Trevor Hoffman and the “Hells Bells” effect

On Tuesday afternoon, word broke that all-time saves leader and Padres’ legend Trevor Hoffman would be retiring from baseball. The announcement will be made official today. He’ll finish his career with 601 career saves, 552 of which were earned as a member of the San Diego Padres (he also earned two saves as a member of the Florida Marlins in 1993, his rookie season, and an additional 47 in his two years in Milwaukee).

As a talent, Hoffman will long be remembered for his remarkable change-up. In an era when it was the fireballer who symbolized a team’s bullpen strength, Hoffman succeeded by throwing an almost unhittable change-up that was once described as “like it has a parachute on it.” His change-up was so good, in fact, that often he could achieve success with merely the threat of a change-up.

From a 2002 Tom Verducci article in Sports Illustrated:

The night after he fanned [Paul] Lo Duca, Hoffman earned another save against the Dodgers, one in which he threw 13 pitches—the first 12 of which were fastballs or cut fastballs—before he finally slipped in a changeup.

For fans of Hoffman, however, what will stick out more than anything else about the closer is his entrance to the tolling of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells”. Fans in San Diego and Milwaukee were treated to one of the best moments in sports on a regular basis when Hoffman was in the ‘pen. The pitching wasn’t bad, either.

The tradition was started in July 1998, on the night Hoffman tied Rod Beck’s then-record of 41-consecutive saves. Hoffman’s streak would end the next night, but the “Hells Bells” tradition remained.

From April 29, 1993, when he recorded his first career save against Braves (as a Marlin), to July 23, 1998, the last save before the “Hells Bells” tradition began, Hoffman earned 167 saves in 194 opportunities, for an 86% save rate. From that first night of “Hells Bells” until the end of his career, he converted 434 of 483 save opportunities, a 90% success rate.

But “Hells Bells” is only a home field thing. Many of those 434 saves were made in the absence of the anthem. Looking only at home saves, we see that the pattern holds. In his pre-”Hells Bells” time, Hoffman converted 78 of 90 home saves for an 87% success rate. Once he made the switch, the conversion rate jumped to 91%, with 232 saves in 254 opportunities.

And even though the anthem would never follow him into opposing parks, the “Hells Bells” mojo certainly did. Before July 1998, Hoffman was converting 86% of his road saves (89 in 104). Once the Padres started blasting out the AC/DC in Qualcomm Stadium, the percentage increased to 88% (202 of 229 opportunities). The “Hells Bells” effect is real!

Well, maybe not. There is absolutely no reason to believe in anything like a “Hells Bells effect” There are many more logical explanations for the changes we see. Trevor Hoffman’s save stats only look better in “pre” and “post” terms because he struggled in the early part of his career before his performance began to notably improve, at which time “Hells Bells” was given to him. The anthem did not make Hoffman a better pitcher. The anthem, instead, is evidence that Hoffman was becoming a better pitcher.

Regardless, with the 43-year-old officially retiring today, baseball has lost not only one of the single greatest recurring moments in the game, but a terrific person and teammate. Anyone who had the privilege to root for Hoffman during his 18-year career will feel the same way.

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Larry Granillo
11 years ago

Sorry about the messed up links in the column. Until we can get them edited, here they are:

The Tom Verducci SI story from 2002:

And the origin of “Hells Bells” in 1998:

(I hope this makes it through the spam filter)

Cyril Morong
11 years ago

I looked the top 15 pitchers in strikeout-to-walk ratio since 1955 with 1000+ IP. For walks I used BB + HBP – IBB. Hoffman is #1 with 4.39. Mariano Rivera is #6 at 3.81.

In 1089 IP, Hoffman only hit 9 batters. The average pitcher would have hit about 4 times as many. And about 19% of his walks were intentional. For the average pitcher it was about 9%.

Steve Treder
11 years ago

As a Giants fan, I always dreaded Hoffman entering the game, because he was so damn effective.  But as a baseball fan, I just loved watching him.  Absolutely one of my all-time favorite players.

I never saw Stu Miller pitch, but I strongly suspect that seeing Hoffman gives us a great idea of what Miller was like:  a soft-tosser with a change-up so effective that he was able to rack up strikeout rates equivalent to the flamethrowers.

Larry Granillo
11 years ago

Those are some interesting numbers, Cyril. I don’t think I would have guessed that at all. Thanks for sharing.

And, Steve, I know what you mean. It’s really hard not to appreciate the type of player Hoffman was – it’s just such an odd combination of skills to have. Certainly nice to know that players can be successful in so many different ways.

Cyril Morong
11 years ago

You’re welcome. I posted some rankings at my blog. See

It also occurred to me that relievers (especially closers) have an advantage here in that they don’t want to hit anyone. The manager does bring a closer in in the 9th inning to hit someone to send the other team a message. So since HBP get added in here, it probably helps their ratio. Not sure how much difference it makes, though. We would have to know what % of each pitcher’s HBP were a message.

Cyril Morong
11 years ago

Whoops. I meant the manager does not bring in a closer to hit anyone to send a message