GREENVILLE — With the aid of his sturdy 6-foot-4, 194-pound frame, Jeff Hoffman doesnt hurl fastballs at home plate so much as he unleashes comets.
As a sophomore last season at East Carolina, the right-handers mid-90s fastball put him on the MLB scouts radar, but it was his out-of-this-world performance in the Cape Cod League last summer that ignited his meteoric rise.
Playing in what is widely considered the top wooden bat collegiate summer league, Hoffman eclipsed would-be hitters with a fastball that topped out at 98 mph en route to striking out 33 batters in four starts. He had a WHIP of 1.04 to win the Robert A. McNeece award as the leagues top pro prospect and move to the top of many draft boards.
That performance led Hoffman to be named to three preseason all-America teams. Baseball America listed him as the No. 2 prospect in the upcoming draft behind N.C. State left-hander Carlos Rodon.
For some, the gravity of the hype might be too much to bear, but I dont feel pressure from that at all, Hoffman said during a preseason interview.
What Ive done up to this point has got me there, so Im just going to keep doing what Im doing. Hopefully, I can bump myself up to that one spot soon.
Hoffman earned All-Conference USA second-team honors last season after he struck out a team-leading 84 batters in 1092/3 innings to compile a 6-7 record and 3.20 ERA.
In an era where websites and publications are quick to anoint the next Bob Gibson at every turn, its not unfair to ask if all this is all attention is too much too soon for a player who went undrafted coming out of Shaker High in Latham, N.Y., and owned a career 9-9 record at East Carolina going into the 2014 season.
No. I dont think its excessive at all, ECU coach Billy Godwin said. You got to remember professional baseball doesnt draft on win-loss record. They draft on stuff and projectability.
Ive said this over and over: I think Jeffs biggest thing was that he was thrust into that Friday night role last year where, heck, Marshall had a first-round pick. Hes going out throwing against everybodys No. 1 and he kept us in every game. A hit here or a hit there and he might have been 10-4.
Serving as the Pirates go-to guy last season, Hoffman delivered quality starts in 14 of his 17 outings for a team that ranked 137th in runs scored. Good, but not good enough for Hoffman, who entered the Cape Cod League determined to prove his name belongs among college baseballs elite.
I knew I had to prove myself, so I went out there and did what I was supposed to do, Hoffman said. I threw strikes, I had some velocity behind it and got a few wins and threw really well.
Hoffman insisted there were no magic adjustments to his mechanics, just a desire to compensate for what he perceived as a subpar sophomore season.
I didnt have any changes in effort or anything like that. Hoffman said. I dont make excuses. I dont know what it was, but I didnt really succeed the way I wanted to here at East Carolina last year.
That kind of fighting spirit is something that Travis Watkins, Hoffmans roommate and catcher, has become accustomed to.
Hes a competitor. He goes out there and does everything he can to find a way to win, Watkins said. Hes a gamer, and he just loves to compete.
While Hoffman relies heavily on his fastball, he also throws an effective breaking ball and has added a newly refined change-up to the mix. Put it all together and Hoffman could be in store for a breakout season.
Hes got a curveball which is a true curveball. It reaches the low 80s, its tight with a sharp bite, Godwin said. And I think his change-up has really come a long way for him. Hes developing into a true three-pitch guy.
If he can just go out and be Jeff Hoffman and focus on the process of doing the things that hes been trained to do: staying down in the zone with his stuff, putting guys away when he has to, I think hes going to have a great year.