What J.J. Hoover is doing differently this year

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J.J. Hoover had a rocky 2014 season and his place in the Reds bullpen for 2015 wasn’t a sure thing going into spring training. But when the Reds left Arizona for Cincinnati, they brought with them the former 10th round draft pick who they acquired from Atlanta in 2012. Meanwhile, Sam LeCure, another veteran right-hander who struggled last year, went to Louisville.
While LeCure’s struggles have continued in AAA (5.86 ERA, 5.66 FIP), Hoover has turned things around in a big way. This season he’s allowed 3.29 fewer earned runs per nine innings and the only pitcher on Bryan Price‘s staff with as many  appearances and innings pitched in relief is closer Aroldis Chapman (29 G, 28 1/3 IP).

 

Year

IP

ERA

FIP

2015

28 1/3

1.59

3.00

2014

62 2/3

4.88

4.97

2013

66

2.86

3.47

 

Hoover looks like an even better version of the reliable setup man that we saw in 2013, but it’s not just a matter of the 27-year-old rediscovering what made him a good pitcher two years ago.
Hoover is pitching differently this year. He’s less reliant on strikeouts. After striking out a career-best 27.3% of the hitters he faced last year, Hoover’s strikeout rate has fallen to under 19% this year. Compared to two years ago, he’s striking out nearly one fewer batter per walk allowed. He’s also getting ahead on the first pitch less often this year – his 50.9% first-pitch strike rate is down from 61.5% last year and 62.1% in 2013.

 

A new approach

Hoover’s success this season is in large part because he’s not pitching as though he’s trying to strike everyone out. He’s relying more on the strong infield defense he’s had behind him most of his major-league career.

 

Year

K%

K/BB

2015

18.8%

1.62

2014

27.3%

2.42

2013

24.9%

2.58

 

In short, he’s become a groundball pitcher. Flyballs hit off him are down nearly a quarter. Last year, batters hit 87 flyballs and 47 groundballs off Hoover (0.54 GB/FB ratio). This year, Hoover has nearly reversed that with 21 fly balls and 35 groundballs (1.67 GB/FB) through June 14. His flyball rate has dipped below 30% after climbing to over 50% last year.

 

Year

LD%

GB%

FB%

2015

22.2%

48.6%

29.2%

2014

18.8%

28.5%

52.7%

2013

21.3%

30.8%

47.9%

 

It’s worked for him more than a third of the way through the season. Last year, Hoover gave up 13 homeruns with nearly 15% of the flyballs hit off of him leaving the yard. He is yet to give up a homer this season going into Monday’s series opener in Detroit. Line drives off Hoover are up slightly, but this has not led to more doubles or triples. Opponents are slashing .151/.252/.204 against Hoover, compared to .236/.321/.464 a year ago.

On Sunday night in Chicago, Hoover pitched two innings. He faced six batters and the Cubs didn’t hit the ball out of the infield. He struck out Kris Bryant in the eighth and induced groundouts from Chris Coughlan and Starlin Castro. In the ninth, he struck out Mike Baxter and Miguel Montero before Chris Denorfia grounded out to third.
Batters are pulling the ball more this season against Hoover, making them more prone to defensive shifts. Opponents went the opposite way off Hoover 33.3% of the time last year. This year, that’s down to 17.9%.

Pitch selection and location

This year, Hoover is using his fastball – a four-seamer that averages just under 93 mph — more often than last year and he’s throwing about 5% fewer breaking pitches. Two years ago, Hoover was mainly a two-pitch pitcher. Last season, Hoover started mixing in a slider (83.5 mph) more often with this curveball (74.5 mph). His changeup (87 mph) still makes an occasional appearance.

 

Year

Pitches

Fastball

Curve

Slider

Change

2015

465

72.3%

17.1%

8.9%

1.7%

2014

1145

66.3%

19.7%

11.4%

1.4%

2013

1141

74.2%

21.0%

1.1%

1.8%

 

Hoover appears to be targeting more of his pitches to spots where batters are likely to put the ball in the dirt when they make contact. He’s putting more of his pitches down in the strike zone and below it. Left-handed and right-handed hitters are seeing more pitches down and away. Significantly fewer of Hoover’s pitches have been elevated this year, with the exception of a small increase in pitches up and away from left-handed hitters. Hoover is throwing slightly fewer pitches inside the strike zone this year (46.3% Zone%; 48.1% in 2014), and batters are chasing pitches out of the zone a bit more often (31.1% O-Swing%; 30.6% in 2014).

Batters facing Hoover are making significantly more contact this year when they swing at pitches outside the zone (76.6% O-Contact%; 67.2% in 2014), and less contact when they swing at pitches inside the strike zone (80.3% Z-Contact%; 81.5% in 2014).
This means Hoover is getting batters to hit pitches they’re going to have a hard time making quality contact on and the results have been excellent for the Reds. Other than Chapman, Hoover has been the only bullpen arm the Reds have been able to count on night in and night out this season.

 

FINAL JJ Hoover 2014 and 2015 pitch location FINAL JJ Hoover 2014 and 2015 flyballs and groundballs
One caveat to Hoover’s pitch-to-contact approach: it’s dependent on good defense. He’s had that. Cincinnati’s regular starting infield is well above average with a combined 13 Defensive Runs Saved and 7.3 Ultimate Zone Rating. But, he won’t have shortstop Zack Cozart (7 DRS, 3.9 UZR) back until sometime next year. Second baseman Brandon Phillips (1 DRS, -0.6 UZR) has battled injuries and there’s the possibility the Reds trade third baseman Todd Frazier (1 DRS, 2.8 UZR) by the August deadline or next offseason. Defensive replacements of similar ability for any of those three or first baseman Joey Votto (4 DRS, 1.2 UZR) aren’t easy to come by.