Hochevar’s Future

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.

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Tags: AL Central Luke Hochevar Royals

  • jim fetterolf

    Discussed this on Lee Judge’s site awhile back and he mentioned that an opposing coach said that when Hoch gets in trouble, he tries to throw fastballs by major league hitters. Given that he has a great slider, that would be a weakness. I’m thinking Hoch’s future may be as a closer, which is an honorable profession, as his ERA the first three innings is around 3.00, then decays to 7′ish thereafter, which averages him out to his consistent 5 and change over his typical 5+ inning starts.

  • http://victoriasealsbaseball.blogspot.com/ Gus

    This EXACT issue was covered recently on ESPN’s web site — except they used Dwight Gooden as an example instead of Hochevar. See http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/12952/key-to-verlanders-success-strikeouts

    P.S. I’m travelling from Victoria, BC (Canada) to see my first game(s) at Kauffman Stadium this weekend. Can’t wait!

    • Kevin Scobee

      You are an amazingly fantastic human being for pointing this out to me. I completely missed it. My favorite part:

      As Bill James wrote in the “1987 Baseball Abstract” about Stottlemyre’s thinking, “That’s a common belief among baseball men, but it is dead wrong. Among all of the hundreds of issues that I have studied in the ten years I have been doing this, the most definitive evidence I have ever found on any issue is the evidence that the career expectation for a strikeout pitcher is dramatically longer than it is for a control pitcher.”

      It goes against everything that I’ve ever been taught, had to fight against teaching when I coached, and argued against with coaching peers. The only true way to determine success and predictive success is by striking people out. Balls in play = runs. It’s counter intuitive to ever think or teach otherwise.

  • http://www.regalathletic.com John Christopher

    Seems like Hochevar sure got the “Royal” treatment, but as soon as he gets traded to a better team, he’ll be back to throwing like the Number 1 Draftpick he once was in 2006, in my opinion. The Royals changed him from a quick and explosive 98-mph pitcher that can throw strike-outs left and right, into a pitcher that depends on his sinker to get groundballs. His sinker doesn’t always go his way and usually doesn’t. Its discouraging how the Royals messed with his aproach to striking batters out, which should always be the ultimate goal. Have confidence in your pitches, always.

    • Kevin Scobee

      Someone has trained you well Mr. Christopher. Now you should do well to listen to your own words.

  • Eric

    I think there is some merit in this discussion, and I like to look at Grienke as an example. When he went to the pen and started throwing 97 mph fastballs again, he became deadly as a pitcher. Hooch should be averaging about 94 and I think he would be really good. I don’t think he far from being a good pitcher, but I have given up on him reaching that potential.

    • Kevin Scobee

      You may be on to something there. Putting Hochevar in the pen where there’s a bigger (well the same, but more noticeable) emphasis on strikeouts may do him good to get back to the dominate two-pitches you used to/should have.

    • http://kingsofkauffman.com Michael Engel

      I love this point. When Greinke started to let it go and saw how he could just go at batters and not get cute, he had a great 2008 and 2009 speaks for itself.

  • jim fetterolf

    I would also suggest that trying to compare today’s Hoch, after a couple of injury filled years and after the one-year layoff over signing issues, with a college pitcher who could get by throwing two pitches, one of them a straight fastball, may not tell us much. Currently when Hoch overthrows and gets battered, he’s hitting 96. When Jeffress overthrows and gets battered, he’s hitting 100. Overthrown fastballs don’t move and major league hitters can catch up to them if they are sitting on them. Hoch’s meltdowns tend to occur when he can’t find the plate and has to throw a fastball for a strike.

    • Kevin Scobee

      Jim – I’m in the process of doing just that. I’m waiting to hear back from some of the people I know and have worked with in my past of training pitchers.

      On the “overthrown fastballs” issue, let me ask (and I don’t mean this to be argumentative so I apologize if my normal sarcasm makes it come off that way) can you define “overthrown fastball”?

      There is no such thing. It’s a baseball buzzword used to create a sense of security for coaches and trainers so they can give the fix. There’s no meaning. It’s a lot like “plays the game the right way”. It’s used in place of analysis when there’s no real meaning attached to it. I would assume Chris Getz “plays the game the right way” in some peoples eyes, though, I would say he also plays the game poorly. My way of putting it is less vague and has more definition.

      Athletes are meant to work at 100% of their max potential. That’s what the body is meant to do. If we train pitches at 100% in everything they do, including their act of throwing, what lack of command they may have or encounter will be figured out by the body. The body finds a way to achieve the intended goal.

      If we force the athlete out of their box, slow them down, make them “pause at the top” for whatever made-up intended purpose (like was done with Hochevar) that athlete now has to find a new way of create movement to achieve their goal that’s outside of what their athleticism wants them to do.

      Plus, by creating that variable of speed at different points in the delivery (I won’t use the word “mechanics”, it has roughly the same meaning as “plays the game the right way”) you’ve forced the athlete to make up and compensate for that change in other ways. Mostly, that is show in an inconsistent release point, and more specifically, it shows in their secondary pitchers.

      All-in-all this is my way of saying the box that the Royals have put Hochevar in is not one of his true athleticism and potential, but one of their comfort. It’s the same across baseball. Pitchers are made to look a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been trained. Baseball is a slow, slow, slow evolving mechanism.

      As an aside to you, Jim, thank you. We at KoK can always count on you to read, comment, and be a part of the discussion. Whether we agree or not you take part. You make writing for this site worth doing.

      • jim fetterolf

        “can you define “overthrown fastball”?”

        One above your body’s repeatable capabilities. Paulino averages over 95 on his heater and it is no strain and he can control it. He can reach close to 100, but doesn’t do that for anything but show. Hoch in the majors is a 92-94 mph fastball and, with his slider and not terrible change and curve, he can live with that. When he tries to overthrow, which we all did as kids, the ball tends to sail and loses any movement, which is why in Hoch’s meltdowns we see hitters jumping on FBs up with no movement.

        One question on Hoch that you may have heard something on: Was he a long tosser in his younger days? Mike Montgomery was and his training regimen was restrained by the team and I think we are seeing the results of that in Omaha, him still trying to throw the 97, but no longer having the training which allowed him to do it with consistency and control, so he can’t throw strikes with the fastball.

        • Kevin Scobee

          Two things you touched on both with very interesting side discussions:

          “One above your body’s repeatable capabilities.” – In my experience of training, there is no such thing. There is a lack of patience and teaching on the part of the instructor to allow for this to occur, but it is not an inability of the athlete.

          If the athlete can do it once, he can do it multiple times. The problem is as “pitchers” we’re taught to gear down for the sake of “command” or “looks” or whatever subjective variable the coach may have in mind. (This can also be attributed to the misaligned incentives that Keith Law talks about with college coaches abusing their pitcher’s workloads for the sake of a win, which in the long run is meaningless, because the coach is paid on wins.) The athlete, if trained at his peak will throw, with command, at his peak. Think of it like throwing darts. If you’re constantly taking a little off, putting a little on, you’re going to be inconsistent. But, like darts, when throwing any object eventually the body figures it out. It’s just how long it takes. And it’s better to push forward than to gear back, because the variables involved by gearing back will do more to hurt performance, and create a greater risk of injury, than pushing forward ever will.

          As for Montgomery, I have no doubt that is what’s going on. I know the program Montgomery trained with in high school. I used it – I taught it. It’s the same as the one Trevor Bauer trains with and came under so much scrutiny for. (Aside: Bauer is a perfect example of what constantly pushing the limits of your athleticism will do for a pitcher. If he geared back to appease his coaches, for their own gratification and comfort, he wouldn’t be near the pitcher he is).

          His body, his delivery – Montgomery I mean – was built and trained to pitch at a certain high level. Once his training was taken away from him, the long toss and what I could only assume is a multitude of other things Baseball is scared off, his ability to continue to throw at that level was lost physically, but not mentally. So now when he hits the mound, he’s used to doing things the way his body athletically wants to do them, but he’s not able to match because his training isn’t there.

  • Royal Blue Beer Goggles

    clearly hoch has some mental barriers that he needs to tear down. I don’t think his struggles are a result of poor mechanics or arm fatigue. The guy just doesn’t quite understand how to get himself out of a bad situation. I think you give him the rest of this year to figure out a way to start getting through 7 or 8 innings, even if it costs you games in the process. He’s too talented to give up on, but if he can’t make the adjustments by season’s end, he starts next year competing for a rotation spot, which could light a fire under is ass.

    • Kevin Scobee

      I don’t think we can “clearly” say anyone has any mental barriers they need to tear down. That’s a sticky, subjective observation that takes more than any kind of analysis any of us are willing to do.