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Looking Closer at Tiger Prospect, Matt Hoffman

I mentioned when I did my last profile of Matt Hoffman that I was a little surprised to find out how hard he throws. I remember listening to a game he pitched as a starter in Oneonta a couple of years ago and the radio guy said he was throwing around 90 to 92 miles per hour. When he was in the Arizona Fall League in late 2010, though, he was dialing it up to 95 and 96 mph regularly and maxed out at 97.

There are, of course, lots of possible explanations for what seems like a disconnect in information. There is the idea that the same pitcher will gain velocity when he moves to the bullpen. Hoffman is still a young pitcher and could be seeing the benefits of physical maturation. Minor league guns are notoriously unreliable. Those are three off the top of my head, but to be honest we probably shouldn't concern ourselves too much with what Hoffman was throwing back in 2008. We should be curious as to what he's throwing now, and the simple answer to that is heat.

In the Arizona Fall League, Hoffman threw 120 pitches that were captured by Pitch f/x. Of those pitches, 85 (70.8%) were fastballs. The average velocity on those pitches was 94.4 mph and 68 of the 85 fastballs were clocked from 94 to 96 mph. I'd say that qualifies as "sitting at" 94-96 mph. As for the frequency and velocity of the pitch, both would have been in the top quartile of major league relievers. Simply put, the pitch has cheese on it and he likes the cheese.

Of course, you can't just look at a pitcher's velocity and assume you know the quality of the pitches he's throwing. You have to look at what's happening to those pitches. For example, only eight of his 85 fastballs drew swinging strikes from AFL hitters. That's good for a 9.4% rate. That's not terribly impressive, even taking into consideration that fastballs often setup secondary pitches as the swing and miss pitches.

You'd especially like to see more swings and misses on the fastballs when you consider AFL hitters were waiting out his offspeed stuff to take their cuts on the heat. Opposing batters swung at almost exactly half of his fastballs, but took cuts on just 12 of his 35 other pitches. That's especially interesting when you consider his fastballs and offspeed pitches were called balls at about the same rate.

So if hitters were waiting on the fastball, swinging at it a lot and making a lot of contact, what was happening after they hit it? It wasn't as much damage as I had expected. Hitters made contact with 34 of his fastballs and exactly half of those were foul balls. I don't know how that rate compares to an average pitcher, but the results on the half that fell between the foul lines were mixed. On the one hand, none of his fastballs were hit for extra bases and only three were fly balls. On the other hand, six of those were line drives so hitters were squaring up on it pretty regularly.

I don't want to get too much into results on balls in play, though. Those take a much larger sample to normalize than the kind of trends I've been discussing above. I understand this is a very small sample, but I don't think you need as large a sample to figure out what a pitcher throws, what the hitters do with what he throws, and what his tendencies appear to be.

If we accept those assumptions, I think we can see Hoffman needs some work. Despite excellent velocity on his fastball, hitters seem to be able to lay off his secondary pitches and tag the heat when he puts it in the strike zone. Ideally, he would be able to not only get better results from his fastball itself. It should be keeping hitters off-balance when he goes to his slider (Pitch f/x classified most of his offspeed pitches as sliders).

It should come as no surprise, though, that Hoffman needs work. How many times, after all, have you heard his name come up as a top Tiger pitching prospect? Probably zero because he's not, despite having a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. That makes it pretty obvious there is progress to be made.

Still, the fabulous Pitch f/x system being available for Arizona Fall League games has given us the opportunity to learn more about him than most of us had to this point. It should still be understood, though, that this is not intended to be a scouting report of Hoffman. I tried to stick to the kind of information I thought we could trust as reliable after such a small sample. I didn't try to look at where he put his pitches, how he sequenced them, or whether he changed his approach for left-handed and right-handed hitters.

I view this as a very brief introduction to a talented left-hander. He needs a lot of work and may never even crack a major league roster, but I find him a lot more intriguing as a prospect than I did back in September of 2010.