This is a story all Royals fans know well. Drafted number one overall in 2006 ahead of future All Stars, Cy Young winners, and World Series Champions, Luke Hochevar has been a massive disappointment. Following the All Star break in 2011, Hochevar had pitched up to his potential, pitching 79 innings to the tune of a 3.52 ERA. Going into 2012, many people around baseball thought Luke Hochevar had amassed all of his potential and finally become the pitcher many thought he could be. Hochevar had convinced many that he had turned the proverbial corner and was ready to lead the staff in 2012.
Scouts around the game knew Hochevar had ace potential. Possessing a large frame, a repeatable delivery, and a several plus pitches, it made a lot of sense that Hochevar could become the pitcher Allard Baird envisioned leading the staff when he drafted him in 2006. Although he had seen sporadic success throughout his career, it was often preceded and followed by long stretches of horrible pitching, with Hochevar buckling under pressure. A staple of his starts soon became the “Hochevar inning” in which he would give up 4, 5, even 6 runs in one inning, often with two outs after looking dominant for so long in his starts. Hochevar, it seemed, did not possess the mental capacity or will power to start at the big league level. Through 100 career starts he had proven to be the eighth worst pitcher in the history of the game; however, the ace potential was there.The beginning of the 2012 campaign could not have gone worse for Luke Hochevar. Pitching on a staff that was far below Major League caliber, Hochevar was the most scrutinized pitcher due to his draft placement and finish to the 2011 season. Although the rest of the staff was equally horrendous, Hochevar was obliterated in the press. Definitely not unwarranted, the media and fans alike set out a witch hunt on Hochevar, pleading the Royals to trade, or even release, Hochevar. Hochevar had an ERA in the high 6’s and was being lit up by everyone, pitching the worst he ever had in a Royals uniform.
Ned Yost then made a bold statement. Before his start against Pittsburgh, Yost stated that the organization thought that they had identified the issue with Hochevar and started to correct it. Hochevar went out and pitched 6 innings, giving up 4 earned runs, and, laughably, lowered his ERA. Improvement, if any, seemed minimal and it seemed Hochevar was still the same Hochevar. In his next start, Hochevar took the mound against the Brewers and threw 7.1 solid innings, giving up 3 earned runs. Improvement seemed evident. Although giving up 6 hits, Hochevar seemed much more in command of his innings, not allowing the big inning. Then Hochevar took off. In his next two starts, Hochevar failed to give up a run, including a complete game shutout against a very, very good Tampa Bay team. Success had followed the Royals’ claim of fixation, and Hochevar was pitching like an ace.
The explanation that the Royals provided for the sudden surge in quality of Hochevar’s starts was that Hochevar had strayed away from his core pitches (his fastball, curve, and change up). Hochevar had started to throw more sliders and cut fastballs, causing him to not have enough variation in his MPH to trouble Major League hitters. The explanation seemed to make sense; over 80% of his pitches had been within 6 MPH of each other. The results were obvious—Hochevar was being lit up. However, the Royals pledged that he had stopped throwing as many cutters and sliders, providing him with enough change of pace on his pitches to be a successful Major League pitcher.
On the surface, the explanation made sense. To be a successful pitcher, one has to have enough change in velocity to give hitters different looks and keep them uncomfortable. However, a deeper statistical analysis of Hochevar’s recent starts provide no evidence that he has strayed from his cutter or curve. Hochevar has continued to throw all five of his pitches during his recent stretch, contrary to Ned Yost’s claims.
Looking for reasons for the success yields nothing more than confusion. While his stuff has always been dominant, Hochevar had pitched nothing more than batting practice throughout his career. Throughout his recent barrage of success, Hochevar has seemed more confident and poised on the mound, and this might be providing him with some success. Without access to the Royals’ game plans against hitters, it is impossible to prove that his pitch selection has been any better than it has been in the past. However, Hochevar has avoided the big inning, and in doing so he has met some modest success. Is this success truly tactical or is it merely the ebb and flow of baseball? Hochevar has always underperformed his advanced stats to a degree, but not nearly to the level to which he has pitched recently. His success, like himself, is an enigma. I, for one, believe the success is here to stay. While fans should not expect him to pitch as well as he has over his last few starts, Hochevar seems to be pitching with more conviction and confidence than he ever has over his career. Hochevar may even believe that his success is due to a tactical change—this might even be a good thing for him to believe. Regardless of what he attributes to his success to, the important thing is that he is experiencing success and providing the Royals with what they need most: good starting pitching.
This is nothing new for Hochevar. The Royals have seen stretches of dominant pitching from Hochevar in the past, only to witness even longer stretches of abysmal pitching which produced the eighth worst pitcher in the history of baseball over 100 starts. However, fans seemed to have taken a more cautious, educated approach to Hochevar’s recent success due to the jilted effects lingering from his prior success. Whether this recent success is here to stay or not, Hochevar’s success could not have come at a better time for the Royals. With the All Star game approaching, the Royals need to regain some respectability has the team and the city will have the attention of the nation for the first time in a very long time. As the Royals gradually attempt to climb back towards .500, they will need continued success from the pitcher they need to be their ace. And if he continues to pitch to his potential, Kansas City just might have a franchise pitcher on which they can build around.