FORT MYERS, FLA. – Matt Hoffman rearranged the clothes hanging in his locker the other day, making sure a workout jersey obscured the Oklahoma Sooners logo on the jacket he had worn to the ballpark. No sense antagonizing his Texas Longhorns-bred boss, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, over a football loyalty.
See, Hoffman hopes Gardenhire eventually will recognize the value not only in his pitching talent, but also in the less-than-universal role he would like to fill for the Twins. Hoffman, a 25-year-old nonroster signee, is a lefthanded specialist, a guy who is trying to make his living one batter at a time.
“It’s kind of an extreme [job], but I’ve come to embrace it,” Hoffman said. “You can throw every day in a four-game series, maybe just face the same guy every day. And you’ve got to get that one guy. You might come in, throw three pitches, and be done. It can be a chess match, back and forth. I’ve gotten used to it.”
All of baseball has gotten used to having a guy like that, because the role of relief pitchers is constantly becoming more specialized. The number of one-batter relief appearances has gradually risen; these days, roughly half of all major league games played include a pitcher who faces only one hitter, something that happened about one game in three only 15 years ago.
Gardenhire’s usage of the tactic is close to the MLB average — 36 instances last year, 16th most in the majors — but when lefty specialist Dennys Reyes was on the roster, the Twins used a one-batter specialist more often, including 50 times in 2008.
Hoffman would like to be the new Reyes, though it’s an uphill quest at the moment, with lefthanders Brian Duensing, Caleb Thielbar and Glen Perkins already in Minnesota’s bullpen. Still, he’s optimistic he has put himself in position to make his major league debut, after six seasons in the minors, this summer.
“Until my back injury [last August], I thought I was pretty close, had a good chance,” said Hoffman, who like Gardenhire was born just a few miles outside Tulsa, Okla. “I was having a good year, had lefties down to .220, .230, something like that.”
Actually, lefthanders batted only .224 against him, the product, he said, of his new focus on getting first-pitch strikes with a hard slider. Hoffman’s fastball sits in the low 90s, but his slider has a sharp break, in part because he throws from an unusually low angle. But his season ended early after he suffered a hairline fracture in his back while shagging fly balls during batting practice, and the Tigers allowed him to become a free agent in November.
The Twins called about him soon after, assistant general manager Rob Antony said, because “that slider can be an out pitch.” But while Hoffman pitched only 35 total innings in 40 games last year, the Twins don’t necessarily see him as a one-batter guy.
“He looks like a guy who would be tough for lefthanders to hit, but … until he proves us wrong, I think he can get righthanders out, too,” Antony said.
“I believe he’s got enough life on his fastball. And he’s got some deception to him, too.”
That deception comes from a three-quarters delivery he adopted after an elbow injury made throwing over the top painful. It’s a motion hitters don’t often see, and “I have a heavy sinker with it, too,” he said. “I actually had some people suggest I go completely sidearm, but I haven’t quite made it there yet. What I’ve done seems to work so far.”
Especially in such small doses. There was a time when Hoffman had his doubts, when he feared he was damaging his career by being pigeonholed in such a limited role, one that not every team even utilizes.
He was a starter when Detroit convinced him to forgo a college career at Oklahoma and turn pro, and kept that job through his first two minor league seasons before the Tigers asked him to move to the pen. The next season, he was a long reliever. Then he was a one-inning guy. Then he began specializing in lefties.
“There were times when I wondered, ‘Do I want to do this? Should I speak up and try to get better in a different spot?’ But I had a great year, so I figured, [the Tigers] knew what they were doing,” Hoffman said. Toledo pitching coach A.J. Sager “sat me down and said, ‘This is your job. You need to embrace it. You can get lefties out, and that’s really valuable. That should be your focus. If you can consistently throw that first strike, that’s all you’ll need.”
Well, that and an opportunity, even if it comes one batter at a time.