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Draft  | Story  | 4/17/2014

'Late bloomer' shoots to the top

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: East Carolina University

MORE COVERAGE: Kendall Rogers' Rice game report on Hoffman

When Perfect Game national crosschecker-scouting supervisor Frankie Piliere put together his 2014 Draft Focus analysis on East Carolina University right-handed pitcher Jeff Hoffman for publication late last month, he made the following observation:

“Hoffman defines the term ‘late bloomer’ as he was not noted as a draftable talent until very late in his high school career. There were scouts and teams lying in the weeds on his blossoming talent at that time, but it’s hard to think that many could have projected what he would become less than three years later.”

Hoffman was a 6-foot-3, 160-pound right-hander and middle-infielder when he graduated from Shaker High School in upstate Latham, N.Y., in 2011 with a scholarship to East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., in his pocket, but lacking for fanfare. Perfect Game ranked him as a “top-1,000” national prospect in the class of 2011, not a slight by any means but nothing to generate much buzz.

His name went uncalled through 49 rounds of the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft, not an unexpected happenstance for a kid out of the Northeast that saw his fastball touch 90 mph at only one of three PG WWBA tournaments he participated in during the summer and fall of 2010.

“I feel like coming out of high school I really wasn’t a pitcher at all; I was a thrower,” Hoffman told PG during a telephone conversation earlier this week. “I got away with throwing 90 (mph) in high school because in Upstate New York the hitters don’t really see that every day. I threw fastballs by people, I didn’t have to locate – ever – and I think the only (top) guy I ever had to really pitch against was Branden Cogswell, who is at Virginia now.”

Now deep into his junior season at East Carolina, Hoffman is facing lineups with players of Cogswell’s ability on a daily basis while generally enjoying a great deal of success.

The 6-foot-4, 192-pound Hoffman has not only developed into the Pirates’ ace over the past 2 ½ springs pitching in NCAA Division-I Conference-USA  and the past two summers in the prestigious Cape Cod League, but also into one of the top prospects in June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.

Armed with a fastball that consistently sits between 94-96 mph, and topped out at 97 in the eighth inning against Rice a few weeks ago, Perfect Game currently ranks Hoffman as the No. 4 overall prospect in the draft behind prep pitchers Brady Aiken (California) and Tyler Kolek (Texas), and North Carolina State junior left-hander Carlos Rodon. It’s a rise in stature and standing that few saw coming back in 2011, not even East Carolina associate head coach and pitching coach Dan Roszel.

“The body type really plays into it and with Jeff being the long and lanky right-hander, all that helps,” Roszel said over the telephone this week. “When you’re recruiting guys you’re looking for the right body so you just hope and pray that when you get them in (here) you can get them stronger, you get them going on a throwing program, and with strength and conditioning you can build and add a little bit of velocity. Jeff just kind of shot through the roof and went above and beyond even what was expected.”

Hoffman appeared in 19 games with 10 starts as a freshman at ECU and finished 3-2 with a save, a 3.67 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 73 2/3 innings. Converted to a full-time starter and staff ace last season, he went 6-7 with a 3.20 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 109 2/3 innings.

After nine starts this season, he is 2-3 with a 3.34 ERA and 56 punch-outs in 59 1/3 innings. He was spot-on in an April 4 non-conference outing against No. 22 Rice in Houston when he allowed one run on seven hits in eight innings, with seven strikeouts and just one walk.

“So far, I’ve had my ups and downs, but as of late I started to get back closer to where I’ve been in the past,” Hoffman said of his season to date. “I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable … especially with my start at Rice that created a buzz on ‘Twitter world’ and all that kind of stuff. I’ve really started to command my pitches in the zone and obviously when you do that it’s easier to get outs. Commanding the ball game-in and game-out, I feel a lot more comfortable in my delivery.”

Hoffman’s work in the Cape Cod League the past two summers is what really put him on the scouting community’s must-see lists. He posted a 2.32 ERA and struck out 30 in 31 innings pitching for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks in 2012; he returned to the Hawks in 2013 and went 2-0 with a 3.69 ERA and was named the Robert A. McNeese Award winner as the CCL’s Outstanding Pro Prospect.

“When it comes to that stuff, I let my Cape numbers do the talking,” Hoffman said when asked if he thought he was prepared to play at the professional level.

Jeff Hoffman peaked at 89 mph at the 2010 WWBA World Championship

In preparation for his college career, Hoffman appeared in three PG WWBA tournaments during the summer of 2010: the PG WWBA Northeast Qualifier #1, the PG WWBA Northeast Qualifier #2, and the prestigious PG WWBA World Championship.

He pitched for the World Yacht Clippers Nationals at both of the Northeast Qualifiers and traveled to Jupiter, Fla., for the World Championship with NY PG Dark Green; the World Championship experience was especially beneficial.

“Maybe not actually as far as getting to college because I was already committed at the time, but being down there helped more from a competition standpoint,” Hoffman said. “I was seeing what I was going to be facing at the college level, and being down there playing against the best players in the country I think was huge in my development, and getting a little bit of sneak preview of what I was going to see in college.”

He was throwing in the high-80s consistently and topping out at 90 at that point, but his college coaches were starting to sense even more velocity was hidden in that right arm somewhere. It just took another year or two for it to be released.

“He started showing flashes of that coming out of high school where the velocity was starting to mature with his body,” ECU’s Roszel said. “I think that with a little bit of everything there’s no pin-point where you can say, ‘Oh, we did this or Jeff did this’. I think it was everything that encompasses our program and what we do with our pitchers and really what Jeff did to make it happen with how he works and how hard he trains.”

As the time came to make a commitment to a college, Hoffman said he had several offers but ultimately decided on East Carolina because of its coaching staff, led by head coach Billy Godwin. But the opportunity of working with Roszel, who has already had seven of his pitchers drafted in just three years in Greenville, sealed the deal.

“Coach Roszel, he really just caught my eye, with the guys he’s had and just how well he’s developed some of those guys,” Hoffman said. “I kind of bought into that and I really trusted him in my development. … When I came here Coach Roszel really taught me how to pitch and being able to locate all my pitches and (the pitches have) come a long way; I just have a real natural feel for the game now.”

Hoffman also gives a lot of credit to strength and conditioning coach Blaine Kinsley and head athletic trainer Zac Womack for helping him elevate to the level of an elite pitching prospect.

“Being able to have the resources I have here – our weight training guy (Kinsley) has an unbelievable mind for baseball guys; he was with the Cubs for awhile,” Hoffman said. “He does a really good job with pitchers and knowing what I need to focus on to get velocity and to keep myself healthy. I put my trust in him and Zac Womack, our trainer, and they really do all the work for me. I can’t tell you enough how much these guys have helped me in my development.”

For his part, Roszel said it’s a matter of making sure Hoffman – and every other pitcher on the staff, for that matter – always knows what to expect.

“I haven’t changed the way I’ve dealt with Jeff from minute-one I’ve gotten in here,” he said. “When I felt like I needed to get on to him and yell at him about something, I do it, and other times when I need to give him a hug I give him a hug. There is a lot of pressure on him but he’s handling it well and he’s doing what he’s supposed to do and we just try to stay similar to what we’ve always done.”

The microscope that Hoffman has pitched under in his three seasons at East Carolina has become more of a telescope as the first day of the MLB amateur draft on June 5 approaches. He knows that his every move is being scrutinized but he also feels he’s well-prepared to pitch under such scrutiny.

“My advisors have done a good job of letting me know that that was going to happen, so every time I go out there I know that everybody is watching,” he said. “You have to know that everybody’s got their eyes on me and you never know who’s around.

“It’s definitely a different way to live your life but at the same time I think that’s the way it should be,” he continued. “There is going to be a team that is going to be throwing a lot of money at you and they want to know what you’re all about off the field as well as on the field.”

It all comes with the territory, according Roszel:

“In Jeff’s case, he’s got every publication, he’s got every team, everybody bearing down on him – I don’t care if it’s the umpires, the other team, to the draft – just being pulled and prodded. But you know, it’s a great thing. That’s the one thing with Jeff is I admire how he’s handled all of this with his work ethic; everything has stayed the same. I’m floored because you don’t know what you’re going to get and I’ve been through it before. Really all you can do as a coach is try to help them along.”

Hoffman admits to thinking about the draft and doesn’t shy away from the spotlight. He insists his main motivation is helping the Pirates reach an NCAA regional, but with records of 21-15 overall and 9-6 in Conference-USA those chances are slipping away.

He also hasn’t lost sight of the past. He can look back at his high school and Perfect Game playing days when he was a top-1,000 national prospect from Upstate New York who went undrafted out of high school, and hope that today’s high school prospects can find both inspiration and motivation from what he’s accomplished.

“If (high school-aged) guys can watch me and look at the way I live off the field and in the weight room, I feel like that’s a real good example of what you can become,” Hoffman said. “I was an Upstate New York kid coming out of high school throwing in the high 80s (and) really skinny. I had a little athleticism but I feel like what I’ve (accomplished), that should give everybody that confidence to where they can do whatever they want to do if they work at it.

“I definitely knew that I was going to give myself the opportunity to play at the next level … and give myself a shot at the big leagues,” he concluded. “I didn’t really know I could put myself in this situation that I’m in now, but I’ve always thought I would have a shot at playing pro ball.”