I had intended to get something up on this earlier in the week, when it would've been timely, but I was tied up in company meetings and then I got sick. I didn't want Trevor Hoffman's retirement to go by completely unaddressed in these parts, though, so here I am now.
Trevor Hoffman is not the best closer that ever closed. He, very clearly, doesn't measure up to Mariano Rivera. Billy Wagner had a way better career than you probably thought. Guys like John Wetteland, and Troy Percival, and Dennis Eckersley, and some others were outstanding, if for fewer years than Hoffman was.
But this isn't a post about the best. This is a post about the greatest. Those are similar terms, but where I consider the former a recognition of awesome statistics, the latter, to me, is more a salute to the whole package. Statistics plus intangibles, if you will. It's never a popular move to bring intangibles into an online discussion of sports, but it was the intangibles that helped to put Trevor Hoffman over the top. For so many years, he had the best blend of everything that we want a modern closer to be.
He was, first and foremost, wildly successful. I think everybody is aware of this, but his struggles this past season might've led you to forget just how consistently excellent he really was. He was a dominant closer through the 90s and into the new millennium. Shoulder surgery in 2003 took a chunk out of his strikeouts, but he responded by cutting his walks and remained highly effective into his 40s. Between 1994-2009, Hoffman was a healthy closer for 15 seasons. He kept his ERA under 3 in 12 of them. He kept his ERA under 2.50 in six of them.
Secondly, he was intimidating. He was intimidating in large part because of his numbers and because of what we'll talk about next, but Hoffman came out of the bullpen angry, he glared at the batter from underneath the bill of his hat, and he threw the best changeup in the world. As a hitter, you never want to go up against the best anything, and while "best changeup" doesn't send shivers the way "best fastball" does, everyone knew what they were going to get from Hoffman, and they knew they weren't going to hit it. Hoffman did lose a bit of his intimidation after the surgery, but there's no denying what he was at his peak.
And finally, he was an electrifying experience. Rivera beat Hoffman in the numbers, and he might've beat Hoffman in intimidation, but no post about Trevor Hoffman is complete without acknowledging his intro, which was hands-down the best player introduction in sports.
Trevor Hoffman was known for three things: his saves, his changeup, and his song. Pretty much every closer in baseball has a song now, from the awful (Aardsma) to the excellent (Putz), but Hoffman's choice - as simple as it was - was chilling. Having borne witness on countless occasions, I can tell you that the bells literally shook the stadium. It takes a lot to get San Diego baseball fans on their feet. Those bells whipped the stadium into a frenzy every single time they'd toll, and they sent a message to the opponent: time's up. You're finished.
We don't just want closers to close. Effectiveness, naturally, is at the heart of the matter, but what we want is for a closer to put on a show. For much of the duration of his career, no closer in baseball put on a better show than Trevor Hoffman. Thunderstruck worked well for JJ when he was amazing. Enter Sandman is a fine choice by the all-time best. But Hells Bells is legendary, and I don't know that it'll ever be topped. So many times, Hoffman's five minutes began with a bell and ended with a whiff, and those five minutes were an experience unlike any other.
There won't be another pitcher like Trevor Hoffman. There will be attempts and approximations, but there will never be equals, and baseball is a little emptier now than it was just last week. Hoffman's backstory would've been enough. He was drafted as an infielder before converting to the mound. He used to throw in the 90s with a curveball before pitching through a torn rotator cuff and learning a changeup during the strike. For that guy to blossom as he did was already incredible. But then came the bells. Over time, people forget great players. People don't forget great experiences. Trevor Hoffman will not be forgotten.