Making Trevor Hoffman a pitcher paid off -- for him, not for me

As a position player, Trevor Hoffman was in greater danger of being cut than making the cut. Arizona/Collegiate Images/Gett Images

I knew what Trevor Hoffman was when I first saw him back in March 1990 at the spring training home of the Cincinnati Reds in Plant City, Florida, out on the back fields: He was a solid fielding shortstop with a gun for an arm. And that might have been it. I was the Reds’ assistant director of player development and scouting at the time, and Hoffman really did nothing on the field to raise my eyebrows, except for one thing: He was always showing off his rifle of an arm from deep in the hole at shortstop.

Hoffman’s bat showed zero promise. That year during the regular season, he slashed just .213/.311/.277 with 10 doubles, two home runs and 23 RBIs, while making 25 errors at shortstop. Throughout the year, Hoffman was on the potential release list of the Reds’ farm director, Howie Bedell. But Bedell was talked out of releasing Hoffman on multiple occasions by his minor league manager Jim Lett and pitching coach Mike Griffin.

Because of Hoffman’s strong arm, Lett and Griffin decided to work with Hoffman in bullpen sessions twice a week during the regular season. After each of those sessions, he would take batting practice and infield at shortstop. When the season ended, it was concluded that Hoffman would not make it as a shortstop, because he would never hit enough. But we were all so impressed with his work with Griffin and his ridiculous arm strength that we decided to bring him back to spring training in 1991 -- as a minor league pitcher.

We know now how that worked out. Firing an overpowering 95 to 99 mph fastball, Hoffman made his conversion to pitching full time an instant success. He appeared in 41 games, striking out 75 hitters in just 47⅔ innings with 20 saves pitching for Cedar Rapids of the low-A Midwest League and Double-A Chattanooga in the Southern League. He owed most of his success to his fastball.

I was named the Reds’ director of player development in the fall of 1991. Hoffman immediately became one of our top pitching prospects. Beyond his stuff, I loved his makeup, his character, his personality and even his sense of humor. What I didn’t like was his eating habits. I would walk through the clubhouse and he would be downing six or seven hotdogs at once like it was nothing; I thought he was trying out for Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. I kept talking about how he should be more careful about what he ate, and he would just laugh, knowing he had very little body fat and was cut. I always tried to give him a hard time, and he was always so witty with comebacks, I rarely could one-up him.

In his next year in 1992, I put Hoffman back in Chattanooga and had him move to a starting role. The goal in doing that was to get him innings, build up his arm strength and develop his secondary pitches -- especially a changeup. He completely dominated, going 3-0 with a 1.52 ERA before I promoted him to Triple-A Nashville. It was a different story for him there; his overpowering fastball was not enough on its own to get hitters out at that level, and his changeup still hadn’t arrived yet as a reliable pitch. He finished his time with Nashville with a dismal 4.41 ERA in 42 games. For the first time as a pitcher, he had struggled, and he left that season knowing that he would have to improve his secondary pitches.

In October 1992, I was named the youngest general manager in baseball history, and a short time thereafter, I had to put together a protection list for baseball’s expansion draft to help stock the two new expansions teams, the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies. This was a difficult process, and our last protection spot came down to two minor league players: Tim Costo, a 23-year-old former first-rounder and eighth overall pick (by the Cleveland Indians) who had just clubbed 28 home runs at Double-A. Or Trevor Hoffman.

This was a really close call. So at the team’s organizational meeting that was held at the Holiday Inn in Plant City, I had everyone in our baseball operations department vote on who we should protect -- Costo or Hoffman. Every scout, every minor league manager and pitching coach and every special assistant to the GM had to vote. I tallied them up and approximately 75 percent of the staff voted to protect the power-hitting Costo over Hoffman.

I went with the majority, who believed that Hoffman’s struggles at Triple-A and his need to still develop his secondary pitches would be enough for the Rockies or Marlins not to take him -- and that we could then pull him back for the next round. And this became one of the worst baseball decisions I was ever a part of. The Marlins grabbed him with the eighth overall pick in the expansion draft. We were devastated. (And the fact that Costo wound up with just a .610 OPS in 146 career plate appearances with three home runs didn't help.)

Most of our room full of execs and scouts felt he had a chance to be an impact player, but none of us knew that he would develop into the greatest closer in National League history and someday would be a Hall of Famer. And whether he or not he gets into the Hall of Fame when this year’s voting results are announced on Wednesday, have no doubt about it -- he will be a Hall of Famer.

I monitored Hoffman closely the rest of his career and am still friends with him. I admire the man he became and the father and executive he is today with the San Diego Padres. He’s a class act, a Hall of Fame-grade person as well as pitcher.

On the field, I felt privileged to watch the most dominating reliever I ever saw besides Mariano Rivera. Hoffman’s 99 mph fastball was impressive. But it was his “Bugs Bunny” changeup that was the difference-maker: It was just unhittable. Even late in his career, when his fastball velocity dropped to 88 to 89 mph, Hoffman still got hitters out with that changeup, even without the benefit of a strong velocity differential. I used to love sitting behind home plate and watching his fastball/change combo. I have never seen another like it. It was dominant, breathtaking stuff.

Not that I’m a voter, but let’s remember the strength of his case for making the Hall of Fame. Hoffman and Rivera are the only two pitchers in baseball history to save more than 600 games. Hoffman saved 123 more games than the next leading closer, Lee Smith. Hoffman went to seven All-Star Games, finished in the top six in Cy Young Award voting on four different occasions and the top 10 in MVP twice. He had 40 saves or more in nine different seasons.

Despite that, there are some voters who won’t vote for him because he was “just” a ninth-inning reliever. But that’s just the way the game was managed when Hoffman was in his long run of greatness. He could have pitched multiple innings if his managers had wanted to use him that way.

Hall of Famers are supposed to be the very best at their position or in their role during their era. While Rivera was that guy in the American League, Hoffman was that guy at the same time in the National League. This is not debatable for any of us that spent our lives watching Hoffman pitch during his 18-year career. He was the league’s best.

So Trevor Hoffman is sort of a bittersweet subject for me. Being a part of the organization that converted him from shortstop to closer but then left him off an expansion draft protection list are two total opposites as experiences go. One of those things could make an organization proud of its resourcefulness; the other left it wishing it could have a do-over.

However, it also reminds us how great baseball is when a minor league shortstop hitting .213, a player about to be released, can someday enter Cooperstown by doing something different -- even if it meant he’d do it wearing a different major league cap.