The progression of prospects comes within their promotions. They succeed at one level then move to the next. At the next level they take on better competition and more competent batters and hopefully rise to the occasion. Matt Hoffman did just that in his first start.
At just 20-years old the young south paw toed the rubber on the road in Tampa on the back side of a double header. He went out and pitched Lakeland's first complete game shut-out of the season and only allowing six hits while striking out four.
"It's tough mentally, you go out there and the first game I threw a seven inning shut out and thinking wow there's not much difference here then all of a sudden…" All of a sudden Hoffman had the harsh realization that there is a significant difference between Midwest League and Florida State League.
"The hitters are better here. They don't chase as much stuff as you'd like them to. You just have to pitch around the strike zone so when you do throw one out they could give chase." Staying around the strike zone has been Hoffman's Achilles heel in his starts.
While splitting time in Oneonta and West Michigan last season Hoffman averaged 4.77 walks per nine innings. To be successful in any league it was evident that he needed a severe reduction in walks. "That's what they sent me [to Oneonta]. It was like, let's take this in and find a way to cut down on the walks"
It's still a work in process with Hoffman. Even if the ERA hasn't been reflecting his progression, there have been some strides made this season. His walk rate has dropped like a stone, going from 4.77 BB/9 to 1.96 BB/9 this season.
Hoffman credits his success to his pitching coaches. The turnaround started when he was in Oneonta. "I had the pleasure of working with Alan Mills, a 12-year major league veteran. He stressed to me the importance of slowing down and repeating your mechanics on my delivery [on every pitch]" Now in Lakeland Joe Coleman has started the refining process and trying to break some bad habits while trying to maintain focus. "[Joe Coleman] said in my past few outings I'd drop one side arm or drop my arm angle then bring it back up. It's just trying to repeat where I want to be."
Where he wants to be is in the strike zone. In the starts that he hasn't allowed a free pass Hoffman's ERA is an outstanding 2.85. In the starts in which he has allowed batters to walk to first his ERA jumps to 10.89.
In the lower levels of the minor leagues, that was all Hoffman had to do. As long as he didn't walk an inordinate amount of batter he wouldn't get himself in trouble. Now Hoffman has had to adjust to not having the raw stuff to get by. No one would assess Hoffman as being a dominant strikeout pitcher. However his 88-90mph fastball and a good curve will induce some empty swings. It was enough to dominate low-A, where he averaged 8.04 K/9 in 2008. With the promotion Hoffman had to change his philosophy.
"I don't throw hard enough to strike people out on a consistent basis so my objective is to get them out as quickly as I can and as efficiently as I can" Considering the Lakeland rotation has only one starter who even remotely lights up the radar gun, Hoffman is in a perfect rotation to watch and learn.
With the rotation being one of the Lakeland Flying Tigers strongest advantages this season Hoffman has had some good minds to pick. "The older guys like [Thad] Weber would come up to me after the bad outings and said I looked like I was trying to do too much. It's good to learn from him and players like [LJ] Gagnier, experience at Cal State and showing how to read the hitters, what they like and what they don't like"
Hoffman hasn't had luck on his side in his time in Lakeland. Opponents have been dropping in hits with a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .315. "You just have to take it. You make a good pitch they just took a good defensive hack and the ball fell in."
It seems like every start he gets ahead in the count then the batter will take a hack and bloop a single to centerfield. A bloop would then spark a walk which then would start the breakdown. In the starts that were a struggle for Hoffman he would get frustrated and starts to rush his pitches and forget his mechanics. "I was rushing, which was leaving the ball up that's why they were able to hit it as hard as they did". Hoffman's ERA has ballooned to 7.09 from the starts where he was hit hard.
That's the progression for prospects. When you go against more talented hitters, they punish your mistakes and will lay off the balls out of the zone. Matt Hoffman will have to learn from his mistakes and adapt to the competition. Hopefully Hoffman will rise to the occasion.