How Hoffman's career was saved
Closer turned pro as a shortstop who couldn't hit, or field
SAN DIEGO -- It's been 17 years and time has muddled details, but Jon Fuller is certain he was skeptical the first time he was asked to catch a bullpen session at old Watt Powell Park in Charleston, W.Va., with ... his shortstop?
It was 1990 and Fuller was a catcher for the Charleston Wheelers, a Class A farm team in the Reds' organization. Fuller was asked to strap on the gear one day so that Wheelers manager Jim Lett and pitching coach Mike Griffin could get a look at a 22-year-old who hadn't pitched since Little League.
Trevor Hoffman, meet the mound.
"I remember there was some talk that he wasn't going to hit past A-ball," Fuller said of Hoffman, who was hitting .212 at the time Reds officials asked him to give pitching a whirl. "But he always had a cannon for an arm in the infield."
Not that a strong infield arm necessarily correlated to guaranteed success on the mound, though any uncertainty Fuller and the Reds had about Hoffman as a pitcher were quickly erased after only a few bullpen sessions that summer of 1990.
As they say, the rest is history. Hoffman has gone on to an illustrious career as baseball's all-time greatest closer, with his latest achievement coming Wednesday night when he became the first player to record 500 saves.
"I just remember how natural he looked -- it was such an easy thing for him," said Fuller. "It looked like he had been pitching forever."
Only he hadn't, though Hoffman -- the Reds' 11th-round Draft pick out of the University of Arizona in 1989 -- was amendable to making the change. Really, he had no choice in the matter if he wanted to stay in professional baseball as he not only had struggled at the plate but also in the field (55 errors his first two combined seasons).
"I was an unproductive infielder, really," Hoffman said. "I wasn't fielding very well and I was scuffling as a hitter. The struggles that I had ... they weren't ones that were fun to go through. I knew the writing was on the wall."
Actually, the writing was on the scouting evaluation that Reds scout Jeff Barton turned in prior to the 1989 Draft after watching Hoffman. Barton listed Hoffman as a shortstop and a pitcher, though, again, he hadn't worked out of the windup since his youth.
"As the summer went on that year, Trevor was our everyday shortstop," said Lett, who is now the bench coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "You could see the athletic ability, how he handled himself. He always had a great arm. It was a question if he was ever going to hit."
This held great importance in 1990 when it became apparent that Hoffman, who played shortstop and third base for the Wheelers, wasn't advancing as a position player. That's when the Reds asked him to try pitching.
"It was like, 'Let's give him a chance to see what happens here,' " Lett said. "All we were looking for was to see his delivery and what kind of command he had. We knew Trevor had the arm strength, but we didn't know if he could get it in the strike zone or not. It was about the second or third time when we just sort of looked at each other and decided this was something worth looking into."
And so a pitcher was born.
Hoffman spent the remainder of the 1990 season throwing in the bullpen. He would pitch at least three times a week. At first, there wasn't a whole of instruction and there certainly were no instances where Hoffman was asked to do anything he wasn't comfortable with. They worked on the little things, such as his balance and getting him to locate his fastball, basic stuff.
That nasty changeup Hoffman would eventually develop? That wasn't even on the radar.
"It was bare bones," said Hoffman, describing his early bullpen work. "They wanted me to throw the ball over the plate, basically play catch with the catcher for them to see what I had. They were smart about it; they didn't tell me to air it out. They wanted to see my mechanics, what I looked like."
Along the way, Hoffman showed the Reds enough so that he earned an invitation back to Spring Training in 1991. He reported to Class A Cedar Rapids to begin the year and was again paired with Fuller.
"I remember catching him in one of his first outings," Fuller said. "He was by far the best pitcher that we had."
Hoffman saved 12 games for Cedar Rapids and posted a 1.87 ERA with 52 strikeouts in only 33 2/3 innings of work. Soon enough he was promoted to Double-A Chattanooga, where he saved eight more games, had a 1.93 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 14 innings. And off he went.
"I went from one side of the equation where if you succeed three times out of 10 and you go to the Hall of Fame ... but that's a lot of failure to deal with," he said. "Then I go to the other side where if you have success seven out of 10 times you feel pretty good about yourself."
Following the 1992 season, Hoffman was selected by the Marlins in the expansion draft. He made his Major League debut in 1993 and was traded that summer to the Padres with two pitchers in the Gary Sheffield deal.
Sheffield would enjoy parts of six productive seasons with the Marlins. Hoffman? All he did was become the Major League career saves leader -- earning all but two of his 500 saves with the Padres.
No, Hoffman's circuitous route to the Major Leagues and into the history book certainly didn't go the way he planned, although it might have made it that much more enjoyable.
"When you have a dream of playing in the big leagues, you're not really concerned with how that happens," said Hoffman, 39. "Just as long as you get there."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.