Jun 4, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Luke Hochevar (44) delivers a pitch in the fifth inning of the game against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Hochevar: Suddenly Valuable

I can’t think of anybody outside of the Royals organization who thought that tendering a contract to Luke Hochevar was a good idea. After years of waiting for the tools that made him a number one overall pick to catch up to him in the big leagues, most Royals fans were beyond frustrated.

He’d show flashes, of course. The 80 pitch complete game. The 13 K, no walk game. The duel against David Price. A stretch of 28 consecutive batters retired over two starts (vs. Seattle and Cleveland in April 2011).

Problem was, he’d show just as much bad as good. The 2012 home opener comes to mind where he gave up seven runs before most fans were in their seats. And after retiring that 28th batter, Hochevar then gave up four runs in an inning.

But once the Royals gave him a contract for 2013, the attitude had to shift from “why keep him?” to “what can we get out of him?” and he was moved into a bullpen role. From there, he’s thrived. Last week, we discussed some of our biggest surprises of the Royals season so far. Most said either David Lough or Ervin Santana, but on further reflection, Hochevar deserves that nod.

It goes to show that if you have a struggling starter, try them in the bullpen first and see what kind of value they can do. If they continue to stink, cut them loose. If not, though, you might have something. Hochevar’s bullpen work has turned into 37 innings of 1.95 ERA pitching. Mostly, he’s been used in controllable situations, but he’s still taking advantage of his opportunities. Like many pitchers, he’s had a platoon advantage against right-handed batters (for his career, Hochevar has held right-handed batters to an OPS 100 points lower than lefties) but coming out of the bullpen this year, it’s become a wider split and he’s struck out 35% of righties.

Coming out of the bullpen allows Hochevar to focus more on using his fastball and cutter. He’s mostly scrapped the slider altogether along with his changeup. He’s focusing on just a few pitches because he only has to get through a few batters at a time, rather than try to dish out lesser secondary pitches to change the looks he’s giving a full lineup. Over his career, he’s been more successful the first time through an order as a starter than the second or third time, so focusing on his best stuff for the one or two innings he’ll throw has been working.

He’s also throwing harder, gaining about two mph on his average fastball velocity as a reliever. That’s also resulting in more swings and misses. In the past, hitters would swing and miss about 8% of the time. Now they do so over 12% of the time. As a result, his strikeout rate has climbed from 6.2 K/9 after 2012 to 9.2 K/9 in 2013 and his 26.8% strikeout percentage is a career high by nearly nine percentage points. Even better, his walkrate hasn’t risen at the same time.

Bad pitchers still get shelled in low leverage situations, and Hochevar is getting the outs when he’s called on. After some bullpen struggles and while Kelvin Herrera was in Omaha, Hochevar was climbing up to be in the mix for some eighth inning setup work. While the Royals haven’t used him in big situations most of the year, I think most fans are less anxious if he comes into the game.

The recasting of Hochevar as a reliever has turned him into an intriguing arm. Remember, he was twice drafted by the Dodgers before the Royals took him first overall in 2006. Now, Peter Gammons has mentioned him as a potential closer in the future and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports has reported that the Red Sox have scouted him as a potential trade candidate.

Hochevar, with a $4.56 million salary this year, is easily expendable even with his solid season. If the Royals have done anything under Dayton Moore, it’s find solid bullpen arms from all over – the farm system, the waiver wire, free agency. If they traded Hochevar for anything, Donnie Joseph, Will Smith, or even Buddy Baumann could jump up and take some middle relief innings. With Louis Coleman, Aaron Crow, and Kelvin Herrera available, the setup innings would be covered. They could even call up Danny Duffy to start and put Wade Davis in Hochevar’s bullpen spot (Davis was successful as a reliever last year for Tampa after a couple of rough starting years). Maybe the Royals would even go after Yordano Ventura as a reliever at the big league level. Felipe Paulino might be an option if his newly restarted rehab goes well enough quickly enough.

Bottom line, he’s replaceable. And if the Royals can turn years of frustration into anything of value – say a decent hitting prospect or some high upside arms – they should go for it. It’s doubtful they’d be willing to offer Hochevar another raise in arbitration next winter to keep him around in the bullpen, especially when younger, more cost-controlled options are available and ready. Effectively, they can view him as a pending free agent but sell him as having another year of control to another team.

If nothing else, though, Hochevar has changed some opinions in Kansas City about him. It doesn’t make up for the meltdown starts, but returning a solid prospect in a deal would be a nice way to turn rags to riches.

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