Jeff Hoffman’s new locker in the Rockies clubhouse is right next to another power right-hander’s. Hoffman, who made his Major League debut Aug. 20 against the Chicago Cubs, couldn’t ask for a better spot than sitting next to Jon Gray.
Not just because the two have a lot in common in their delivery, but also because Gray came up at a similar time in 2015. August 4 against the Seattle Mariners to be exact. Hoffman has a front-row spot to try on Jon Gray’s shoes.
“[Coming up last year] gave me an edge for the next year,” Gray said Saturday. “To kind of just get the nerves out of the way. I still get nervous every now and then and the anxiety goes up. But it’s a lot easier to deal with after you’ve done it before. I think it would be a lot harder on opening day getting your first big league game. It’s good that [Hoffman] is coming up towards the end of the season.”
Gray and Hoffman spoke a lot during spring training, being in the same pitching group. Gray gravitated to the Rockies’ biggest pitching prospect acquired in the Troy Tulowitzki trade with the Blue Jays because of their delivery similarities. It was easy talking about baseball with Hoffman, byt getting comfortable right away in the majors was anything but easy for Gray.
“Things started to get easier whenever I came to the realization that I said, ‘Okay, I’m supposed to be here,’” Gray said. “There’s a reason why I’m here. When that happened, you kind of go out there and want to show off your stuff and you start getting better results. Especially this year, it’s good to get the strikeouts you need. Feeling like the guy’s already out before he steps up to the plate. It’s a totally different feeling.”
Feeling like he truly belonged in the majors didn’t start until his fourth start of the 2016 season, against San Diego. He didn’t get the win, but he went pitch for pitch against James Shields, giving up two runs and fanning a career-high 11 batters. He got his first win less than a week later. So why was that Padres game the time he felt belonging and not his debut?
“I think it was because I almost had to see success before I believed in it,” he said. “When I had a good game I started believing in it more. I started taking pride in this. I’m protecting this. I don’t want anyone to take it away. So you go out there with a different attitude. You just want to go out there and mow people down.”
That new mindset has turned into aggressiveness. Gray is quick to clarify that it isn’t anger but more of a confidence that he expects to get guys out. Last year he was trying to make certain pitches and just hoping for a ground ball. He said it’s not like that anymore. He expects to make things happen now.
With that mentality, manager Walt Weiss expects Gray to be a great presence for Hoffman going into next season.
“It always helps to be around people that have walked in your shoes,” Weiss said. I’m sure the two of them will have a lot to talk about but that experience is critical. Especially for Jonny coming into this year.”
“He was expected to be a part of that rotation. He’s got some history to fall back on the fact the he got called up the year before. He had success, had some failures. That’s a big part of a young pitchers growth. That’s what Jeff is going to experience the rest of the year. It will be valuable experience.”
Hoffman’s debut looked like Goliath reversed the story and pummeled David. Hoffman, who replaced Tyler Chatwood in the rotation, only got to hear his walk up song, ‘Really Got It’ by Jerreau, once as he couldn’t live up to the song’s title. He started well against the best team in baseball but he eventually gave up seven runs (six earned) throwing 77 pitches – one more than his limit in Triple-A Albuquerque. Weiss said there was no strict pitch limit for Hoffman coming into the game, but with the game out of hand with no one out, Hoffman was pulled in the fifth. Even with a rough debut, Hoffman said he still felt comfortable.
“I felt very comfortable here and I don’t know why that was,” Hoffman said. “I was really expecting to be nervous and jittery. But you have a clubhouse with guys like this and they make you feel welcome. So you go out there and everything is not so bad. I wasn’t getting ahead as much as I should have been so they found a lot of holes. I found a lot of confidence in my change up so maybe I’ll throw that more next time. You take it as a learning experience and get ready for a couple days from now.”
Another Rockie making his debut with the club in 2016 is Wolters who is making a case to be Hoffman’s battery mate for some time to come. Wolters takes his responsibilities as a catcher to help Hoffman become as comfortable and accustom as possible up here.
“I’m still getting accustomed up here but the game is not speeding up on me. It’s more of I don’t want to stop learning. We’re all always trying to get better,” Wolters said. “We have a family atmosphere here so it’s going to make him feel really comfortable here real quick.”
Wolters met Hoffman in spring training and what impressed him most about the right-hander was his preparation and energetic personality. Wolters and many of the team expected him to make his debut at some point this season. Now that he’s here, the excitement is flowing through the clubhouse.
“It’s like playing baseball in little league,” Wolters said of the clubhouse atmosphere. “The Little League World Series is on right now. We can take notes from those guys. That’s who are team needs to become. We need to have fun on the field and when that vibe is going it’s only going to help our pitching. We’re not satisfied where we are right now. Bringing Hoffman up in here adds a branch to our family. He is another key to what we’re trying to build here. It’s going to be fun.”
The fun may not happen over night. It may not happen in 2016. But Jeff Hoffman will be right next to Jon Gray as the two become a big reason this team will be fun to watch again.