It happened again. The predictable mid-inning implosion that has stained the career of Luke Hochevar occurred at the hands of the Rockies at Coors Field Sunday.
With the Royals leading 6-0 at the time, Hochevar took the mound and promptly walked the first batter. Walked him, and wasn’t near the zone with any pitch. What followed was a collage of awful that culminated with a two-run homerun off the bat of Mark Ellis. Hochevar was done after that.*
*it was later said by Bob Dutton on Twitter that “back tightness” suffered on a slide at second earlier in the game is what caused Hochevar’s sudden lack of command. A lack of command in the fifth, not the fourth when he buzzed through the middle of the Colorado lineup without much of a problem.
The fact that it was in Coors Field wouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering the history of the stadium and big-run innings/games that have frequently happened there, but when you consider that nearly everyone on Twitter and the Royals blogosphere saw it coming, it was. How can fans see the coming disasters with Royals players but the team and management can’t? Or, do they really have no choice but to sit back and hope it just doesn’t happen again?
The first overall pick by Dayton Moore Allard Baird Deric Ladnier, has yet to live up the billing of his draft position. That much is clear. Sprinkle in some Tim Linceum salt and the devastation of “missing” on such a high pick is the kind that could cripple a franchise. It not only factors in what could have been with the other players chosen behind Hochevar, but also that every possible chance needs to be given to him to turn it around, in hopes that he someday might just do that.
But is it really a possibility, now? Well yes, and no. There isn’t a right answer in this situation.
Hochevar has shown the glimpses – the flashes that shine brightly to the true level of talent he has. The 80-pitch complete game and the 13 strikeout, zero walk performance standout as what Hochevar is ultimately capable of. The physical tools are clearly there with the (capability) of an upper 90s fastball and a dominant slider. But the appearance of those tools needs to be met with production at some point in time.
So what gives? A complete alteration of his mechanics is what.
Pitchers are athletes just like shortstops and catchers and centerfielders. The movements of the body and the limits set on the arm are no different just because the athlete becomes a pitcher. Yet for so many naturally gifted and fluid athletes, once they become a pitcher all athleticism is coached out of them for what a pitcher is “supposed” to look like. Slow, reach the arm back, balanced, and never allowed to throw at 100-percent, are all ways to decrease the overall abilities of a pitcher.
The great thing about Hochevar’s delivery is that he has maintained his terrific short, quick arm action into his career with the Royals. Most of the time, at the professional level, that isn’t touched.* Organizations don’t like to mess with the arm too much, for better or worse, for fear of causing an injury.
*That’s more screwed with at the high school and college levels where longer – the furthest away from the body the ball gets the better – is taught. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be any more wrong and is completely detrimental to the development of a young athlete.
What has changed about Hochevar from his day being drafted and now, though, is a complete change in his pace and pitch selection.
Take a look at Hochevar’s pre-draft video from when he was at Tennessee. What you’ll see is a quick, explosive pitcher that touches 98 mph with relative ease. (As much “ease” as can be when you throw that hard) He couples that with a pitch-able 84 mph changeup, an average-to-tick-below slurve at 76 mph, and that slider that made him look so good back in that 13-strikeout performance two years ago.
Where is that pitcher now?
Hochevar has turned into every old-school baseball organizations dream of a control-pitching sinkerballer, intent on trying to do nothing but create contact for the hopes of using his defense. The Royals flinched.
They saw a pitcher-perfect 6’5” frame and loose upper 90s arm with a swing-and-miss slider and turned him into something they knew they could control.
There’s safety in pitch to contact. He’ll never beat himself that way. He’ll never run the risk of spotty command in and out of the zone; he’ll never have an off night where he walks more than anyone can stand; he’ll just pound the zone and eat up innings.
Unfortunately, when you pull back the reins on an athlete, forcing him to 85 percent of his natural effort, what you get is spotty command in and out of the zone. What you get is inconsistent secondary pitches and a guy who feels for his pitches.
What you get is what Luke Hochevar is now, and not what he could have been.
There’s still time for Hochevar to revert back to more of what he used to be – an aggressive fastball/slider combo pitcher looking for the strikeout – and live up to the billing of the No. 1 pick. But pitchers can’t last as starters for long while they’re consistently getting knocked around for big innings and allowing a lot of balls in play.
And that’s seemingly what he’s been instructed to do.