'I needed ... an equalizer'
When Hoffman throws his changeup, that's all, folks
PEORIA, Ariz. -- First, Trevor Hoffman learned to pinch the seam. Then, he moved the ball a little deeper into his palm. Along the way, he perfected the art of using the same arm speed as he does with his fastball.With that evolution, a notoriously deceptive changeup was born in Hoffman's right hand. And a career was, quite literally, saved. "There's no doubt that without that changeup, I'm doing something else right now," Hoffman says as he enters his 13th Major League season, all but three months of that service time spent in a Padres uniform. A decade after being introduced into his repertoire, Hoffman's changeup remains one of the most baffling pitches in baseball. It's a pitch that wouldn't get a speeding ticket from the highway patrol, but it looks as if it's in floating in zero gravity when played against a fastball that goes about 15 mph faster. This pitch wasn't just a change for the better. This is the pitch that has launched 393 saves, which has him third on the all-time list and, at age 37, leaves him very much within striking distance of Lee Smith's record of 478. Without that changeup, Hoffman wouldn't have had what he calls his "equalizer" pitch -- which is probably generous, since it's really quite the advantage over hitters. He had seen Rob Dibble throw 99 mph fastball after 99 mph fastball when Hoffman was in the Reds organization as a shortstop converted to relief. He'd seen Bryan Harvey use the split-finger fastball when he broke into the Majors with Florida as Harvey's setup man in 1993. He needed that special something. Suffice to say, he found it. "I felt that if I wanted to be a guy who could throw at the end of the ballgame and have success at this level for a sustained period of time, I needed a pitch that I would qualify as an equalizer," Hoffman said. Developing the equalizer
The pitch had a definite evolution, but Hoffman says that once he got it down and started really using it effectively in 1995, he hasn't altered it. Hoffman says he learned a variation of the circle change -- where a pitcher makes the "OK" sign around the ball -- from Donnie Elliott, a pitcher traded to the Padres in late 1993. Elliott taught him to pinch the seam between his thumb and index finger right near the printed logo. He then developed the pitch to use pressure with the thumb and let the ball settle into the palm of his hand, resting on the ball of the hand below the fingers. What emerged is essentially just a palmball. "It allowed me to literally throw a pitch that I threw in the backyard of my house when I was 7 or 8," Hoffman said. It takes some soft touch in his hand, but the full arm action of a fastball -- something his brother, Glenn, a former Major Leaguer now the third-base coach of the Dodgers, passed along after watching Cardinals starter John Tudor. This wasn't some gimmick he wanted to try. This pitch was a necessity. Having lost velocity to a shoulder injury he pitched through in 1994 and '95 before finally having surgery after the '95 season, Hoffman knew he needed something else. So did everybody else. Said Bruce Bochy, who became the club's manager in 1995: "When Trevor lost the velocity off his fastball like he did, it was important that he come up with a way-above-average Major League pitch if he was going to be a closer. He did that with that changeup." The addition of the changeup turned Hoffman from a power pitcher to a pitcher who relied more on the finesse of balancing his fastball with his changeup. Or did it? "Even though he threw hard when he first came up, he knew how to pitch," said teammate Andy Ashby, who pitched alongside Hoffman with the Padres from 1993-99. "Once he learned that changeup, he was still a power guy because it was so good and made his fastball look that much better." As Hoffman's changeup evolved into an all-world weapon, his pitching teammates were in awe of it, much like many hitters were. They liked it so much, they gave it a nickname. They called it the Bugs Bunny Pitch. "You could swing at it three times and it still wouldn't be in the mitt," Ashby said, bringing up the image of the famous cartoon. "I swear, he could tell them it's coming and they still couldn't hit it." Don't think hitters take offense to that. It's all too true. "You could be sitting on it and still not be successful with it," said Mark Sweeney, one of the premier left-handed hitters off the bench in the game. Sweeney has seen the changeup from both sides, as an opposing hitter and thrice now as a teammate. He prefers the view from the Padres side of the fence. "His consistency with it is just phenomenal," Sweeney said. "I think the hardest thing about it is he throws it exactly the same way as his fastball. That's the reason he can get away with two pitches a lot of times. It looks exactly the same." And there are times when the changeup is all he needs to use. Sweeney, who was a member of the Padres' World Series team in 1998, remembers one particular occasion when Hoffman went changeup, changeup, changeup to get a strikeout out in a huge situation. The scene: Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Astros, with the Padres holding a 2-1 lead with two down in the ninth. The batter: Pete Incaviglia. "He threw three straight changeups to him, and I think Incaviglia swung at all three before it even came out of his hand," Sweeney said. The total package
The changeup has been the saving grace for Hoffman, but it's not all he has going for him. He does have a curveball that he has refined in recent years, so he has another offspeed option. In fact, there are times when he doesn't even break out the changeup. "He's gone out there in games and not thrown it at all," Bochy said. "He's not exactly predictable either. He varies his sequence of pitches every time he goes out." That's really the key for Hoffman. He knows how to pitch, so he knows how to use the weapons he possesses, and he knows when. "He reads the hitter and what he's trying to do, and he's gotten better at it over the years as the velocity on his fastball has dropped a bit," said Sweeney, who played for the Rockies last year. "Last year, I probably faced him five times, and he pitched me a different way five times." Certainly, Hoffman does his homework and after all this time knows a lot of hitters' tendencies very well. He says he has a game plan going in, but once he gets in there it's pretty much an educated gut feeling. "I do it from a pitch-to-pitch standpoint," Hoffman said. Hoffman's velocity has continued to decline as he has gotten older, especially after he went through two shoulder surgeries that robbed him of most of the 2003 season and again endangered his career. In 1998, he was mostly around 91 mph with the fastball and around 76 with the change. Nowadays, he's more around 88 with the heater and 74 with Bugs Bunny. The separation between the two remains about the same, so the effectiveness remains the same. Ultimately, the changeup is the pitch Hoffman likely will be remembered for, because it really did become his equalizer. That, along with an uncanny mental approach, an incredible work ethic and help from Padres head trainer Todd Hutcheson, whom Hoffman credits for keeping his body and that arm of his in tune all these years. The changeup is his legacy, as strange as that might sound for a burly closer like Hoffman. But that fits right in with a guy who lost a kidney as an infant, went from a shortstop to a reliever in the minors and was faced with a tough decision about three years into his Major League career. The choice: Change or move on. He chose the change. It's an irony that fits right in the palm of Hoffman's hand. "It's kind of odd," he said, with a knowing grin, "that a guy can get people out with this kind of stuff."
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.