cog in the 2024 Phillies bullpen.