The Luke Hochevar Hard Sell

By this point, the narrative is well-known. Number one overall draft pick makes it to big leagues, underwhelms. Team stays with him. He struggles more. Things take a turn for the better. It looks like he’ll turn it around.

Then Luke Hochevar gives up seven runs before most fans had opportunity to sit down at the 2012 home opener and it’s been series of peaks and valleys since.

Bob Dutton talked with many within the Royals organization and the feeling is that Hochevar is sticking around. Some, like Rany Jazayerli, should be ready to cut the cord.

Luke Hochevar. Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Three facts: 1) Luke Hochevar has a 5.30 ERA in 747 innings as a big leaguer. 2) After two sub-5.00 ERAs in 2010 and 2011, he’s sitting on a 5.36 ERA this season. 3) Luke Hochevar is probably going to get about $5 million dollars this winter if the Royals offer him a contract.

Jazayerli points out that Hochevar has never performed as the advanced metrics suggest he should. His career xFIP is 4.29. His 2012 xFIP would be a reasonable 4.36. Yet year after year, his ERA comes in higher than his xFIP. The Royals can’t seem to pinpoint the issue. They’ve suggested it’s tipping his pitches, made adjustments and seen improvements, then Hochevar regressed. They’ve asked him to simplify his pitch selection, he did so, and saw some results. Then he again regressed. For ever brilliant outing he puts up two stinkers.

He’s definitely an enigma.

I’m not opposed to the idea of trying a pitcher in the bullpen before cutting bait. He’s got good stuff and the talent shows itself from time to time and he could be someone who could contribute value in short stints. But the arbitration figure he’s likely to get isn’t going to pay him as a middle reliever. The Royals aren’t in a position to go toss $5 million at a guy who’s only effective in two inning bursts. That’s money that can go towards a better starter on the open market.

But fine, let’s say they keep him around. The Royals have that right. But they’re trying awfully hard to sell us that Hochevar is someone who’s *this* close to getting it together. Apparently, the same blindness they had towards Kyle Davies’s ineffectiveness still exists in the organization. I’m all for loyalty, but there’s a point where it extends into fear of making any change at all.

Ned Yost tossed out some names. He compared Hochevar’s career path to that of Kevin Millwood, Jason Schmidt and Jorge de la Rosa.

Alright, let’s play that game.

Luke Hochevar turns 29 on Saturday.

Year Age W L ERA G GS CG SHO IP ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2007 23 0 1 2.13 4 1 0 0 12.2 220 1.184 7.8 0.7 2.8 3.6 1.25
2008 24 6 12 5.51 22 22 0 0 129.0 78 1.473 10.0 0.8 3.3 5.0 1.53
2009 25 7 13 6.55 25 25 2 1 143.0 68 1.490 10.5 1.4 2.9 6.7 2.30
2010 26 6 6 4.81 18 17 1 0 103.0 87 1.427 9.6 0.8 3.2 6.6 2.05
2011 27 11 11 4.68 31 31 0 0 198.0 87 1.283 8.7 1.0 2.8 5.8 2.06
2012 28 7 13 5.36 28 28 2 1 161.1 77 1.370 9.4 1.3 3.0 6.9 2.34
6 Yrs 37 56 5.30 128 124 5 2 747.0 80 1.392 9.5 1.1 3.0 6.2 2.05
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/10/2012.

And here are those other pitchers through their age 28 season:

Kevin Millwood

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GS CG SHO IP ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1997 22 ATL 5 3 4.03 12 8 0 0 51.1 104 1.481 9.6 0.2 3.7 7.4 2.00
1998 23 ATL 17 8 4.08 31 29 3 1 174.1 102 1.325 9.0 0.9 2.9 8.4 2.91
1999 24 ATL 18 7 2.68 33 33 2 0 228.0 167 0.996 6.6 0.9 2.3 8.1 3.47
2000 25 ATL 10 13 4.66 36 35 0 0 212.2 99 1.293 9.0 1.1 2.6 7.1 2.71
2001 26 ATL 7 7 4.31 21 21 0 0 121.0 103 1.331 9.0 1.5 3.0 6.2 2.10
2002 27 ATL 18 8 3.24 35 34 1 1 217.0 129 1.157 7.7 0.7 2.7 7.4 2.74
2003 28 PHI 14 12 4.01 35 35 5 3 222.0 99 1.252 8.5 0.8 2.8 6.9 2.49
16 Yrs 168 152 4.11 450 442 22 6 2715.1 106 1.329 9.2 1.0 2.8 6.9 2.47
ATL (6 yrs) 75 46 3.73 168 160 6 2 1004.1 117 1.216 8.2 0.9 2.7 7.5 2.77
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/10/2012.

Millwood finished third in Cy Young voting in 1999 and put up a significantly better ERA in an era where offense was explosive. His worst ERA in his early years is still lower – even in the juiced ball era – than Hochevar’s best. Maybe Yost is referring to some years of struggle after Millwood had crossed 30 years old and was able to have a few years of success every now and then. That’s not a realistic comparison to Hochevar.

Jason Schmidt

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GS GF CG IP ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1995 22 ATL 2 2 5.76 9 2 1 0 25.0 74 1.800 9.7 0.7 6.5 6.8 1.06
1996 23 TOT 5 6 5.70 19 17 0 1 96.1 78 1.671 10.1 0.9 5.0 6.9 1.40
1996 23 ATL 3 4 6.75 13 11 0 0 58.2 65 1.722 10.6 1.2 4.9 7.4 1.50
1996 23 PIT 2 2 4.06 6 6 0 1 37.2 109 1.593 9.3 0.5 5.0 6.2 1.24
1997 24 PIT 10 9 4.60 32 32 0 2 187.2 94 1.433 9.3 0.8 3.6 6.5 1.79
1998 25 PIT 11 14 4.07 33 33 0 0 214.1 107 1.395 9.6 1.0 3.0 6.6 2.23
1999 26 PIT 13 11 4.19 33 33 0 2 212.2 110 1.429 9.3 1.0 3.6 6.3 1.74
2000 27 PIT 2 5 5.40 11 11 0 0 63.1 86 1.768 10.1 0.9 5.8 7.2 1.24
2001 28 TOT 13 7 4.07 25 25 0 1 150.1 106 1.324 8.3 0.8 3.7 8.5 2.33
2001 28 PIT 6 6 4.61 14 14 0 1 84.0 99 1.298 8.7 1.2 3.0 8.3 2.75
2001 28 SFG 7 1 3.39 11 11 0 0 66.1 118 1.357 7.7 0.3 4.5 8.8 1.97
14 Yrs 130 96 3.96 323 314 1 20 1996.1 110 1.321 8.3 0.8 3.6 7.9 2.22
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/10/2012.

Schmidt’s first couple of years were difficult, though he pitched in the same offensive period that Millwood started in. an injury-plagued 2000 looks bad but like Millwood, Schmidt’s worst full season otherwise was still better than Hochevar’s best. Overall, Schmidt had a solid career as a mid-level starter with the occasional hot stretch, but I can’t see the comparisons here either.

Jorge de la Rosa

Year Age Tm W L ERA G GS IP ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2004 23 MIL 0 3 6.35 5 5 22.2 70 1.897 11.5 0.4 5.6 2.0 0.36
2005 24 MIL 2 2 4.46 38 0 42.1 96 2.031 10.2 0.2 8.1 8.9 1.11
2006 25 TOT 5 6 6.49 28 13 79.0 72 1.709 9.2 1.6 6.2 7.6 1.24
2006 25 MIL 2 2 8.60 18 3 30.1 53 1.780 9.5 1.2 6.5 9.2 1.41
2006 25 KCR 3 4 5.18 10 10 48.2 91 1.664 9.1 1.8 5.9 6.7 1.13
2007 26 KCR 8 12 5.82 26 23 130.0 79 1.638 11.1 1.4 3.7 5.7 1.55
2008 27 COL 10 8 4.92 28 23 130.0 95 1.462 8.9 0.9 4.3 8.9 2.06
2009 28 COL 16 9 4.38 33 32 185.0 108 1.378 8.4 1.0 4.0 9.4 2.33
8 Yrs 54 49 4.90 188 126 769.2 95 1.497 9.0 1.0 4.5 8.0 1.79
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/10/2012.

de la Rosa fits a bit better, as he fought control issues for a long time and once those got into a reasonable range, he saw some success. Hochevar is at this point in his career, except the issue isn’t control for him. It’s everything else. Hochevar’s struggles have come with a career BB/9 that’s much better than de la Rosa’s best full season mark. He’s probably not going to improve it to such an extent to make a jump like de la Rosa did in 2010 and 2011. In those two seasons, de la Rosa threw 180.2 innings and had a 3.99 ERA (116 ERA+). Hochevar isn’t anywhere close to that.

So what’s Hochevar going to correct to get to the level of de la Rosa? I’m all for saying statistical measures like xFIP need a large sample size to be reliable, but to me, nearly 800 innings is enough and year after year, he can’t perform to the level the stats suggest he should. There’s got to be something else. Hochevar told Dutton:

You must have a consistent routine, a consistent thought-process. I do. This year has been tough, but I believe if I persevere through it, if I continue to prepare and battle, it’s got to pay out…

Here’s the thing, though. It doesn’t have to pay out. Just because the roulette wheel has hit black 25 times in a row doesn’t mean that it’s due to come up red. Perhaps the consistent approach and mindset are the problem. Consistency isn’t enough. If you throw a dart 200 times and hit the same spot, that’s consistent, but if that spot is three feet to the left of the bullseye, what good is it?

The Royals called 2012 “Our Time”. For whatever retconning they want to do to say it was meant for the All-Star Game and not expectations of competing for real, that’s what they labeled this season. Our Time. The window isn’t staying open forever and at some point, the Royals have to hold their players and coaches accountable. They waited and waited for Brian Bannister to recapture the magic of his rookie season. They waited and waited for Kyle Davies to unleash his “good stuff”.

At some point, you can’t wait any more.

There may not be a fit any more for Luke Hochevar. Photo Credit: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

The Royals have Bruce Chen under contract for next season. Will Smith is a good bet to be another starter in the rotation. If it’s not right out of spring training, Jake Odorizzi should be up around May. That’s three pieces to build around. A promising rookie, a #4 starter and the quintessential replacement level player who can eat up innings and has upside to improve. Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino should be back in the middle of the year, barring complications from their rehab after Tommy John surgery (though pitchers aren’t often at their best right away after that process, so neither are guarantees to be big impact players. We hope so, but there’s no guarantee.) Jeremy Guthrie might be an option, as well.

The Royals have an out here with Hochevar if they don’t offer him a contract this winter.

If you can take that $5 million you’d give Hochevar and use it to pad an offer for Shaun Marcum or Edwin Jackson or even the great white whale that is Zack Greinke, isn’t that a better option? Any pitcher with a true track record of being average or better would be fine.

I want to see Luke Hochevar figure it out. I want him to stop turning the corner and stay on one path. The poor guy must be dizzy from all those turns by now. I want the storybook ending where the number one overall pick figures it out, toughens up and leads the team to the promised land.

But nothing in his track record says he’s going to do that, no matter how many names Ned Yost tries to pass off as similar success stories. I’m not buying it. Neither should Kansas City.

Note: I should also include this nice analysis done by Jeff Zimmerman at Royals Review. One item the Royals say they want to fix is to have Hochevar be more sparing in using his cutter. Turns out, when he throws more cutters, statistically, he’s performed better. They simply don’t know how to fix him.

Topics: Kansas City Royals, Luke Hochevar

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  • ArrowFan

    Agreed the guy is no where worth 5 mill. If we want him to stick around that’s fine with me but we have already over paid for him, so it needs to be far less than 5 mill.

    What do you think the chances are that we finish 500? Just wondering.

    • Michael Engel

      I dunno – I thought .500 was a very real possibility this year and clearly I was wrong. But if the offense wakes up, we get one or two legit pitchers …

  • jimfetterolf

    A couple of points on Luke, essentially reprising discussions on Judging the Royals: Aggregate stats are fairly worthless on Luke given his volatility. One day he is Saberhagen and can go nose to nose with aces, other days he’s Jose Lima. He has both the best and the worst of starts for the Royals this year per Game Score. You might be able to replace him cheap with a 5.25 ERA but it is unlikely that Will Smith will ever put up an 80 Game Score.

    The drawback on Luke is inconsistency, he only meets or beats a 50 GS half the time, compared to Guthrie’s seven of ten for the year or a Verlander’s better than four of five.

    Second point is that he has the stuff to be a closer, so that is an option. Using Luke in the ‘pen frees Holland up for his fireman role, his most valuable use.

    Third, even if Hochevar isn’t in the Royals’ future when Paulino, Duffy, and Lamb heal up, he’ll still be tendered so he can be traded in a “change of scenery” deal like the ones we acquired Paulino and Guthrie on. You can’t teach “stuff” and some GM will want to give his pitching coach a shot at fixing Luke. Might be part of a package with Giavotella and Lough for some minor league lottery tickets.

    Good piece, Mike, love the numbers.

    • Bob Ellis

      Jim – the only problem with the scenario where we trade Luke…well…we haven’t been able to get anything for him. We had dangled him out this year and reportedly were offered next to nothing for him. I think it’s time to cut bait.

      • Michael Engel

        I did hear a scenario that would have sent Hochevar to Baltimore with Broxton for Britton and possibly Arrietta. Both of them are getting old themselves and haven’t been very good either though – so it’s kind of spinning a younger set of tires in the mud.

      • jimfetterolf

        Bob, we managed to trade Jon Sanchez and Luke is healthy and has quality pitches. He is trade-able, perhaps even this off season after being signed. A 92.7 fb and the ability to eat innings has value, which is why he’ll be signed and used until he’s forced out by some number of new or returning arms. I expect a winter package trade or an ASB trade next year if the injured arms heal up and if JaKKKe shows tonight that he’s ready and if the Royals can ink Guthrie and maybe snag another #2-3 FA. Too many variables at the moment and timing may be an issue, don’t remember when a player has to be tendered, but think it’s fairly early in the off-season, before we’ll have a good idea of outside signings and rehab schedules. I will just come out and say it, Luke will be tendered.

        • Bob Ellis

          Jim – I was referring to a trade scenario where we basically would have received zero in quality this past deadline in a deal with Baltimore, which Mike referenced in his comments here. If that’s all we can get for Luke, just let him walk. He’s not doing anything to increase his value, as he could have been had for a cheaper contract than what he’ll get in arbitration this winter. But you’re right, Luke will definitely be tendered, it’s just too bad they keep thinking he’s going to be more than he is, and essentially wasting money and a roster spot on the guy, in my opinion. I knew it was a matter of time before we saw the article that they really believe he’s going to be something. How many years in a row have we heard that now?

          • jimfetterolf

            Jake Arrieta is interesting, 28, decent fips, higher ERA than Luke, a little better net-K, underachiever pitching in a band box; FB, SL, CH, CB, looks like the main thing he needs is speed separation on his change, thrown at 87, 6 below his fastball. I would probably have made that trade, much better than a DFA or non-tender.

            As for wasting a spot, the time may come when that is true, but it isn’t here yet and we won’t see that time til the middle of next year, earliest, unless we can re-sign Guthrie and sign Zack and Marcum. But I won’t go ballistic if Luke isn’t tendered. If the FA market demands that $5 mil, then so be it, but then a signed Luke can be traded or moved to the ‘pen to try to find value.

            I admit I’m not real optimistic about a major FA signing this winter. The trade deadline showed the value of top pitchers, major prospects for two month rentals, so a Marcum and maybe a third tier is the best I see. I like McCarthy, thought him the best of the bunch, but a skull fracture and his injury history make him a $10 mil with heavy incentives to me. Luke had a similar injury in college and I sometimes wonder if that is why he sometimes looks lost on the mound.

          • Bob Ellis

            I’m with you Jim…skeptical they will land a big time FA this winter…hoping…but skeptical. There’s no reason for them not to be players in the market, however, I have a feeling it’ll be more of the same. We will see.

          • Michael Engel

            They can offer Hochevar a contract and trade him before the actual amount of the contract is decided. Both Melky and Sanchez were traded after being tendered deals but the amounts were negotiated with their new teams after the trade.

            Six of one, etc etc.

    • Michael Engel

      I’ve seen the discussion that if he gives you 15 great starts and 15 awful ones, it averages out, but the problem I have with that is that even in the great starts, he’s got a chance to lose and you also don’t know what you’re going to get.

      Hoch as closer is intriguing…and it would fit my “closer’s mentality is a myth” outlook. That’s pretty risky of Yost to try though, even though he’s acknowledged he’d be willing to try such sorts of experiments with his best relievers (using them in non-save spots that are more important to get to the ninth / using a fireman role), theory and practice are far far different things. He can have the theory and it’s a nice thought. In practice, if it doesn’t work, he’s unemployed…

      • jimfetterolf

        Mike, I would suggest that the fifteen good and fifteen awful starts are better than an average. As I’ve been saying, on a team that had a hard time scoring runs before Cain and Perez returned, there was little effective difference between giving up eight runs in two innings or four runs in six innings, it still loses most of the time. What Luke does offer that Davies and some other comps couldn’t is the ability to put up 80+ GS that aren’t accidents. GMs and pitching coaches will see those 80s as ceiling, then break down the film and see things that they think they can fix, so will continue to take a chance. As good as Guthrie has been, Luke still has the best two starts and a plurality of the best five or ten.

        One comp with Kyle Davies is that both have a habit of being dominant for four or five innings, then imploding the third time through the lineup. I also thought Davies a potential setup-closer last year and suggested it, the ability to dominate for three innings having great value if an SP can make the transition to the role mentally. Luke looks a lot like Soria, basket full of pitches and good control, plus should get back up around 96 as a reliever. I’ld only use him to start innings, as he seems a much stronger pitcher from the wind than from the stretch.

        Great thread, I appreciate the effort. Drop by and visit my “home”, you’ll be welcome and it’s great marketing. Lee has been good about letting me link your work and mention your thoughts.

        Don’t know if you noticed, but Sam did a synopsis of the pieces by you, the Doctor, and a good discussion on a site that will go unnamed, as well as a recent long discussion on Judging the Royals.

        • Michael Engel

          I did see that Mellinger piece and the RR graphs and other comparisons. I think we all had the same idea that Ned was just yanking names out that were ALMOST close but really not.

        • Eric Akers

          I tend to agree with you and think that we should keep him as well. What does it hurt to have him next year? $5 million isn’t a lot for a starter now. I think the worst case is we get a number 5 that can eat some innings. I get tired of every year having to go through so many starters because of injuries. I don’t feel there is a good replacement for those innings that Hoch gets us through. Neither Mendoza, Smith, nor Odorizzi have ever thrown the number of innings that Hoch has. So I do not know if they can. It looks like Mendoza is tiring out there to me this year.

  • Bob Ellis

    Good write up Mike…I saw that Dutton article and thought “here we go”….Hochevar is nowhere near the pitcher that Millwood or Schmidt are (closer to De La Rosa, but still not as good). I think it’s time to stop waiting for Luke to turn that elusive corner….he’s not going to do it. It’s not like he’s a struggling 24 or 25 year old.

    • Eric Akers

      I think a better comparison is Chris Carpenter who suddenly became a good pitcher at age 29 and moving from Toronto to St. Louis. Carp improved both his K/9 and BB/9 rates at the same time.

      Also, it seems I have found Luke’s twin this year. Check out the year Justin Masterson is having.

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