Cincinnati Reds: Inside J.J. Hoover’s Bounce-Back Season

Last season was a disappointing one for J.J. Hoover, to say the least. The Cincinnati Reds reliever was coming off of a career year the previous season, but things went south right off the bat in 2014. In the Reds’ fifth game of the season, Hoover gave up a walk-off grand slam to the New York Mets’ Ike Davis.

Things would only get worse from there.

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Hoover finished the season with a whopping 10 losses, by far the most of any relief pitcher in baseball. I’ll be the first to tell you that wins and losses don’t hold much meaning, especially for relievers, but that is not a good number. He also wound up with a career-worst 4.88 ERA, walked 4.45 batters per nine innings, and surrendered 13 home runs (the only reliever who topped that number was Francisco Rodriguez).

2015 has been a vastly different story for Hoover. In a bullpen that has struggled all season until recently, the 27-year-old has been the Reds’ most consistent reliever. Through 34 appearances and 33.1 innings, Hoover boasts an ERA of 1.35 (his 2.92 FIP indicates he could regress a bit, but it’s still an excellent number) and a WHIP of 0.93, while allowing only 17 hits and no home runs. After unsuccessful stints in the team’s setup role by Kevin Gregg (yep, that happened, it was not a dream), Jumbo Diaz, and Tony Cingrani, Hoover has moved into the eighth inning role for Bryan Price and provided stability. Earlier this week, he earned his first save of the season in place of Aroldis Chapman, who was on paternity leave.

How has he turned things around? It hasn’t been an uptick in velocity or strikeouts, as his pitch speed is on track with his career averages and his strikeouts are actually down to 6.5 K/9 from the 9.8 career rate he came into the season with. While the drop in strikeouts hasn’t necessarily helped, a key contributor to his success has been a decrease in another area: walks. Hoover’s 3.8 BB/9 rate still isn’t great, but it’s a considerable improvement over his 4.5 BB/9 number from a year ago.

Perhaps the biggest factor in Hoover’s success has been with the balls that have actually been put in play. The fact that he’s given up zero home runs can be attributed to an enormous increase in his ground ball rate. In 2014, Hoover’s ground ball percentage was 28.5 percent, while his fly ball percentage was a robust 52.7 percent. Both of those numbers were right on par with his career percentages, which was why he was so susceptible to giving up home runs. This year, Hoover is getting batters to hit the ball on the ground 48.8 percent of the time, while hitting the ball in the air only 30.2 percent of the time. That’s good for a GB/FB ratio of 1.52. Hoover’s previous career-high in a season was 0.64. With a solid infield behind him, that number will get the job done.

Beyond the numbers, Hoover has credited his success to a new yoga routine, telling the Springfield News-Sun’s David Jablonski that, “The little bit of flexibility and body control that yoga gives me is highly important.”

Although it may be a long shot, Hoover’s 2015 prosperity could even earn him a spot in the All-Star game. Among National League relievers who’ve thrown at least 20 innings, Hoover ranks eighth in ERA, 10th in WHIP, and fifth in opponent batting average (.155). Usually, one or two non-closers will make the All-Star bullpens and while it might be a long shot, who knows, Hoover might find himself in a familiar situation on July 14, setting up Chapman for a save in Great American Ball Park.

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